Andy Willimott, lecturer in Modern Russian/Soviet History at the University of Reading, is the author of a new book published this week.
Living the Revolution: Urban Communes & Soviet Socialism, 1917-1932 (Oxford University Press) is the culmination of years of research in the Russian archives, unearthing stories of popular engagement with the Bolshevik Revolution. Willimott is interested in how people understood and participated in the changes taking place around them in modern Russia. He prompts his readers to imagine what it was like to experience the energy and promise of revolution in 1917, before then introducing them to the heady world of early Soviet activism and the fiery-eyed, bed-headed youths that occupied this world.
The book tells the story of those youths who, in the wake of October 1917, seized hold of apartments and student dormitories and declared their intention to create new examples of socialist living in the form of ‘urban communes’. Long before the hippie communes of 1960s America, these Soviet youths were rejecting inherited cultural norms and trying to reimagine life at home. In these requisitioned spaces, they embraced total equality and shared everything from money to underwear. Activists sought to overturn the hierarchy of traditional family units, reinvent domesticity, repurpose rooms, and promote new collective visions of human interaction. Some experimented with free love and open relationships. Gender norms were challenged. A ‘new way of life’ seemed to be on the horizon. Before long a trend was set: a revolutionary meme that would, in the coming years, allow thousands of would-be revolutionaries to experiment with the possibilities of socialism. For, as Willimott argues, the urban commune offered young hopefuls a way to express their revolutionary identity and bring revolutionary ideology to life. Away from the dense writings of Karl Marx, this is how young enthusiasts on the street were coming to understand this thing called socialism.
The first definitive account of the urban communes, and the activists that formed them, this book utilizes newly uncovered archival materials to chart the rise and fall of this revolutionary impulse. Laced with personal detail, it illuminates the thoughts and aspirations of individual activists as the idea of the urban commune grew from an experimental form of living, limited to a handful of participants in Petrograd and Moscow between 1917 and 1918, into a cultural phenomenon that saw tens of thousands of youths form their own domestic units of socialist living by the end of the 1920s.
Living the Revolution is a tale of revolutionary aspiration, appropriation, and participation at the ground level. Never officially sanctioned by the Bolshevik party, the urban communes challenge our traditional understanding of the early Soviet state, presenting Soviet ideology as something that could both frame and fire the imagination.
In praise of Living the Revolution:
“Dr Willimott’s book provides a lively insight into the attempts of some young people in early Soviet Russia to live out in practice the proclaimed ideals of the new Communist regime. He describes vividly the hopes inspiring their experiments in collective living, their successes, frustrations and failures, and how ultimately those experiments were integrated into the emerging totalitarian structure of the Stalinist regime.” – Geoffrey Hosking, University College, London
“Living the Revolution is about those youthful citizens of the new Soviet republic — men and women — who sought to remake their lives by throwing in their lot with the Bolsheviks. It is, to be sure, a critical analysis of their many projects. But, unlike previous historians who all too easily dismissed them as “utopian,” it revivifies the spirit of those efforts, putting the reader in touch with the emotional energy of the revolution. Here, at last, is a rigorously researched yet unapologetically sympathetic account of the multiple initiatives undertaken in the first decade of Soviet power to bring the revolution into the workplace, the classroom, and the home.” – Lewis Siegelbaum, Michigan State University
“Beautifully written, meticulously researched, and bursting with narrative appeal, Willimott’s study of early Soviet communes demonstrates that a hundred years after the Russian Revolution not all has been said about the revolution’s layers, complexities, and legacies. From the very first sentence — a question to his readers — Willimott draws us into an energetic world of enthusiasm, idealism, and activism, but also of disappointment, fracture, and conflict. He convincingly shows that neither did spontaneous self-experimentation end with the advent of Soviet power, nor was every aspect of revolutionary utopianism irrevocably lost during the Stalin years. Rather he weaves a fine net of dense description, in which he brings the elusive communes to life, while subtly quoting, probing, and pushing existing scholarship on the period and indeed beyond.” – Juliane Fürst, University of Bristol