With the opening of its future home, GES-2, V–A–C strives to create a multifunctional space, open to practices, values and activities that depend on a number of key concepts. Putting these concepts into a perspective is essential to understanding the current cultural and social situation. In the project entitled GES-2 Glossary, we plan to uncover a number of such concepts, many of which remain unclear both because of ongoing theoretical discussions and because their meaning in Russia remains vague or is more connected to the past than to the present. The first part of the GES-2 Glossary will be dedicated to ‘The House of Culture’, in which we discuss the history and importance of the Houses of Culture of the past and argue the relevance of this model in Russia today.
Why do we need a discussion about a House of Culture in Moscow today? And why, instead of being satisfied with the existing cultural institutions, does it seem important to go back to this seemingly archaic phenomenon? The answer to these questions requires a clarification of the very notion of culture in the contemporary Russian context.
Many believe that culture is only a part of modern consumption and leisure. However, in a contemporary city, cultural recreation doesn’t demand a break from the habitual flow of life for the sake of spiritual development; on the contrary, consumption of culture is so organically embedded in the everyday that there is no longer a clear boundary between leisure and work. It is assumed that, together with constant changes in the market, people are obliged to change too, to acquire new skills, expand their horizons, renew themselves and become more competitive, both in their private and work lives. In other words, regular cultural consumption allows us to constantly evaluate our positions: do we continue to respond to the spirit of the times? Are we falling behind ‘contemporaneity’? Visiting an exhibition or a public lecture turns into one of the routine choices, the sum of which doesn’t constitute a traditional notion of ‘culture’. Cultural consumption has become a practice devoid of a common, unifying goal.
There was a time when understanding culture was embarked upon with a specific purpose: people aspired to find and develop themselves, to seek and absorb the spectrum of content and meaning within their society. This search implied not only a constant dissatisfaction with their current state, but also a critical and independent view of their daily reality. A cultured person was someone who was capable of providing a reasonable judgement about the world and sharing it in public.
This democratic understanding of culture, connected to the tradition of European Enlightenment, was also based on the equality between a ‘teacher’ and a ‘student’, the person who produces culture and the one who consumes it, aspiring to an equitable dialogue between the two. This model made possible both the Russian avant-garde and the large-scale cultural experiments connected to the eradication of illiteracy and spread of mass education. It is this tradition that is referenced by an interesting, complex and contradictory experience of Houses of Culture in the USSR; without addressing it, it is hard to start a conversation about new types of institutions.
What were the Houses of Culture? They did not appear out of thin air; they were preceded by so-called ‘Houses for the People’ that came about before the Russian Revolution as well as workmen’s clubs. ‘Houses for the People’ were educational and cultural community centres: they were a place where literacy and a basic education were offered to children and adults who did not have access to schooling. They acted as local libraries and were venues for public lectures, theatre plays and tea rooms. The first ‘People’s House’ opened in 1882 in Tomsk, and at that time was the only establishment of its kind in Europe: the English counterpart only appeared in 1887 in London, and the Italian casa del popolo, the Spanish casa del pueblo and the French maison du people appeared even later.
A little earlier, in the 1870s and 1880s, self-organised workmen’s clubs emerged against the backdrop of the labour movement growing stronger in Italy. In order to be able to influence social and political life, workers began to unite and teach each other literacy, discuss current events and educate themselves. Consequently, such associations became the prototype of Italian public and cultural centres; after the Revolution of 1917, thanks to the development of trade unions, this format of self-organisation spread to the young Soviet Russia as well. Workmen’s clubs appeared in factories and other enterprises all over the country, and their activities quickly expanded beyond particular production specifics — anyone could attend classes and participate in club events, regardless of their profession.
In the 1920s, after the Russian Revolution, the majority of People’s Houses became the basis for the Houses of Culture that subsequently took over the whole country. Receiving state support and taking a decisive place in ideological outreach along with cinema, Houses of Culture brought society considerably closer to resolving problems of access to culture and participation in cultural production. They also offered an alternative to the traditional separation of cultural practices and spaces: The House of Culture replaced not only the People’s House, but also quite often took on the role of theatres and cinema halls.
However, the spread of mass access to culture coincided with the disunity and powerlessness of society during the Stalinist period. The possibility of an open discussion of common life was withdrawn from the House of Culture model. It became a venue of passive indoctrination, where a version of culture detached from the artistic process was imposed by the authorities. Unlike its Western counterparts, which transformed into social and community centres, Houses of Culture, lost their identity as public cultural spaces, with attempts to replace traditional elements of cultural infrastructure (theatres, cinema halls) also failing. In the post-Soviet period, the transition to a market economy definitively buried the system of Houses of Culture; the need for culture then became a private matter and was relegated to the realms of leisure, losing its social significance.
In today’s Russia there is no single institution, whether state-owned or private, that would correspond to the understanding of culture inherited from the Enlightenment and incarnated in the Houses of Culture. Instead of creating conditions of equality and mutual understanding, contemporary institutions often increase the gap between those who have access to ‘contemporaneity’ and those who are deprived of it. The role of accessible culture is taken by more ready ‘alternatives’, ranging from personal growth training and quasi-religious practices, to online networks that are a substitute for social life.
In order for culture to gain a renewed kind of meaning, institutions of a new type need to try to return its universal and egalitarian spirit to contemporary society. The main characteristic of this culture is dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs, an aspiration of self-development through dialogue and a constant reflection upon its social experience. A new House of Culture will not be a place that produces an obedient subordinate like the late Soviet version. Nor will it produce a passive consumer who only seeks refuge in culture from others who are perceived as an obstacle in the competitive struggle. On the contrary, a House of Culture could become a public space where the conditions for equality and mutual understanding exist, where access to producing and imbibing culture is open to everyone.