Houses of Culture

Photographer Dmitry Lookianov captures the grotesque state of socialist educational ideals.

The so-called “people’s houses” appeared in the Russian Empire in the late 1880s – it was the age of political strife and social tensions. The goal of these public establishments, sponsored by the government or private philanthropists, was to educate the population and provide it with cultural recreation free of charge, at the same time tying up nascent revolutionary movements. These spaces housed libraries, bookshops, halls for lectures, community theater productions and creative studios. 

After the Russian Revolution, the “people’s houses” were transformed into workers’ clubs and “houses of culture.” Retaining their original functions, they also became important vehicles of state ideology. Universal and accessible education as well as opportunities for artistic expression and socialization were essential for attaining the Soviet ideal of the well-rounded and developed “collective man.” This manifested most vividly in the Thaw era: Moscow Palace of Pioneers became a monument to the humanist ideal of perpetual self-improvement, while the total number of various clubs and “houses of cultures” all over the country reached almost 100,000 by the late 1970s.

After the collapse of the USSR, this huge network was largely deprived of any financial or ideological support from the authorities. Some “houses of culture” became the places for nostalgia – preserved in their faded glory. Some still house privately owned creative studios, clinging to the old ideals. Some became leased places of unabridged commerce, yielding to the needs and desires of the new era. What were once transmitters of the socialist message and local community hubs came to reflect the fragmented reality of post-Soviet years and its atomized society – waiting to either collapse or achieve the honorary status of “cultural heritage.”