BY GEORGE ISTIGECHEV, 03/05/2016
When someone on the Western side of the former Iron Curtain hears the name Nikita Khrushchev, several images spring to mind – the Cuban Missile Crisis, the infamous “we will bury you” remark, or the controversial shoe-banging incident at the UN. On the other side of the Curtain, however, his name evokes a very different connection – one of rows upon rows of five-storey tower blocks. Labelled “Khruschyovka” (meaning “built by Khrushchev”), these houses continue to define the landscape of Russian and Eastern European cities and suburbs in the form of eerie monuments from a long-gone era.
Although many people are visually familiar with the “Khruschyovka”, few know the history behind its creation, and fewer still understand the logic that drove Soviet real estate economics and socialist urban planning. While the buildings may be visually unappealing, the economics behind their emergence is fascinating, shedding light on the functioning of housing policy in the absence of a competitive market.
Throughout most of the Soviet period, urban housing was in critically short supply relative to the needs of the population. The intensive industrialisation and urbanisation of the USSR in the beginning of the 20th century under Stalin put enormous pressure on the urban housing stock, leading to extensive shared living in dormitories, barracks and communal apartments called “kommunalki”. With the expansion of industry, the Soviet city experienced a well-documented widening of the gap between the growth of employment and the growth of the housing supply, which exacerbated an already alarming housing shortage (Gentile, 2010, p. 465). After Stalin’s death, Khrushchev set a goal of housing every family in a separate apartment and undertook the largest public housing project in history whereby the urban housing stock tripled from 1950 to 1970 (Zavisca, 2008, p. 368).
The gap between existing and required housing was to be closed by standardised production using prefabricated materials and an emphasis on quantity over quality. This wasn’t a particularly new idea – Le Corbusier had successfully erected prefabricated housing projects in the suburbs of Bordeaux in the early 20th century (Erofeev, 2014). The French experiment, however, was to be implemented on an unprecedented scale. After nearly a decade of trials and tests by Soviet architects, the first non-experimental five-storey housing project was rolled out in the Moscow suburb of Cheryomushki in 1958. The construction process was breathtaking as a full building took only 12 days to construct. Several years later, in 1961, Soviet architect Nikolai Lagutenko’s design bureau presented the K-7 project, which was to become synonymous with the Khruschyovka, whereby 64 thousands units of this type were erected in Moscow throughout the 1960s.
Mass construction would level inequality and promote social justice by maximising the number of families that could be resettled without sacrificing square footage (Zavisca, 2008, p. 369). The first designs (the 1-434 series, built from 1958-1964) featured brick and slate roofs but were later given plain bitumen roofs with a very small loft space to save money. While the “tipovaia malometrazhnaia kvartira” (standardised, small-size apartment) helped the state optimise construction in some regards, it also increased costs. Simply stated, regardless of the size, flats require auxiliary spaces, and the lower the yield of living space in proportion to the space that kitchens, bathrooms and toilets occupy, the higher the cost of building one square meter. However, while reducing costs was a chief consideration in diminishing the size of auxiliary spaces, this was not the sole rationale for minimising the usable living space in a separate apartment. Instead, small sizes were the best guarantee that only one family would settle in a single flat (Russian History Blog, 2013).
While not all “Khruschyovkas” escaped communalisation, some ended up being used by more than one family. Housing size and design was determined not only by financial concerns, but by ideological maxims. The apartments’ interior was to reflect (and to some degree even condition) a new urban aesthetic of “modernist simplicity” (Buchli, 1997). As the historian Nikolay Erofeev puts it, “the Khruschyovka outlined a new, compact scale of urban existence, defined by ascetic modernist furnishings and home decorations, while accompanied by a subcompact car – the “Moskvitch” (Erofeev, 2014). While this may sound appealing in theory, the rapid speed of construction resulted in the exposure of multiple flaws – residents began to experience drainage leaks, and cracks appeared in the interior. The buildings’ brutal, block-like exterior also reveals another ideological layer – the shift from “excessive” neoclassical Stalinist architecture to functional, cost-effective construction, which was enshrined in official doctrine in 1955.
The same type of housing (with minor modifications) continued to be built in the 1970’s and 1980’s, as later incarnations of Soviet mass housing projects continued to draw on the same principles. In fact, Khrushchev’s initiative defined the appearance of housing not just in the Soviet Union. The project was so popular that it was exported to China, Cuba and Vietnam, leaving provincial cities dominated by similar concrete blocks. Even today, apartment complexes in both Russia and China are still built as rectangles out of pre-made parts, and with minor ornamentation, constituting Khrushchev’s most visible legacy (Sokolskaya, 2013).
The impact of these structures penetrates far deeper into the Russian social fabric than one may initially imagine. “Khruschyovkas” can be seen in various works of art, both Soviet and post-Soviet, and have even become a social media phenomenon with groups such as “Russia Without Us”, “Russkiye Dvory” (Russian Yards), and “Panelki” (Panel Houses) amassing thousands of followers captivated by the “grim mundanity” (The Calvert Journal, 2014) of a temporary project that came to stay. Their presence has also been hypothesized to have an effect on citizens’ political preferences. While their impact may not be direct, one cannot firmly state that those who live in Khruschyovkas oppose or support the status quo as their influence on lifestyle and socialization patterns are significant. Alexseev (2006) notes that “only when the rest of Russian cities become “de-Sovietized” in their lifestyle, to the extent that Moscow had been by late 2005, may we expect the effects of Soviet-era mass housing patterns on political preferences and behaviour to diminish”.
While the Khruschyovka may have been a “project that solved one of the more pressing issues of its time” (Erofeev, 2014), its persistence in the post-Soviet Russian urban landscape also serves as a painful reminder that the Soviet housing crisis was never truly alleviated, as the state failed to fully provide for the population’s accommodation needs. The importance of the former, however, is grossly understated. While they may have been overly compact, unhygienic and faulty, the new housing projects were a breath of fresh air for the Soviet citizen. During this period, the opportunity of getting your own home outweighed the new apartments’ lack of balconies, thin partition walls and combined bathrooms. These were minor issues compared to the vast change in the Soviet lifestyle that occurred as a result of the new construction programme.
Initially intended as a temporary solution until the imposition of communism in the 1980s, Khruschyovkas make up 10% of the overall post-Soviet housing stock, with approximately 8.6 million Russians continuing to live in Khruschyovkas (Erofeev, 2014) to this day. As the housing situation evens out with the help of market mechanisms, the construction of houses in Russia on a per-capita basis has increased immensely (Adomanis, 2015), meaning that soviet housing projects will slowly give way to modern apartments. Major metropolitan areas such as Moscow and St. Petersburg have already made the demolition and refurbishment of Khruschyovkas a priority – as of mid-February 2016, only 132 five-storey blocks remain in Moscow (Moscow Department of Construction, 2016). The situation in the northern capital is not as optimistic, due to developers’ inability to carry out renovation projects because of rising costs and stubborn tenants. According to current estimates, St. Petersburg will not see the eradication of Khrushchev’s housing projects until 2032 (Kovalenko, 2015).
Other Russian regions are modernising their housing stock at a much slower rate. Locally, the demand for Khruschyovkas is still very much alive, with tenants seeking to refurbish apartments at their own cost, knocking down partitions and increasing living space. Although the Khruschyovka won’t be leaving the Russian landscape anytime soon, the mere fact that “Russia is building more housing, and building more of that housing in desirable areas with better standards of living is a clear win for human welfare” (Adomanis, 2015).
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