Sabsovich’s “The USSR in (literally ‘after’) 15 Years”
In July 1929, the economist Leonid Sabsovich sparked a debate regarding the future of Soviet urbanism with an article he wrote for Плановое Хозяйство (Planned Economy), entitled «Проблема города» (“The Problem of the City”). Sabsovich was convinced that the major urban centers of the USSR were overcrowded and overpopulated; they needed to be reduced to a more manageable size, while preserving the industrial base they provided. At the same time, he considered the countryside to be far too provincial and culturally isolated to remain in the state it was in at that point. So Sabsovich proposed instead a uniform distribution of the population at regular intervals, of interconnected “socialist cities” — both industrial cities and “agro-cities.” These would be evenly populated, with between thirty and fifty thousand inhabitants each.
Sabsovich’s position came to be called the “urbanist” vision of Soviet municipal reformation. The widely-respected group of modernist architects — the brothers Leonid, Aleksandr, and Viktor Vesnin — endorsed his proposal. They all saw Sabsovich’s proposal as a way to overcome what Marx, Engels, and Lenin had termed “the antithesis between town and country.” Reduce the size of the filthy, noisy, and overcrowded mega-cities, Sabsovich argued, and disperse the population into new municipal units that could still maintain their industrial productivity. Conversely, these measures would reorganize the largely peasant population of the various Soviet Republics and grant them access to the culture, education, and opportunity that larger towns would make available. Quite ambitiously, Sabsovich thought that the entire population of the USSR could be redistributed accordingly within a period of ten years — or two five-year plans. He thus wrote a wildly utopian book under the title of СССР через 10 лет (The USSR in 10 Years), elaborating his vision and stressing the practical feasibility of the plan. Later, he would revise this figure to a more modest (but still outlandish) fifteen years, and stressed the central importance of this goal to the greater project of social transformation under communism.
Against Sabsovich’s notion of the middle-path between town and country, the sociologist Mikhail Okhitovich and the renowned Constructivist architect Moisei Ginzburg would oppose their idea of “disurbanism,” abandoning the notion of centralized resettlement altogether, advancing instead their notion of a “linear city.” This would lead to the first major split in the editorship of the journal Современная архитектура (Modern Architecture), as Ginzburg and the Vesnins for the first time found themselves at odds with one another. Luckily, by then, the position of main editor of the magazine had passed on to Roman Khiger, so the one side did not totally drown out the other. Khiger clearly sided with Ginzburg and Okhitovich, however, and so Sabsovich was forced to promote his viewpoint from the pages of Плановое Хозяйство and the various books he managed to publish through Генплан (Genplan, the central planning agency of the Soviet Union at the time). The Urbanist-Disurbanist dispute would continue through until 1931, when both sides were reigned in for utopian speculation. At that point, a number of foreign architects — Le Corbusier and André Lurçat from France, and Bruno Taut, Hannes Meyer, and Ernst May from Germany — were called in to assist in the process of planning Soviet urbanism. Their presence would in turn become unwelcome by 1937, at the height of the Stalinist terror, when the state would hand down the order that all foreign experts exit the country, under suspicion of “sabotaging” Soviet progress.
The following is the original journal article that sparked the whole controversy, reproduced in its entirety:
Леонид Сабсович – «Проблема города» – Плановое Хозяйство – (1929) – № 7