Vedomosti has a great article on the history of Russia’s housing crisis. Housing, as Maksim Trudoliubov notes, is a chronic historical problem in Russia, one which the Soviets tried to attenuate, but made little headway until the 1960s. “The comfort of our home life is still not good for many of us,” Trudoliubov begins. “As in the early Soviet and even in the “mature Soviet” period housing was the main problem for the majority of citizens. Life was collective not because the state managed to inculcate citizens with a fancy for the romanticism of “communal life,” and because of this all of Stalin’s construction projects must be seen in this light. There’s just not enough housing (as is the case up to the present). But even more important, housing–from the bunks in dormitories to elite apartments in nomenclature buildings–was an instrument of manipulating people.”
Indeed, as Truboliubov continues, solutions to the housing problem took on a variety of realist and ideological forms to manipulate people. Lenin, for one, saw the housing problem a matter of distribution and allocation. According to the Soviet founding father, the Tsarist elite held a monopoly over living space. The solution was a simple but cold revolutionary formula of “K = N – 1,” where K equaled the number of rooms, and N the number of residents. Meaning that “the number of people in an apartment must be one more than rooms.” Well, as the those intimately familiar with Russian housing know well, the proportion of people to rooms was often many times more lopsided than Lenin’s prescription.
Things only worsened after the Civil War when structural dilapidation, poverty, disease, and general governmental decay exacerbated the existing housing problem. As Truboliubov writes, “In 1921 37% of buildings in Moscow were unsuitable for habitation.” As one resident of what is now Building 9 on Bolshaya Dmitrovka, the street that runs parallel to Tverskaya, central Moscow’s main drag, commented in 1922, “The pluming system, drainage and heating are destroyed. Apartments lack facets, radiators for central heating, and are stripped of stoves. In the majority of apartments the floors are taken apart, and dirt and garbage are everywhere.”
Apartment life in the 1920s was abysmal to say the least. As any reader of Bulgakov’s Dog’s Heart will know, apartments were allocated and reallocated in a sporadic, albeit proletarian, manner. Residents of various classes were cramped together. Revolutionary justice in housing required the bourgeoisie to give up their rooms to the new proletarian ruling class. And “when there weren’t any rooms to rent, then people rented corners, that is parts of rooms, corridors and kitchens.” And if those weren’t available, then sleeping in bathtubs served as a desperate alternative. The average living space in the 1920s was an average of 5.2 to 5.8 square meters per person.
Stalin’s industrial campaign of the 1930s only made matters worse as millions of peasant migrants flooded into Russia’s cities. As David Hoffman notes in his Peasant Metropolis, migration was so great that there was no conceivable way for the authorities to provide adequate housing. The solution was often the rapid and shoddy construction of worker’s barracks. The crunch was so great that the average number of persons per room in the Soviet Union rose from 2.71 in 1926 to 3.91 in 1940. One can only guess that the increase would be even more if the statistics only accounted for the country’s industrial urban centers.
More people meant less comfort. One American cited by Hoffman described his friend Kuznetsov’s living conditions in the barracks of the Kuibyshev electronic factory in the 1930s,
“Kuznetsov lived with about 550 others, men and women, in a wooden structure about 800 feet long and fifteen feet wide. The room contained approximately 500 narrow beds, covered with mattresses filled with straw and dried leaves. There were no pillows or blankets. Coats and other garments were being utilized for covering. Some of the residents had no beds and slept on the floor or in wooden boxes. In some cases beds were used by one shift during the day and by others at night. There were no screens or wall to give any privacy to the occupants of the barracks . . . I could not stay in the barracks very long. I could not stand the stench of kerosene and unwashed bodies. The only washing facility was a pump outside. The toilet was rickety, unheated shanty, without seats.”
Rapid urbanization also gave rise to the Stalinist internal passport system in 1934. The passport system was an attempt to slow migration, especially that induced by the famine in Ukraine. The logic was to prevent an already desperate situation was getting worse. With housing and food supply already short (urban residents were on rations), a tidal wave of starving peasants would have brought the situation to the brink Soviet officials reasoned. The policy was certainly cruel. But Stalinist policies were never known for their niceties.
The passport system also became a permanent biopolitical measure of population control. Urbanites got them. Kholkhozniki didn’t. And though getting off the collective farm was easily done, the system put in place institutionalized discrimination until the mid-1970s when Russia’s rural inhabitants began getting passports. This is not to say that urban residents were allowed to move freely. City to city migration required registration. True, people still moved throughout the postwar period, but the passport and registration system was yet another bureaucratic control for the authorities to wield when necessary.
Substantial housing relief didn’t come until the 1960s when Nikita Khrushchev attempted to tackle the housing problem with the mass production of five story, box like apartment buildings. The “khrushchevki” provided relief, gave many their own apartments, but were hardly aesthetic or structural masterpieces. But a shoddy apartment was better than no apartment, especially for those war refugees who were living in dugouts until the late 1950s. And the continued housing projects of the Brezhnev period provided additional living space. So much so that by the end of the Soviet period, the square meter per person had grown to 15.3 square meters.
Present day housing, though still a problem, appears to be improving. As Truboliubov notes, according to Rosstat, the average living space has increased to 20.9 square meters per person. This is still low by Western European and American standards (Germany, 36 sq. m.; Sweden, about 40; and the US, 60), yet by Russian standards, which has a totally different historical relationship to living, privacy, and relationships, this is a great improvement.
Finally, Truboliubov ends his narrative with a reminder that registration, though deemed illegal by the Russian Constitution, remains in force. The authorities repeadtly balk at abolishing it. They only seem to always promise to “modernize” its application. Why? As Truboliubov notes, one of the features of a capitalist system is to increase the mobility of not just capital, but labor. But Russian capitalism works on an additional profit motive. The registration system has an additional function as an “instrument of extracting the profit of corruption.” “The Stalinist institution of registration now properly serves the bureaucrats as a source of income.”
Photo: English Russia.