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Russia and the ‘Housing Question’

Two of the Train Managers on the Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express are from Irkutsk, and their intimate knowledge of the city has resulted in a novel option for our guests – visiting a Russian family at home. Over tea and homemade apple pie, our host, Tatyana, is happy to answer any questions put to her about housing and other aspects of everyday life, both in the Soviet past and the Russian present. Listening to the questions and answers, I have often thought that some prior knowledge about the housing situation in the Soviet Union and Russia, and living conditions in general, might help our guests make more of this exceptional experience. Thus follows a breakdown of the housing crisis in Soviet Russia throughout much of the Twentieth Century.

The Housing Question: Friedrich Engels

Housing was a major crisis throughout Soviet history. In fact it preceded the October Revolution; the industrial development of the late 19th century saw the growing urban population concentrated in a small number of desperately overcrowded cities. While aristocrats and factory managers owned sumptuous apartments and townhouses, the workers lived in factory hostels, barracks, a corner of someone else’s room, or a ‘bunk and closet’ – a bed and a tiny cupboard, in a room divided into as many of these miniscule segments as possible.

Such living conditions did not chime with the Bolsheviks’ socialist ideals. Karl Marx’s friend and collaborator Friedrich Engels, whose family owned a cotton mill near Manchester, insisted that the housing shortage in that city could be dealt with immediately through ‘the expropriation of the present owners and by quartering in their houses homeless workers or workers overcrowded in their present homes’[1]. Of course this could not happen in capitalist Britain, but after the October Revolution the Bolsheviks applied Engels’ solution to Russian cities. If they were lucky, the former owners were allowed to go on living in one or two rooms, while the rest were inhabited by strangers, and from a completely different class. As Richard Stites noted, ‘two kinds of people […] from two different planets’ were now sharing living space[2].

In an attempt to revive the economy after the disastrous Civil War, the so-called New Economic Policy was introduced, which allowed the development of a mixed economy. Large factories and major industries remained in the hands of the state, but small private businesses were now permitted. This small-scale privatisation extended to housing, and smaller homes were returned to their owners. However, the policy of ‘compression’ – ensuring that maximum use was made of limited living space – meant that the owners were still forced to share their living space with others, though they were at least now able to collect rent.

Initially, the ultimate aim was for people to live in ‘house communes’. These were promoted for both practical and ideological reasons: they would be cheaper than providing everyone with single-family accommodation and would encourage a new communal way of living. They would also free women from domestic servitude, which was important since women’s equality was central to socialism. Some of the more radical communists wanted children to be brought up away from their parents, either in separate houses or even separate villages. This did not happen in Soviet Russia – but the ideas were put into practice by Russian emigres to Palestine and, later, Israel in the form of the kibbutz. Some idealistic communes did come into being in Russia, generally established by students and young workers. A German visitor to the country in the 1920s, Klaus Mehnert, came across one radical commune whose members were determined to stamp out all aspects of dangerous individualism: ‘If a communard preferred to wear his or her own underclothes it would be characterized as a backslide into darkest capitalism; as prejudice originating in a petit-bourgeois ideology’[3].

The Stalin era

Entrance to Tatyana's apartment in Irkutsk
Entrance to Tatyana’s Stalin era apartment in Irkutsk

When Stalin emerged as Soviet leader in the late 1920s there was a huge ideological shift. The New Economic Policy was brought to an end, and with it, almost all forms of private ownership. Yet by the end of the first Five Year Plan, the government’s commitment to communal living was also over. One reason was simply that in social matters Stalin was conservative and conventional; he did not approve of the commune’s challenge to traditional family and gender roles. More importantly, his massive industrialisation drive had resulted in tremendous social upheaval, which included a worrying drop in the birth rate and an increase in ‘hooliganism’. It was hoped that old-fashioned families would function as ‘islands of stability in a sea of social chaos’[4].

