Plan through Text

I’m quite thankful for this discussion, which I think is important and which invites reflection on my own work in ways that, I hope, will be productive for others. In conducting research for my book, Stalinist City Planning: Professionals, Performance, and Power (University of Toronto Press, 2013), I confess that I did not critically analyze the medium through which I read the Master Plan for the City of Gorky (Nizhnii Novgorod). I discovered, analyzed, and presented the Master Plan almost entirely through text—something that was not a strategic choice on my part, but rather a necessity. Visual materials were simply unavailable to me.

My research materials consisted of stenographic reports of municipal government meetings and professional conferences, inter- and intra-agency correspondence related to planning issues, two dissertations written by those involved in planning in the 1930s, newspaper articles, studies in kraevedenie (local history), and the holdings of provincial, republican, and Soviet departments of the municipal economy, which oversaw most planning and urban growth endeavors in the 1930s. Although, by 1937, the City of Gorky’s planning offices and the Leningrad State Institute for City Planning (Lengiprogor) had amassed a truckload of plan-related material, with a particular abundance of visuals (engineers-planners in the 1930s tended to complain about the surfeit of illustrative materials serving political as opposed to professional need), I never found these materials. If they survived WWII, they are probably kept by the city’s current planning office, which denied my request for permission to survey their materials.

Reconstructing a Master Plan through text is no simple task, and frankly I did not enter the archives with the sole purpose of assembling and analyzing the Master Plan. In fact, had my goal been to assemble and analyze the plan itself, as a central focus of my work, I’m not sure that I would have persisted in my project. I launched my research armed with questions about the relationship between central and local government, as well as between plan (idea) and locality (place). Having read Stephen Kotkin’s Magnetic Mountain, I found myself wondering what building socialism would entail in something other than a newly created factory town. After several weeks of archival work (copying opisi, sampling files, and seeking to fine-tune my approach), I chose to focus my research on the city plan. By that time, I had already stumbled upon complaints about “out of touch” planners, and, from the planners’ perspective, about “out of touch” officials. Fascinated by relationships and power negotiations as triggered by task- and place-specific concerns, I searched for absolutely everything I could find that related to the city plan.

When I first began, I spent far too much time copying information recorded in archival indexes. All these marvelous files, often belonging to obscure agencies with which I was unfamiliar, had the aura of mystery, and I felt compelled to uncover everything. I must have copied over a third of the entire opisi before ordering files, only to discover the boredom of bureaucratic documentation. Nothing made sense, some things were intriguing but puzzling, and many materials were downright dull accounting or personnel records. I sifted through a mass of paperwork, searching for materials that offered some concrete sense of (1) planning ideas, (2) issues, and (3) the professional concerns of architects. Any file could in theory speak to these things, and often I copied materials with only an intuitive sense that, at some point, I would understand how they did this. It took time before I knew which files I needed to read and copy carefully, as opposed to files that I could ignore. The fact that I was interested not so much in architectural vision as in its relationship to place and people further complicated matters. In theory, everything concerns politics, place, and professional relationships.

Researchers entering the archives cannot entirely escape this initial sense of disorientation, but certain indexes did assist in my “mapping” of my materials and, with this, the reconstitution of the planning process. The local history (kraevedenie) segment of the provincial library served as a wonderful source of information, especially when it came to newspaper articles related to city plans, particular buildings, leading architects, and other figures of local importance. They had an index of planning-related articles and monographs, as well as copies of The Streets Bear Their Names guides to local toponyms, which enabled me to plot discussions of the city in the 1930s onto the city of the present. (One kind archivist actually gave me her guide, complete with newspaper cuttings documenting name changes imposed since its publication.) Because I had set out to assess “local” impact, I resisted the advice given to me by a senior Russian scholar, which was to begin my work in Moscow where, he said, all the important issues are covered. When I went to Moscow, I understood the point: issues communicated with Moscow did, in fact, tend to be “big” issues—of greater substance for the state and, with that, for me. I would certainly have assembled a working model of the city plan much more quickly, had I begun there. Yet working in Nizhnii Novgorod gave me a lesson in local governance, and this helped me understand plan as a political process.

What made pursuing the study of the Master Plan through text fascinating for me was that these textual materials placed me in a specific socio-political moment. In pursuing talk about the plan, as opposed to reviewing plans themselves, I discovered what the plan’s features meant, professionally and politically, to the architects and local state and party officials involved in approving and implementing the plan. Almost every file that I touched concerned the representation of the plan—an attempt to elicit financial or political support, a desire to highlight or criticize its attempt to be “democratic” and “Soviet,” and a desire to demonstrate the dedication of planners. The archives testified to the politics of planning as process and as product. It’s a complex story, and my book flattened this somewhat, presenting this in terms of two approaches, each associated with a different planner. I like to hope that future students of Master Plans will find this political backstory useful as they analyze other plans, ideally with access to the full visual and textual material.

Whereas archival documents shed light on the planning process, it was my day-to-day walks that gave me a sense of place. Throughout my research, I mapped the everyday world in which I lived onto the past, breathing life into otherwise rather dull files. I discovered the imperial and Soviet soterioscapes, discussed in chapter one of my book, on one such walk. I had been reading a monograph on architectural history—one that discussed buildings in isolation, failing to fit them together as parts of a symbolic landscape. My walk connected the dots. In fact, were I to present my research findings through talk, not text, my research would tell a different story, because a talk with visuals permits a more effective and spontaneous engagement with place and person (including the person of the researcher) than does a written text. My great frustration with text concerns this “flattening,” both in the original materials and then in my presentation of them.

Heather D. DeHaan is Associate Professor of History and Director of the Russian and East European Program at Binghamton University. In addition to producing a new textbook on European cities in the modern era, she is conducting research into the interplay of urban space and neighborhood sociability in Baku, Azerbaijan in the Soviet era.

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