Topic 11. Industrial Enterprise and Townscape: the Kharkiv Tractor Factory Case

Read: Crawford, Christina E. “From Tractors to Territory: Socialist urbanization through standardization.” Journal of Urban History 44, no. 1 (2018): 54-77.

To fulfill the first five-year plan, the Soviet government started standardization in industrial production, urban development, and social engineering. Communist leaders considered standardization as a way to speed up construction, ensure a degree of quality, and to conquer the otherwise uncontrollable vastness of Soviet space. They dreamt that once the planned economy and mass production are successfully combined, Soviet technology would leapfrog American technology. This paper explores the advantages and challenges of standardization in architecture planning and urban development in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. The author argues that for Soviet architects, to embrace standardization was to embrace rationality, new technology, and to assist in the construction of environments appropriate for the new socialist way of life. The case is based on the history of the Kharkiv Tractor Factory and its satellite settlement (sotsgorod) erected in 1930. The Kharkiv Tractor Factory was supposed to be a copy of the Stalingrad Tractor Plant planned by famous American architect Albert Kahn. However, the managers of the Kharkiv project had to make some adjustments due to the peculiarities of the Soviet shortage economy. This case contributes to our understanding of the relationship between the processes of forced industrialization and urban development in the early socialist cities.

Questions for preparation:

1. Early Soviet urban planners dreamt about a “victory over distance”—a decentralized spatial model that overcomes “rural backwardness and barbarism” and “unnatural concentration of people in big cities.” How did they imagine the realization of this plan? Why didn’t it work?
2. Early Soviet architects praised American engineers more than American architects. Why did they value more foreign engineering knowledge than architectural achievements?
3. As the Kharkiv Tractor Factory project demonstrated, standardization under the Soviet conditions was “heuristic and flexible of necessity, forgiving of imperfect sites, supply chains, and labor conditions.” In what respect did it differ from the American and German versions of industrial and urban standardization?
4. What are the main advantages and disadvantages of the standardization of housing?
5. The idea of the socialist city (sotsgorod) is often characterized as utopian. Would it be possible to realize the idea if the planners received the necessary resources?