Would you like that kitchen in red?

June 13, 2003

The ultimate weapons in the cold war armoury were refrigerators and washing machines, says Susan Reid. The US and the USSR fought for superiority between the pots and pans in a battle between 'bourgeois' and 'socialist' kitchens

One of the highest-profile confrontations between the cold war superpowers took place in the kitchen. Yet before the world's eyes, in that archetypal domestic setting, Richard Nixon, the US vice-president, and Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet premier, fought out the competing claims of the "two world camps" to global superiority.

This was not just any kitchen, however, but a state-of-the-art electric kitchen in the American National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959. It was a key element in a vast display of US productivity and prosperity that made the American ideal of consumerist domesticity the spearhead of an effort to discredit the communist project in the eyes of Soviet citizens. Would it not be better to compete on the relative merits of washing machines than of rockets? was Nixon's challenge.

Beginning in the 1950s, the spacious American fitted kitchen, showcasing its numerous appliances along with its chief occupant, the trim suburban housewife, became the ultimate object of consumer aspirations in the West.

But its global conquest was not a foregone conclusion. From the Soviet perspective, a modern, "socialist" kitchen, conceived as a counter model to its American "bourgeois" equivalent, could also become the launch pad for the final assault on capitalism and the incubator of the global triumph of communism. The kitchen represented a third front in the cold war: alongside the arms race and the space race now came the living-standards race.

The West's premise in the cold war was that consumption and defence were in irreconcilable contradiction in the Soviet system. Sociologist David Riesman humorously outlined the "nylon war" scenario in 1951: "If allowed to sample the riches of America, the Russian people would not long tolerate masters who gave them tanks and spies instead of vacuum cleaners and beauty parlors." By bombarding the Soviet Union with modern stoves and refrigerators, the US would force Moscow to abandon arms manufacture for the production of consumer goods.

Cornered in the kitchen, Khrushchev was forced to defend the socialist system on terms set by his US hosts: its superior capacity to satisfy its citizens' needs. If Khrushchev had called the shots, the backdrop for the historic encounter with Nixon would surely not have been the kitchen but a space rocket because, in the cosmos, socialist science had proved its superiority with the launch of the first Sputnik on October 4 1957.

Meanwhile, the kitchen - and the conditions of women's work in general - was the site of the Soviet system's humiliation and the symbol of its backwardness. Most families lived in a single room of a communal apartment and shared a kitchen, if they had one at all. As one woman, cited in the Soviet press, understated: "It is very hard to prepare food in the shared kitchens since each one is used by 50 families at once."

Utilities were an underdeveloped sector of the urban economy. Running water and mains sewerage were not to be taken for granted. The Soviet kitchen in the mid-1950s had changed little from the dirty, stinking space described by Dostoevsky. Inconvenient and ill-equipped, its constant attributes were dirt, rubbish and smells.

Yet the kitchen, and living standards in general, were far from trivial matters to the Soviet regime. We may be amazed at the degree of attention the leaders devoted to domestic life when there was a cold war to be won.

As they held, ultimate victory was to be achieved through superior living standards rather than military might. It was an article of faith that socialism would guarantee the best possible conditions of life for the largest number of people.

Anastas Mikoian, the Communist Party's chief authority on consumption issues, reportedly declared: "The Soviet housewife needs help." He did not have in mind that Soviet husbands should roll up their sleeves and help with the dishes, however (although rumours had reached Russia of American men doing just this). Despite the ideological commitment to gender equality, such things tended to be bracketed as a carnivalesque inversion of the "natural" order of things.

Women were not to look to their husbands for help so much as to the paternalistic state. Khrushchev's preferred solution for "alleviating women's domestic burden" lay in socialised housework, public canteens, creches and kindergartens. In addition to emancipating women from the kitchen and drawing them out into the public sphere, this had the advantage of reducing costs. With time, some of these services would, he promised, even be provided free.

