The Khrushchev Slums

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

In what has been described as an economy of “planned shortages,” the Soviet Union was never able to adequately — not to speak of comfortably — accommodate its urban population. Still, despite several waves of urbanization, average per capita urban living space did increase over the long haul. If in 1926, each urban resident occupied a mere 5.8 square meters of living space, then in 1961 (the year in which for the first time half of the entire population was recorded as residing in cities), it stood at 8.8 square meters. By 1980, it was to rise further to 13.0 square meters. There were considerable variations from one republic to another. For example, in 1961, per capita living space varied from a low of 7.8 square meters in Uzbekistan to a high of 12.2 in Latvia. In terms of the type of accommodation, as of 1965, 31.6 percent of urban residents in the RSFSR lived in private individual homes, 55.6 percent lived in apartments, 6.4 percent sublet privately, and 6.4 percent lived in hostels. Of all apartment dwellers in Leningrad in 1965, 55.6 percent lived in so-called “kommunal’nye kvartiry” (typically abbreviated as “kommunal’ki and popularly known by their initials as “kaka” which in Russian, as in English, is suggestive of defecation), that is, accommodation in which as many as four families shared kitchen and bathroom facilities. The corresponding figure for Gorky was 30 percent and it was considerably lower in newer towns such as Togliatti and Naberezhnye Chelny.

Housing construction received a major boost in the fifth five-year plan (1951-55) when investment reached almost twice the amount of the preceding planning period. It more than doubled again in the next five-year plan period (1956-60) when it amounted to an all-time high of 23.5 percent of total capital investment. Quality of construction and amenities were sacrificed for the sake of easing the shortage of housing. Many of the apartments constructed in the 1950s were prefabricated four- and five-story buildings, popularly known as khrushcheby, a play on the word trushcheby, which means slum. In his memoirs, Khrushchev claimed that “Throughout my career, I was concerned with the problem of providing housing for our citizens,” and took credit for initiating the construction of high-rise apartments on the outer fringes of Moscow. “To use the words of John Reed,” he wrote, “we ‘shook the world’ with our massive program to build housing for our people.”

In the Moscow region, whole villages and farmland that had been cultivated for centuries were ploughed under to make way for new apartment blocks. The avatar of such housing developments was Novye Cheremushki, south of the city center. Later, the southwest district, Medvedkovo, and other outlying areas were subjected to the same process. Nevertheless, the new Party Program of 1961, which promised that “during the first decade of the building of communism (1961-70) the housing shortage will be eliminated …,” was far from having been realized.

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