Dairmid Gunn writes a brief account on the history of Russian housing, from kommunalki community flats to dachas along the countryside.
Before the 1917 Revolution 80 percent of the Russian population lived in the country; by the 1980s more than 70 percent resided in big cities like Moscow and Leningrad (St Petersburg). This great influx of people was caused by disruption to everyday life resulting from the Revolution — a prolonged and bloody civil war, the devastation of large tracts of the land, a series of failed harvests and the rapid industrialisation of the country. The incomers sought work and food.
As the influx continued as new factories were built, this caused serious social problems – particularly in the realm of housing.
The kommunalki flats
The immediate response on the part of the Soviet government was to requisition houses and capacious apartments of the aristocrats and the wealthy bourgeoisie and divide them into communal flats (kommunalki). This was easier to do in Leningrad than in Moscow as there were more buildings and apartments of that sort in the former imperial capital.
But requisitioning was only a partial solution and the government was forced to resort to a building programme to overcome the housing crisis. Apart from the barracks for workers adjacent to their factories, the building programme was focused on kommunalki, or communal flats.
The kommunalki, sometimes known as corridor flats, were rooms allocated to families along a corridor and entrance hall: sp no cooking and toilet facilities. Families had to use a communal kitchen, toilet and bathroom – common spaces that were usually situated at the end of the corridor. Cleaning of these common spaces, including the corridor and entrance hall, was by a schedule agreed by the occupants. (Visits to the local bath-house compensated a little for the absence of adequate washing facilities.)
The whole complex was regarded as a “domestic collective” – a tool within the sophisticated system of social engineering.
A shakey upgrade
After Stalin’s death there was a mini thaw, and the government allowed a more liberal approach to the housing problem by building 5-storey buildings with self-contained apartments in the outer parts of the city.
The flats in these buildings, popularly known as khrushchevki, were eagerly sought after. The building faults caused by hasty construction and the absence of lifts were more than compensated for by the sheer pleasure of not having to share.
In the early 1960s the long waiting lists prompted the government to resurrect the cooperative housing associations, through which buyers could purchase their own flats, signalling the beginning of the end for the kommunalki.
During the period between the Revolution and the collapse of the USSR in 1991 certain members of the elite in the political, military and cultural world were allocated comfortable, if not luxurious, flats. Some of these were to be found in Stalin’s wedding cake buildings and others in blocks specially built for the purpose.
Life in one such block was described most vividly in a book called The House on the Embankment by Yuri Trifonov. The block described is situated opposite the Kremlin and still contains luxury flats, and also a museum illustrating the lifestyle for the nomenclature of that time.
They cannot be called the ‘lucky’ few, as dwellers who had fallen out of favour with Stalin feared a knock on the door in the early hours and the subsequent transfer to the notorious Lubyanka prison.
Descriptions of life of those who had to live in the more humble environment of kommunalki can be found as background material in the novels of Mikhail Bulgakov (of Master and Margarita fame) and the writing of Maria Tsvetayeva. The poet and song writer, Vladimir Vysotsky, a theatre and music-hall idol of the people, sang about kommunalki in a humorous vein, using the trials and tribulations of communal life as his theme.
Developing the dachas
No review of the Soviet housing scene would be complete without reference to the dacha – the place in the country so dear to the Russian town dweller.
The word dacha is derived from the verb ‘dat’ meaning to give, and dates from the time of Peter the Great, who granted plots of land near his capital to his subjects for horticultural development and the building of small wooden houses for summer use.
The land belonged to the state but the houses on them to the recipients – a principle that continued to be observed in the Soviet Union. The houses were simple in construction and without the amenities of electricity and water. Thus they were only suitable for summer use and not an alternative source of accommodation. At best, they could be considered as allotments with houses attached.
Dachas are becoming more sophisticated in terms of amenities and provision of space. Some can now be described as fully fledged country houses. A tax is still levied on the land occupied by dachas, and fees are charged to meet the costs of access and general maintenance of the dacha sites.
Since the collapse of the USSR the government has encouraged the privatisation of state-owned blocks of apartments and the building of new private houses and flats. The new deal has also encouraged the completion and sale of multi-family apartments of the Soviet period and the development and marketing of single-family accommodation on the urban fringe.
Companies set up to effect the new policy arrange financing from private sources such as payments from home buyers, loans from banks and market the newly constructed dwellings. The overriding control is exercised by municipal centres (also responsible for organising access roads and utility connections). Although a large number of private properties are assigned to municipal centres for distribution among buyers, many are sold direct to developers’ employees, suppliers and city officials at a discount.
Although privatisation has brought significant improvements to the lifestyle of most home dwellers in Moscow, the cost of desirable property is often unacceptably high. This brings to mind the all too often quote about life in the Russian capital: “Everything is available, but at a price.”
Dairmid Gunn / Expatica
Before serving at the British Embassy in Moscow in the 1960s, Dairmid Gunn lived with a Russian family in Paris. He is now involved in building bridges with Russia through the Scotland-Russia Forum.
Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons; FLikr by MelvinSchlubman