The Thanksgiving holiday in the United States has a checkered past. Its more recent origins lie largely in government attempts at pushing propagandistic narratives. For example, Abraham Lincoln demanded Americans be thankful for “the advancing armies and navies of the Union” during the Civil War. George Washington instructed Americans to give thanks for the new constitution in 1789. While Andrew Jackson refused to boss around his constituents with days of mandatory gratitude, proclamations of prayer and thanksgiving have been used by many US presidents, especially during times of crisis.
In practice, however, what is now Thanksgiving Day involves mostly a celebration of domestic and family life, quite separate from any presidential imperatives. Moreover, Thanksgiving celebrations take place primarily within the private and commercial spheres of life. Preparing a Thanksgiving meal requires shopping for goods. Traveling to see friends and relatives often requires the purchase of various transportation-related goods and services. Enjoying the day is usually enhanced by consuming various forms of private sector entertainment.
These holiday activities and rituals are not fundamentally different, however, from what countless human beings enjoy on a regular basis: a meal and leisure activities with friends and family within a private home and domestic setting. These gatherings reinforce the status of the family as a fundamental building block of human society. They remind us that private meals like a Thanksgiving meal are something valuable and something distinct from public activities in public settings.
Historically, not everyone has been pleased by such things. In the Soviet Union, for example, there were concerted efforts to abolish the very concept of the domestic space and notions of “hearth and home” by consigning citizens to communal kitchens and communal living spaces. The goal was to abolish the “bourgeois” family, which was so often grouped around a private kitchen.
The Socialist War on Private Domestic Life
It should not shock us to learn that communist totalitarians once sought to eliminate domestic meals as a common aspect of civilized life. The destruction of the family as a bourgeois institution was explicitly listed among Marx’s priorities for implementing the communist revolution.
After the communists came to power in what became the Soviet Union in 1917, the new regime sought to address what were then common housing shortages by placing Russians in state-owned communal apartments—called kommunalki—where seven or more families were expected to share a single kitchen and bathroom.
Driven by both ideology and economic necessity, the communists viewed domestic meals and meal preparation as wasteful activities. Both men and women, it was believed, would be better off spending their time in factories and other settings where production of industrial goods could be maximized.
Indeed, in 1923 Lenin’s communists released a propaganda pamphlet titled Down with the Private Kitchen. As recounted by Anya von Bremzen, the pamphlet explained how “the traditional domestic kitchen was branded as ideologically reactionary” and ineffectual. The Soviet authorities pushed residents toward government-run cafeterias known as stolovayas (dining rooms). This was believed to accelerate the process of conditioning Soviet citizens with communist propaganda. Eating became a political activity.
In typical Soviet fashion, however, these new dining venues were anything but a pleasant respite and they were, in fact, “ghastly affairs.”
But from the Soviet perspective, it was all quite necessary.
“The most important part of kitchen politics in early Soviet time was they would like to have houses without kitchens,” says [Russian journalist Alexander] Genis. “Because kitchen is something bourgeois. Every family, as long as they have a kitchen, they have some part of their private life and private property.”
Many citizens, of course, continued to eat “at home” during the harshest decades of Soviet social engineering, but this process involved its own trials and dangers.
Kitchens became a source of tension and conflict.…”When relations between the neighbors were especially fierce, you could see locks on the cabinets.”
Families cooked in quick, staggered shifts. “They cooked in the kitchen but practically never ate there,” says Masha Karp, who was born in Moscow and worked as a Russian features editor for the BBC World Service from 1991 to 2009. “They would go with their pots along their corridor and eat in their room.”
With up to twenty families sharing a single kitchen, conflicts were sure to be common, and Genis concludes, “communal kitchen was a war zone.” But using the communal kitchen with other housemates present could also be a danger to life and limb. This was because any “disloyal” or “bourgeois” statements in casual conversation might end up being reported to the authorities. “People would report on each other,” Russian poet Edward Sehnderovich explains. “You would never know who would be reporting.”
Thus, in many cases, it was best to keep one’s mouth shut and retreat to one’s bedroom as quickly as possible.
All of this was part of the Leninist and Stalinist drive for greater production and the minimization of “unnecessary” consumption in the name of industrializing Soviet society. The communists sought to ensure Soviets were “liberated from fussy dining” so the “New Soviet Man” could be created more rapidly.1
By contrast, even a nineteenth-century American Thanksgiving meal would appear to the Leninist ideologue as both consumerist and bourgeois in the extreme. Things are even “worse” today. Moreover, most Thanksgiving meals take place in private living quarters, far from the prying eyes of police and other state enforcers. Rather than spend the day producing goods and services for “society,” countless millions of Americans instead spend the day consuming food and entertainment and enjoying leisure time. It’s difficult to imagine a scenario more unlike that imagined in Down with the Private Kitchen. That’s something to be thankful for.