Private life vs public life: socialist way of being

In his book The Whisperers (2007),  Orlando Figes (1) develops an interesting thesis about the double life of the citizens in the socialist countries, especifically in the Soviet Union.

Citizens act “as if” they support these slogans and rituals in public, while privately believing something different. (p. 16)

Regarding other socialist countries, Figes  quotes Václav Havel who said about the citizens of socialist Czechoslovakia, that they lived “in lies”. According to Havel, this conformist actitutes “allowed them to be left alone by the regime and to avoid personal problems– a reasoning Havel found morally reprehensible.” (17)

In a more general context, Slavoj Zizek (2) theorize about this ‘acting as if’ to explain the basis of power in Easter European state socialism. According to Zizek, this produces a “cynical subject” who “is quite aware of the distance between the ideological mask and social reality, but . . . nonetheless still insists upon the mask.” (p. 29)

Alexei Yurchak (3), on the other hand, explains the dynamic between the public and the private spaces in late socialist states, arguing that

the late socialist subject experienced official ideological representation of social reality as largely false and at the same time as immutable and omnipresent. In such conditions it became irrelevant for subjects whether they believed official ideological messages or not. Instead, the relation to official representation became based on intricate strategies of simulated support and on “nonofficial” practices behind the official scenes. (p. 162)

He goes on adding that in order to minimize the oppresion of the system, the citizen does not ridiculize the symbols of such system during public events but rather disengages from their meanings:

The easiest way to minimize the symbol’s “oppression” and lead a “normal” life behind its back […] [is] to simulate one’s adherence to it while suppressing recognition of the very act of simulation. This simulation was laden not with ridicule of power, but with lack of interest in it -it involved one’s obliviousness of what was “supported.” It was not uncommon to hold official signs or banners with slogans during parades without reading them and to carry a portrait of a Politburo member without knowing exactly who it was. (p. 162-163)

Although one can agree with these theorizations about life under socialist systems, these classifications are quite reductionist by presenting the problem as a binary relation between two categories: “truth” and “falsity”, “reality” and “mask”, “revealing” and “dissimulating”. The reality is much more complex and full of nuances. There are many other ways of being public and reveal against the ‘falsity’, the ‘mask’, the ‘dissimulating’.


(image taken from the NPR website)

Just a few weeks ago, an article appeared on NPR (4) entitled “How Soviet Kitchens Became Hotbeds Of Dissent And Culture”. This article brings back to me memories of the Soviet apartment’s blocs in Cuba (Alamar in Havana; Naranjal in Matanzas; etc, etc). It also explains the importance of the kitchen as the (only) private space to exchange opinions, literature -samizdat, most of the times-, music – magnitizdat are recordings made on reel-to-reel tape recorders-,  and any artistic expressions that were sancionated or forbidden by the socialist state, in general. Nevertheless, there are quite some differences between the meaning of these apartments, called khrushchevkas -they became popular during  Nikita Khrushchev’s period- to the Soviet citizens and the similar housing blocs to the Cuban citizens. I will come back to this topic in a future post, and I just want to recall that the biggest underground cultural movements in Cuba have taken place in Alamar.

Before Khrushchev, most of the families lived in what is called “communal apartments”: dozens of people sharing bathrooms and kitchens. Poet Anna Akhmatova, for instance, during her years at the Fountain House, Fontanka River (Saint Petersburg), had to live in a very limited space and use a communal kitchen (see a picture of her apartment, below). Acts of dissidence under such circumstances were fiercely very restricted. The new housing panorama under Khrushchev’s mandate meant not only more privacy for families but also a new space from where to share concerns about politic, censorship and also, to exchange literary and cultural production.


Anna Akhmatova’s apartment in Saint Petersburg

The NPR article states:

“One of the reasons why kitchen culture developed in Russia is because there were no places to meet,” says Shenderovich. “You couldn’t have political discussions in public, at your workplace. You couldn’t go to cafes — they were state-owned. The kitchen became the place where Russian culture kept living, untouched by the regime.”

In a country with little or no place to gather for the free expression of ideas and no place to talk politics without fear of repression, these new kitchens made it possible for friends to gather privately in one place.

These “dissident kitchens” took the place of uncensored lecture halls, unofficial art exhibitions, clubs, bars and dating services.

So, the kitchens became the symbolic space where Zizek’s “cynical subject” (5) could unmask himself and challenge the state in a systematic way. This systematic challenging, according to the scholars we are quoting here, was one of the reasons why the socialist states came to an end.

(I will not go further on this topic now, but I would argue that the ‘cynical subject’ is not only a by-product of the socialist system, but rather a mechanism of surviving in any circumstances.)

According to the article,

Dissident composer Yuliy Kim wrote a cycle of songs called “Moscow Kitchens” telling the story of a group of people in the 1950s and the ’60s called “dissidents.” It tells how they began to get together, how it led to protests, how they were detained and forced to leave the country.

