It is strange to read about the towns created during the Russian Revolution and its immediate aftermath, while sharing a house with roommates in 21st century London. Certain realities coincide: the quarrels over the sharing of money, the pranks, the isolation that one can feel in such a group. But while London roommates often choose such setups due to the metropolis’ high rents, in 1920s Russian cities, urban townships were adopted by young idealists trying to introduce the Revolution into their daily lives.
Andy Willimott’s book Living the Revolution: urban municipalities and Soviet socialism (1917-1932), published by Oxford University Press, is a nuanced and pioneering non-fiction account of the rise and fall of townships in the early Soviet period. With anecdotes chosen from archives, literary works, and a plethora of academic references, the book reveals a little-known side of the Russian Revolution that goes beyond the usual narratives centered on top party leaders.
Curious, too, is the way Willimott paints a social panorama, showing the tensions between young forward-looking socialists and their more conservative colleagues. One of the main sources of criticism of community life from traditional groups was the presence of women in factories and townships, which they deemed immoral and ridiculed as “prostitution”. Yet it was not just conservative parts of society condemning the Communards; the end of the communes at the beginning of the 1930s is in part due to their elimination as “isolationists” – a bit like “bourgeois families” – by the Soviet ideologists of the time, who did not consider this form of cohabitation to be compatible with the militarized and hierarchical form of Soviet communism advanced by Stalin.
Written vividly and divided into chapters focusing on different forms of urban communes – set up in student residences, apartments or factories – the book is a key addition to understanding not only the Russian Revolution as it was. lived from below, but also to the history of shared life experiences in general.
Get your copy of the book here.