Whose Right to the City? Sleep, Night time Shelters, and the Question of Gender in early Twentieth Century Russia

In the early twentieth century, a series of nighttime shelters (in Russian, nochlezhnyi dom) were founded in urban spaces throughout Russia. These institutions provided sparse but cheap nightly accommodations in large communal rooms; although they were designed to provide temporary housing, they often ended up being permanent or semi-permanent for many residents. This paper examines the roles that these nighttime shelters played within the framework of ‘the right to the city.’ First proposed by the theorist Henri Lefebvre and expanded on by the geographer David Harvey, the ‘right to the city’ movement argued that the structure and lived experience of the city should be dictated by the needs and desires of the collective population, rather than by those with economic or political capital.

Despite being widely maligned, and despite the severe limitations in what amenities they could provide for their residents, nighttime shelters nonetheless provided a foothold on the city that was unmoored from village connections, and shaped the social status of the residents who called them home. They offered, in short, the “something different” that the ‘right to the city’ advocates proposed, and operated as a space of possibility. Moreover, the gender dynamics of these spaces—which were usually 80-95% male—challenged conceptions of home that were based on expectations of female labor. By taking nighttime shelters seriously as a contributing factor to the urban fabric of early twentieth century Russia, this paper will illustrate how they changed the Russian urban environment, why they were liquidated as an institution in the 1930s (but returned in the post-Soviet period), and how their history can contribute to a broader history of everyday life of the modern Russian city.

Deirdre Ruscitti Harshman received her PhD from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2018. She is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, and, in the autumn, will be take up the position of Assistant Professor in Modern Russian History at Christopher Newport University in Virginia in the United States. Her first book project, titled “A Space Called Home,” focuses on the management of everyday life in urban Russia in the early twentieth century. Her work has been published in Revolutionary Russia, and she is the Book Reviews Editor of The Soviet and Post-Soviet Review.