But not only the kitchens became a space of dissidence in the former Soviet Union. I recall an artistic installation that I visited in 2007 called “The Space of Freedom: Apartment Exhibitions in Leningrad, 1964-1986”, in Grinnell College, Iowa. It took place from March 9–April 22, 2007 and about 45 paintings, drawings, and prints from the collection of the Museum of Nonconformist Art in St. Petersburg, Russia, were displayed in a fabricated Soviet apartment interior (c. 1970). It also reminds me about the short documentary made by Eduardo del Llano in 2004, Monte Rouge.


Image from the placard of the exhibition The Space of Freedom


Placard from the exhibition in Grinnell College, Iowa (March 2007).

The Space of Freedom: Apartment Exhibitions in Leningrad, 1964-1986, presents more than forty artworks created during the period in Russian history when the Soviet government attempted to eradicate all art that did not conform to the government’s edicts. Social justice and the right of freedom of speech and expression are the underlying themes of The Space of Freedom. Art from the collection of the Museum of Nonconformist Art, Pushkinskaya-10 Art Centre, St. Petersburg, Russia, is displayed in a re-created Soviet communal apartment with details and furnishings typical of the era.

Banned from public expression and demonstration, many Russian artists began in the late 1950s to exhibit in their own communal apartments, for periods of a day or two, or even just a few hours. Attendance at exhibitions numbered as many as one thousand people and up to one hundred or more artworks would be displayed in a single room of an apartment. For such free expression, many artists suffered suppression, imprisonment, and even death.

The Space of Freedom focuses on both the artwork shown in a communal apartment and the exhibition space within the apartment itself as a significant part of the history of Russian art. The work on view is a representative selection of art that was displayed in various apartment exhibitions between 1964 and 1986, including several pieces by the most important figures in the history of nonconformist painting. These forty-six works have never before been exhibited together or in such a manner of installation outside of Russia. (6)

Banned from public expression and demonstration, many artists creating in styles not permitted by the government organized short-term exhibitions, lasting a day or even a few hours, in their own communal apartments. (7)

Placard from the exhibition in Grinnell College, Iowa (March 2007)

Placard from the exhibition in Grinnell College, Iowa (March 2007)

Placard from the exhibition in Grinnell College, Iowa (March 2007)

Placard from the exhibition in Grinnell College, Iowa (March 2007)

The private spaces as dissident scenarios not only took place in the kitchens but they were expanded to whole apartments, in some cases, as the The Space of Freedom‘s artistic installation proves. In these spaces, artist and citizens in general found a way of expressing themselves while taking care of their public safety. The art, in general, became the most effective form of dissidence, and one of the few ones to escape, at least partially, to the state’s vigilance and repression.

I can’t help but comparing the Soviet and European socialist societies to Cuba. In a more ironic example, the fiction short feature Monte Rouge confirms the same concerns about the dichotomy between private vs public life. The film shows a small apartment where the Cuban intelligentsia wants to install a microphone to record the dissident opinions of visitors to the apartment. It satirically plays with the idea of a conversation between censor and censored; between repressor and repressed, two instances that never cross a dialogical road under a socialist government.

Such cultural product would have been unthinkable a few years ago (especially before the nineties) when the Cuban state had a more totalitarian control over cultural production. On the other hand, this satirical approach to censorship and surveillance supports the idea of Antonio Benítez Rojo (8) when stated that

el performance caribeño, incluso el acto cotidiano de caminar, no se vuelve solo hacia el Performer sino que también se dirige hacia un público en busca de una catarsis carnavalesca que se propone canalizar excesos de violencia.  (p.  xxviii)

That way of dealing with violence does not make violence less violent or tragic but informs about the differences in the social subjectivities in both cultures, the Soviet/Russian and Cuban. While we can agree, in general terms, with the theories about private vs public life under socialist states in Europe, it can’t be totally applied to the Cuban case.

Films and other cultural products, such as theater functions and music, are just some examples of how Cuban artists create a space where, although unauthorized by the state, allows the overlapping of public and private lives, and where the masks can be, at least momentously, dropped.




(2) Zizek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso, 1991.

(3) Yurchak, Alexei. “The Cynical Reason of Late Socialism: Power, Pretense, and the Anekdot“. Public Culture 1997, 9: 161-188.


(5) Today ideology produces a so-called “cynical subject,” who “is quite aware of the distance between the ideological mask and social reality, but . . . nonetheless still insists upon the mask (Zizek 29).



(8) Benítez Rojo, Antonio. La isla que se repite. El Caribe y la perspectiva posmoderna. Ediciones del Norte: Hanover, 1989.

About Soviet Cuba: Identities in Transition

A site devoted to the study and promotion of the Soviet-Cuban cultural crossroads. An open space of convergence and exchange of ideas related to the sentimental Soviet-Cuban community (in English, Spanish, and even Russian!)
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Private life vs public life: socialist way of being

  1. cgomezol says:

    Very much insightful!!!!

  2. alexei yurchak says:

    nice. bu please, correct the spelling of my name in your text. It’s Yurchak. Or the silly misspelling makes the rest sounds kind of silly too

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s