Industrialisation required a huge increase in the urban population, all of which needed to be housed. Since the country’s resources were largely poured into industry, there was not enough left over for anything but rudimentary housing. Despite the rehabilitation of the family, only the new Stalinist elite could have their own single-family apartments. The type of housing which characterised the Stalin era was the euphemistically named ‘communal apartment’, in which every room was occupied by a different family, each of them sharing cooking and washing facilities. At least one of the residents would have the job of reporting his or her neighbours’ opinions and activities to the authorities. There was rarely any attempt to socialise; women did not cook together, and the families’ distaste for communal living is clear from the fact that in most apartments each family had its own toilet seat hanging from the wall.

Khruschevki housing developments

After Stalin’s death, the new leader, Nikita Khrushchev, determined to resolve the housing crisis. He launched a huge housing programme aimed at providing every family with its own apartment within 12 years. He acknowledged that these new apartments would not be of top quality, but ‘you have to decide; do you build a thousand adequate apartments, or seven hundred very good ones? And would a citizen rather settle for an adequate apartment now, or wait 10 or 15 years for a very good one?’[5]. What became known as ‘Khruschevki’ were almost identical pre-fabricated concrete apartment blocks, generally five-stories high (there was neither the technology nor money to include lifts, and there was a limit to how many flights of stairs a woman could cope with if she was carrying heavy shopping bags), full of small apartments which could only accommodate ‘multi-function’ furniture: sofas and easy chairs which turned into beds, cupboards which concealed fold-up tables. 2.2 million ‘housing units’ (apartments) were built every year during the Khrushchev era, changing both the face of Soviet cities, and the lives of the lucky recipients – but even this was not enough to meet demand.

Khrushchev was deposed in 1964, and Leonid Brezhnev took over as leader of the Soviet Union. The housing programme continued, and new technology meant that lifts, and hence skyscrapers, were now possible. Even so, there were still not enough new apartments to meet demand, and the communal apartment remained a significant feature of urban life.

Gorbachev era: The housing crisis exposed

The extent of the housing crisis was not publicly acknowledged until Gorbachev came to power in 1985, when his policy of ‘glasnost’ (openness) revealed the enormity of the country’s social problems. In 1986, it transpired that every fifth family in the Soviet Union, around eight million people in total, was on a waiting list for better housing. This figure rose to nine million in 1987 and in 1989, 17 per cent of the population still lived in communal apartments or dormitories, or had no permanent place of residence. Newly weds generally had to start married life with one or other set of parents; on average they would have to wait 20 years for their own apartment[6]. An updated version of the Khrushchev pledge was introduced. Now, every family would have its own apartment by 2000. As it turned out, by then the Soviet Union had long ceased to exist.

How was housing distributed to citizens in the Soviet Union? A small amount was in the hands of the local municipality, but in the vast majority of cases it was allotted to people through their place of work. This had the intentional effect of tying people to their jobs.

In 1989 the first steps were taken towards privatisation of housing: tenants were given the right to buy their apartments at very low cost. One reason for this apparent generosity was to relieve the state of the burden of maintaining ageing and dilapidated housing blocks. Tenants saw through this, and few took up the offer.

Housing block in Irkutsk
Soviet housing block in Irkutsk, Russia

Privatisation of housing

Privatisation of all state-owned property was a key feature of Boris Yeltsin’s regime, and housing had to be included in the process. Freeing the state from the burden of maintenance was not the only reason. It was also felt that home ownership was ‘a sign of a stable society and well-functioning market economy’[7]. It would create ‘a cadre of stakeholders’ who would help to build ‘a stable, civilized, prosperous society’[8]. To encourage reluctant tenants to privatise their apartments, from 1991 they were given them free of charge – and as a further inducement, the tenancy rights of those who failed to privatise would be significantly reduced. This worked. By 1995, 53 per cent of housing was privately owned; by 2007 this had risen to more than 70 per cent.

