Aesthetics of Boredom

by kamilla kuna

PART 1 ︎︎︎the irony of soviet blocks

Text is a part of Master Thesis “Aesthetics of Boredom in post-soviet neighbourhoods. Multisensory experience of Laumas microdistrict in Liepaja, Latvia.” (full text available here

It is a cold New Year’s Eve. Before heading for the celebration at home, you have a few traditional drinks with friends at sauna in Moscow. When ready to head home, you give the correct address to the cab driver, enter your staircase in a nine-story building, take the elevator to the right floor and unlock the door to your apartment. Just after laying down on the couch next to the Christmas tree, a stranger is starting to pour water on your head. Being in total shock and still dizzy, you realize that the stranger is a lady, but not the one you are supposed to celebrate New Year with. You ask her to leave, but she is asking the same, claiming that the apartment is hers. How can it be? It is the same street, the same building, and the exact apartment number. What has happened? Travel in time? In the state of shock, you manage to check the passports where the address is written down – everything matches. Except, you are now in Leningrad, not Moscow.
A fragment from a famous Soviet romantic comedy, “The Irony of Fate” (1976), portrays how the micro districts were built similarly. Not only did the buildings look the same, but even the street names and numbers were easy to mix. The story between the main movie characters, doctor Zhenya and teacher Nadya, is happening in a microdistrict, and it happened because of it.

“In the past, when people found themselves in a strange city, they felt lost and lonely. Everything around was different - streets and buildings, even life. But now it has changed! A person comes to another city and feels at home.” (Ryazanov, 1976, 0:06:09)

The movie includes a satire of standardized soviet-era public architecture, which is very well portrayed in the animated prologue. The prologue shows how architecture became political, and every single architecturally significant detail was removed from the building plans. Once the standardized block building model is made, it takes over every street, every town, warm or cold, in the Soviet Union. It even appears in the desert next to camels. However, the satire was masked with humor, love, and drama in a typical romantic comedy style. It was so well done that politicians accepted it, and the movie became a tradition to be screened every New Year’s Eve in the Soviet Union.
The standardization applies to not only the exterior but also the interior. Doctor Zhenya also did not realize that it was not his apartment after entering the living room. The limitation of what was accessible and affordable did play a significant role in how similar apartments were made. Nowadays, there is a more significant difference thanks to globalization and accessibility to different brands worldwide. Yet, with the same exterior characteristics. In contemporary microrayon, the interiors are transformed and adapted to represent individualism, which is so lacking in urban space.
Emphasizing the importance of feeling like home, one can imagine the relief of traveling when everything seems familiar. This feeling always takes over when I visit a microdistrict in a post-soviet country – the same series of houses, materials, plans, and courtyards are reproducing a life for a massive amount of people. Like French anthropologist Marc Auge, the famous term of non-place describes everything opposite to place and has qualities of homogeneousness. And not only that. Marc Auge explains place and non-place as opposite polarities, where the first one is never completely erased and the second never completely completed (Auge, 1995). By this definition, it seems clear to put soviet mass housing suburbs under the term non-place because it really was and still is not completed. When the microdistricts were close to finishing, the governmental situation changed, detaching historical and cultural values.
Although homogeneity is not trendy and creates long-lasting boredom, it has positive aspects even nowadays. The first aspect is already mentioned: ease when traveling. The soviet blocks can make one feel at home. Yet, creating universal soviet citizens, with no attachment to their own culture or architecture, is an essential cause of microdistrict homogeneity around the soviet countries. The environment so well-known and full of everydayness is fascinating to experience in a different city. The atmosphere changes from suburb to suburb, adding the missing layer of uniqueness. Plans made by people and copied in many countries take different forms after people have brought a character to the place. More precisely, if the people have brought the character, the focus keeps repeating the question of identity throughout this research. The concern about identity is not something that has appeared recently and not something that only microdistricts as places go through.

  • Auge, M. (1995). Non-Places Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. London: Verso.
  • Ryazanov, E. 1976. Ирония судьбы, или С лёгким паром! (The Irony of Fate). Mosfilm.

kamilla kuna 2022