Talking buildings #6: The House of Culture

The project ‘Talking Buildings from the Soviet Chechen Republic’ follows an almost vanished path through the remnants of Chechnya’s collective industries. Uncovering the memories and experiences of seven Chechen women, now aged 50 to 67, the project’s protagonists reflect on their work in the various socialist farms, factories, and cultural institutions during the USSR. Told through the prism of the buildings’ physical remains, the narrations delve into individual stories of how Chechen women actively participated in Soviet society while at the same time respecting the traditional and Islamic way of life in their families. This week we will hear about memories of the House of Culture and village life.


The House of Culture

“From 1971 to 2002, I worked as a librarian in the Cultural Center (House of Culture) before I became responsible for the village library. My first day at work was an important day for me and I clearly remember it. I was incredibly young and had just graduated from school. At that day, I promised to the library department that I will attend the cultural college (Chechen-Ingush Republican cultural and educational school in Grozny) because I was not allowed to work in the Culture Center without a specialized education.

I think working without specialized education was not allowed anywhere and so I entered the university after I got the job. Overall, the village was characterized by a busy working life because they were various farms and fields.

Image by Tamara Taysumova

I started my job in the library after my predecessor left the position when she got married. The work of the librarian was not only limited to handing out books and sitting in the library. Not at all, I ought to have regular conversations with citizens of the village, I prepared book reviews, and I was in charge of the organization of various events. One of the most memorable days enfolded one morning, when the teacher’s son, a young Russian boy, came running to inform me that the library’s building was damaged.

Overnight we had a strong wind and the walls had collapsed together with the bookshelves. The building was still from pre-revolutionary times and had already been in decay before the wind. When I heard what happened, I ran there and removed the fallen bricks by myself. Then I went to the manager and told her that we would need a room, where I can store the books and furniture from the damaged building. The same day, my manager temporarily organized an empty apartment and I managed to bring all the books there with the help of some other people. Shortly after, the Cultural Center received its own, newly built building in the village.

The new house of culture

I did not choose my profession by myself. One of my relatives advised me to become a librarian and it turned out that I liked it. I really liked to go to work and I wanted to do something for our village instead of leaving for the city to find work there. And the House of Culture became a very good place to work, once the new two-story building was completed and the entire organization had moved in. The large room on the second floor was dedicated to all the books. At that time, we read a lot, both adults and children. During the Soviet era, we all learned to develop a love for reading, self-development, and self-education from the early ages on. Take, for example, the so-called ‘thick’ literary magazines. Now it is hard to imagine, but back then they printed millions of copies of the ‘Youth’ or the ‘Friendship of Nations’ magazine.

Today, the quantity of these magazines amounts only to a few thousand copies. The people from our village also borrowed books from me. They were mostly interested in adventure books, detective stories, and children’s literature. But also literary classics from authors like Agatha Christie, Mikhail Lermontov, Ivan Turgenev or Alexander Pushkin were in high demand, not to mention Leo Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ or ‘Anna Karenina’. Once in a while, it happened that some people did not return the books they had borrowed. And by the way, it was mostly these detective stories that did not find their way back on the shelves.

Socialist youth in the village

There is not much to say about my student life, as I was working all the time. In the morning, I went to work and I only returned in the evening. I obtained my degree through distance learning and I went only to specific student sessions to the city. There were buses coming from the Nadterechny district of Chechen Republic to our village’s bus stations. We did not have special student buses, this kind of transportation did not exist. So it took us around 50-55 minutes to get to the destination. Yet, despite the distance, there were many students in our village. Almost everybody entered either a vocational school or a university after having completed the secondary school.

Movies and socialist leaders

Basically, all of my friends and I went to see movies in the cinema ‘Kosmos’. Back then, we especially liked to watch Indian movies. I still do not know why, but all Chechens liked Indian films. Probably we liked them because they portrayed love. We laughed and cried while watching these scenes; maybe we were a bit sentimental. Even during the war, we used to watch Mexican or Brazilian series. At the 8th of March,[1] we always gathered at the Central Library in Pervomayskaya Street. It was a centralized library run by Russians. And my colleagues and I went to the parades in Grozny dedicated to the 1st of May [2] or 9th of May.[3]

Clara Zetkin, Angela Davis, Lenin, Rosa Luxembourg – they were patriots for us back then. Yet, Lenin was the leader of the Soviet proletariat, the leader of communism.

But I also remember Angela Davis. People always mentioned her name and it made her a martyr. After she was sentenced and went prison, we witnessed several protests in favor of her freedom throughout the USSR. And, probably this is not a secret, if we see a woman with thick, wavy, and voluminous hair we immediately say: ‘Oh, you have hair like Angela Davis.’ At that time, the Communists were well connected and the different Socialist authorities helped each other. I especially remember the events taking place in Cuba led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, a Chilean patriot. For us, they all were heroes. But I also loved to read Pushkin, Lermontov, and Leo Tolstoy’s ‘Walking on the agony’.