However, as a western observer, Alexander Werth, noted in 1962: "All this business about 'communal feeding' and 'boarding schools for children' seemed in contradiction with the present tendency to cultivate the family, to give individual flats to every family." Indeed, it was at this time that many Soviet families began to look forward to having a kitchen of their own, thanks to the mass housing campaign launched by the Khrushchev regime.

This promised to end multiple occupancy in cramped communal apartments and unsanitary barracks.

But if the new one-family home was spatially segregated, this did not quarantine it from public intervention. The kitchen, in particular, became the site where the modernising and rationalising project fundamental to the construction of communism was to be realised in everyday life. Wired up and plumbed into services provided by the state and its agents, it was the conduit through which the light of science and communist consciousness would penetrate the home.

The design, equipment and use of the kitchen received close attention. Designers, scientists, pedagogues and health professionals were mobilised to apply their expertise to modernise and socialise this ostensibly "private" domain. They set out to rationalise the arrangement of the space and equipment of the kitchen, along with the housewife's actions within it.

Household advice manuals and popular magazines printed maps that charted the trajectory of the housewife's movements and contrasted efficient, step-saving arrangements with inefficient criss-crossing. They advised her on how she might reduce her daily mileage by arranging kitchen equipment in compact blocks and by fitting continuous standard-height work surfaces on the basis of analysis of the production-line flow of tasks.

"Scientific" studies showed that the most frequent vector of the housewife was between sink, work surface and stove. Compactness was the key to efficiency - it was also hard to avoid in the "economical" kitchen of the new apartments that measured between 4.5 and 6 square metres.

The efficiency ideology that underpinned Soviet kitchen reform had its origins in US capitalism. The ideas of Frederick Taylor had been applied to the kitchen in the 1910s by Christine Frederick. On the basis of time-and-motion studies of household tasks, she showed how rational planning could turn a kitchen into an efficient workshop requiring a workforce of only one well-trained woman. But where the American kitchen was designed to display a full-time professional housewife and compensate her for her loss of servants and of any position in the public sphere, the Soviet kitchen aimed to free women's time and energy for full participation in production and social life.

Science and technology were the basis on which communism was to be built. Only the socialist system, founded on scientific principles, it was argued, was capable of fully applying the technological revolution to human life. Celebrations of Soviet successes in space were closely linked to promises that advanced technology would also enter people's everyday lives. In the brave new world, advances in rocket science and robotics would also help revolutionise housework.

The magazine Working Woman promised that - thanks to the party's concern for women - the best scientists, scholars, engineers and constructors had been set to work on developing new domestic appliances. According to another magazine, Family and School , washing machines, vacuum cleaners, electric floor polishers and "all kinds of kitchen machines for paring vegetables, beating egg whites and who knows what else are being produced".

If the miracle of space travel had been made possible by the computer, the universal food processor brought the scientific-technological revolution into the kitchen. Meanwhile, as the advances of the space age penetrated all aspects of life, a "scientific world outlook" would also develop in the people. Use of household technology would impart a scientific consciousness even in the housewife.

Technology was represented as a gift to women from the party-state. Working Woman printed a cartoon in December 1959. For New Year, a man has presented his wife with a domestic robot to do the housework. The cartoon reminds the reader that Soviet superiority in space was evidence of scientific technological superiority and the guarantee of future advances in the domestic realm, too. It ends: "A joke? No. Rockets are flying. We promise that these dreams will also soon come true!"

This proclaimed the ability of the Soviet socialist system to answer the demands not only of the space race and arms race, but also of the living-standards race, contrary to America's nylon war premise. However, the discrepancy between advanced space technology and backward consumer technology was not only a cliche of western views of the Soviet Union. It was also a common complaint in the Soviet press. In Working Woman 's cartoon, even a Soviet robot ends up looking like a peasant woman. Her low-tech appearance seems to point up, rather than efface, the contradiction between highly advanced space technology and the backwardness of consumer goods design.

Susan Reid is a lecturer in art history specialising in Russian and Soviet art at the University of Sheffield.

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