Noontime Scholars Lecture: Deirdre Ruscitti Harshman, “Inside and Out: Landlords in Russia’s Revolutionary Period”

In this well-attended and highly engaging noontime scholars lecture, Deirdre Ruscitti Harshman deftly challenged the popular notion that Russian landlords were solely exploiters of the working class. Utilizing a rich variety of sources, including material from landlord societies and the letters of landlords appealing eviction, Ruscitti Harshman instead showed how the status of landlords was in fact much more complicated. Yes, they often took advantage of their tenants and benefited from the chronic shortages of housing in revolutionary Russia. But many landlords were also struggling to survive and lived in accommodations not much better than those they let out. The money they received from renting even one small room was done to ensure the stability of their families in uncertain times. This meant that many landlords, especially small-scale ones who only rented rooms within their own residence, inhabited a liminal and tenuous space that placed them both “inside and out” of Russian society.

The mass urbanization of Russian cities in the second half of the 19th century meant that housing shortages were a constant frustration for city dwellers. Renting property was soon an important, if not disdained, profession and in the decade before the Revolution, groups of landlords formed professional societies and unions to provide guidance about how to efficiently manage their properties and effectively navigate the complex legal system. Membership in these societies was largely open to all landlords (even those renting only one room) and dues were progressively administered, meaning that the societies soon became an important and powerful voice in questions of housing within Russian civil society. Despite this organization, landlord societies were unable to adequately address the dire shortage of housing and as a result they were increasingly attacked by liberal reformers who called for new taxes and rent caps to improve the housing situation. Both groups claimed to be operating for the public good and the tensions between landlords and reformers illustrate, as Ruscitti Harshman convincingly argued, the richness of Russian civil society on the eve of Revolution.

Private ownership of real estate was largely abolished in 1918 and housing was now theoretically controlled by housing committees made up of residents. But, the situation on the ground was much more complicated. Residents regularly refused to pay rent and housing stock fell into disrepair. Landlords meanwhile quickly established themselves as representatives of the housing committees, meaning that actual physical control of housing remained in the hands of pre-revolutionary landlords, despite the 1918 decree. Soviet officials were unsure of how to proceed – landlords clearly inhabited a social status at odds with Soviet ideology, but were now members of Soviet institutions.

This messy situation was addressed by resolutions in 1921 and 1922 that relaxed restrictions on private ownership and the rental of housing. Landlords were now able to legally buy, sell, and rent property within certain restrictions, but this only made their position in Soviet society more ambiguous. Landlords learned to navigate Soviet institutions and leverage them to their own advantage, but this did not insulate them from the complaints of residents who argued that their properties were managed much like they had been prior to the Revolution. These complaints often had a good deal of power behind them, and soon the threat of eviction was used not by landlords but against them.

Landlords challenged these eviction notices by writing letters of protest to high-ranking officials. Most of the letter writers were women, who argued that renting a room or owning property enabled them to provide for their family and children.

This gendered appeal to the importance of families and children was a conscious strategy on the part of the letter writers that sought to position property ownership as reflective of wider Soviet social norms, but it almost always failed. Although the archival record is fragmented, it is clear that an appeal to family did not save landlords from accusations of being class enemies. Here, as in many other spheres of Soviet society, class was simply a more powerful social category than gender. And yet, despite constant criticism and threat of eviction, landlords remained critical to the management of Soviet housing meaning that despite immense social upheaval, the position of landlords remained both “essential and marginalized” in early Soviet society. In examining groups like landlords who were both victims and victimizers, Deirdre Ruscitti Harshman’s excellent lecture was an important reminder of some of the many continuities that spanned the revolutionary divide.

Ben Bamberger is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History. His dissertation, “Imperial Terrain: Mountaineering, Tourism, and the Meaning of Soviet Georgia,” examines the development of an independent Georgian alpinist community and the limits of Soviet anti-imperialism in the Caucasus from the early 1920s until the late 1950s.

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