Image by Tamara Taysumova

Generally, Chechen women were very interested in fashion and they always liked to dress up. Even during the war and after the war we saw girls wearing high heels. And no matter how we talk now about these times, even despite the Soviet power, our women, including myself, always enjoyed fashion and managed to keep track of the newest trends. This reminds me, for example, of my Belgian coat. It was a very beautiful one. It had a milk-and-coffee color and it was very expensive. I wore it for a very long time, precisely from 1978 to 1980. I bought it on the market of the Chechen village Kalinina, where rare things were sold starting from the very early morning until 10:00 o’clock. Of course, it was forbidden at that time, but nobody could stop us and I bought this coat from my own money. Therefore, I can say that we have not experienced deficits in communist times; we always had a lot of fashionable things.

Generational views

Our generation, namely people in my age, blessed these years and the Soviet Union in general. My grandmother, however, always prayed that the Soviet system may collapse. She did neither like the system nor did she support the Soviet Union, because my grandfather and other relatives were killed during that time. But my family generally accepted the fact that I worked and studied at the same time, and also that I took part in the parades.

Image by Tamara Taysumova

Back then, people were generally encouraged to work. Those who did not work were considered to be parasites of the society. Unemployment was such a great shame. Therefore, I did not even think about staying at home for a single moment after I completed my school. On the contrary, I even got diplomas and certificates for achieving special successeses in my field of work.

The New Year’s evening was very important for us. We started to prepare for the celebrations over the course of several weeks. On the day, the entire family would come together at the dinner table to celebrate. And there was a cake, a salad called ‘Olivier’, and baked turkey. My husband brought champagne and we made a wish when the clock struck midnight. And of course, the table was on the opposite of the TV, which was always switched on broadcasting live acts. In the Soviet times, my favorite song was ‘Once a year, the gardens blooming’ by Anna Herman.

When I close my eyes and try to remember Grozny before the war, I immediately see Grozny’s tram in front of my eyes.[4] These trams were my special love. I paid three coins (’kopeks’) to buy a ticket from the conductors. I still remember their faces and I wonder where they are now.

Unlike most of the young people from that time, I have never been to a Pioneer camp and I have also never traveled anywhere with our school students. My relatives and especially my grandmother did not allow me to go anywhere. But many pupils from our class traveled throughout the Chechen Republic to different Pioneer detachments and Pioneer camps in the villages Chishki, Serzhen-Yurt, Shalazhi and even to ‘Artek’.[5]

Only the best students were allowed to travel. And I was often invited during my school and student years, but I could not go. My parents did not let me go. I will never forget how my neighbor went to ‘Artek’. When she shared her impressions with us afterward, we were all a bit jealous. She had taken some photos and showed them to everyone. And she told us how she met foreigners and how she had found new friends. But I was never able to experience this; my grandmother did not even allow me to join the Pioneers and or the Komsomol.

Postcard from Artek

The building stopped to breathe

My last day of work was during the war. I remember it clearly. It was in spring 1995 and my father was ill. And while I went to visit him, the building of the House of Culture was destroyed during a military operation. The only things left of the House of Culture are heavy wooden accounts which had coincidentally ended up in my bag. In absence of a functional building after the military campaign, I asked the village’s school director for the permission to use one of the empty rooms in the school to continue my work. And I was working there until 2002.

Even today, bright sparks of memory about the House of Culture are flashing through my mind. After all, I did spend all my youth there, all my life.

Each time I see this building, I want to cry. I am still not able to let go. As if the center was not a repository, but a living organism that ceased its main activity: accepting people and letting them go. I remember how I handed out books and how I returned the books. But at that time in 1995, we all left the House of Culture because we either escaped from Chechnya or fled to our relatives. It seemed as if the village forgot about it. And it seemed that what happened to the villagers also happened to the Cultural Center.

 

To safeguard the anonymity of the protagonists, names of locations and individuals have been changed.

[1] International Women’s Day (IWD) is celebrated on March 8 every year. After women gained suffrage in Soviet Russia in 1917, March 8 became a national holiday.
[2] The 1st of May is ‘International Workers’ Day, also known as Labour Day in some countries, and often referred to as May Day, is a celebration of labourers and the working classes that is promoted by the international labour movement which occurs every year on May Day (1 May), an ancient European spring festival.
[3] The 9th of May is Victory Day a holiday that commemorates the victory of the Soviet Union over Nazi Germany in the Great Patriotic War.
[4]Since 1995, after the war in the Chechen Republic, the trams have not resumed their work.
[5] Artek (Артек) was a Young Pioneer camp on the Black Sea on the Crimean Peninsula. Established on 16 June 1925, the camp first hosted only 80 children but then grew rapidly. In 1969 it had an area of 3.2 km² and consisted of 150 buildings, including three medical facilities, a school, the film studio Artekfilm, three swimming pools, a stadium and playgrounds for various other activities. Unlike most of the young pioneer camps, Artek was an all-year camp, due to the warm climate. Artek still exists today and has been taken over by the Russian authorities after the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014.

The project was developed and realized by Umarova Asia (Journalist, Illustrator, and Writer), Sani Manchak (Freelance Journalist and Translator), Tamara Taysumova (Photographer), and Johanna Pruessing (Editor at RETROGRAD). The project was supported by the Naumann Foundation for Freedom in Moscow and developed by Umarova Asia during the “Europe Lab 2017” organised by the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum.

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