The art installation that is the Soviet Union

A vastly ambitious and potentially interesting art installation. One which we'll guarantee manages to get one hugely important thing wrong

In an art project that has been compared to The Truman Show, Big Brother and the Charlie Kaufman film Synecdoche, New York, a Russian artist has paid 400 people to live for three years in a fictional but functioning Stalin-era research institute.

In an experiment long anticipated in the film and art worlds but confirmed by the Guardian on Friday, Ilya Khrzhanovsky created an institute of theoretical physics in eastern Ukraine modelled on the shadowy facilities which existed in the Soviet Union from the 1930s to the 1950s.

Inside it were more than 400 real people, who relived 30 years of the Soviet experience in three years between 2008-11, eating the same food, wearing the same clothes, and obeying the same rules as Soviet citizens would have.

That's not going to be true. One of us has extensive experience of this, having lived and worked in the rubble of actually existing socialism for a decade or so. Yes, including time when it was still the Soviet Union. Including an episode when the mathematicians of a research institute in Siberia (in Academgorodok) travelled hundreds of kilometres following a rumour that some pigs were to be slaughtered. That being the only way to get any pork, possibly.

The food, clothing, even housing, will be what the plan, the system, said would be available. Rather than what was actually available. It may well have been that carrots were a kopek a kilo in the ration shops. But a film assuming that there would be carrots - at whatever price - in the ration shops is making a serious error.

There is a reason why Soviet factories paid so much attention to providing the workers with a dacha. Not because those who work by hand should have a country cottage for the cottage didn't exist. It was so there was a piece of land upon which the worker could grow a few vitamins, those the State could not and did not provide whatever the plan said.

We too think that allotments for those who want them are a pretty neat idea in Britain. But we'd think that absolute reliance upon them by the population for anything close to a balanced diet is an indictment of the food system.

The point about a film, an art installation, concerning the Soviet Union is that it should not be about what it was claimed it supplied but should show that actually existing socialism. You know, that one that, whatever the ration, didn't actually provide that housing, clothing nor food in any great quantity.