Privatisation led to a uniquely Russian form of ‘equity release’. An elderly woman with no dependents might be approached by someone offering her a monthly stipend for the rest of her life if she would bequeath her privatised apartment to this person. In some cases this worked extremely well; a friend of mine made such an arrangement with a former actress living in a central Moscow apartment, and finally did inherit her apartment. The old lady hung on to life tenaciously and my friend paid rather more than she had anticipated, but on the whole it worked well for them both. However, magazines and newspapers abounded with stories of elderly women whose lives were cut short by unscrupulous people who had no intention of waiting for them to die before they got their hands on their apartments.

In due course, the re-sale and renting out of privatised apartments, combined with a big building programme (largely of top-end housing) in major cities, led to a large private housing market. Most people who did not have an apartment to privatise somehow found the money to buy one outright; there was a mortgage system, but most people were put off both by a fear of bank instability, and by extremely high interest rates.

Has the privatisation of housing been good for Russia? On the positive side, people who had apartments which they could privatise are in the unique position of having gained their own housing without incurring enormous debts. There is also some indication that home ownership has resulted in people feeling they now have more stake in society and hence more responsibility for their local environment. However, privatisation has forced maintenance costs on to people who cannot always afford to pay them, resulting in increasing dilapidation of the housing stock. According to one Russian expert on housing, approximately 150,000 apartments become unfit for human habitation each year[9].

Tatyana at her Irkutsk home
Tatyana at her Irkutsk home

Since people were only able to privatise the housing they lived in, this set in stone the inequalities which had previously existed in housing distribution. Those who had nice apartments found themselves in a very privileged position; those who only had a room in a communal apartment were now stuck with it, and could no longer pin their hopes for better accommodation on a slow progression up an apartment waiting list. Social housing is no longer an option; it is only available to the indigent (maloimushie) and certain categories of people such as war veterans. In the Soviet era, housing was used as a reward, a punishment and an incentive. In present day Russia it is largely a matter of luck.

How does Tatyana’s housing experience fit into this story? Her apartment is in a Stalin-era building, so has larger rooms and higher ceilings than those built under Khrushchev and Brezhnev.

There is no need for the space-saving multi-function furniture of the Khrushchev era; indeed, Tatyana has plenty of space for the art work, decorations and souvenirs from her travels which she clearly loves. Like all urban housing in the Soviet Union, the apartment was owned by the state in Soviet times, and was assigned to her father in the late Stalin era; it has now been privatised. Tatyana currently shares it with her grandson, who attends University in Irkutsk. How did her family get such a pleasant apartment? How does she feel about the changes which have taken place in her lifetime? Does she have any nostalgia for the Soviet past? And what does her grandson, who was born after the Soviet Union’s collapse, think about his country’s troubled history? You will have to visit Tatyana’s apartment to find out!

A visit to Tatyana’s apartment is included as a Freedom of Choice touring option on all summer Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express departures. Please see the itinerary for details.

For more information on the subject of Soviet housing, see Dr. Lynne Attwood, Gender and Housing in Soviet Russia (Manchester University Press, 2010).

Resource list:
1. Quoted by V.I. Lenin in Selected Works (Progress Publishers, 1977).
2. Richard Stites, Revolutionary Dreams (Oxford University Press, 1989).
3. K. Mehnert, Youth in Soviet Russia (Allen and Unwin, 1933).
4. G. W. Lapidus, Women in Soviet Society (University of California Press, 1979).
5. N.S. Khushchev, Khrushchev Remembers (Andre Deutsch, 1974).
6. J.G. Chapman, ’Changes in the Soviet Social Contract, in J. Adam (ed.) Economic Reforms and Welfare Systems in the USSR, Poland and Hungary. (St. Martin’s Press, 1991).
7. R. Vihavainen, ‘Housing in Russia – Policies and Practices’, presentation given at workshop in St. Petersburg 24-26 April 2005.
8. P. Starobin and O. Kravchenko, ‘Russia’s Middle Class’, in Businessweek online, 16 October 2000.
9. M.Hammer, ‘Russia: Unregulated privatisation of housing in Russia threatens to worsen the housing crisis’, interview with E. Shomina in Global Tenant: International Union of Tenants’ Quarterly Magazine, June 2007.

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