Last week we introduced the Soviet Russian phenomenon of kommunalka, communal housing for disparate lives thrown together in a bid to equitably distribute living space. All comrades together! Well, that was the intention, the sacrifice of personal space for the suggested progress of society as a whole.
At the time of the Revolution, Russia was largely a rural country, with 80% of its population dwelling in provincial towns and villages. With a State initiative to boost industrialisation that spanned both encouragement and enforcement, the flow of new hands into the urban workforce began, as did the inevitable problem of overcrowding.
For some, it was a trade-up, now that the State would provide a place in the big-city in exchange for toil. How else were the former peasantry ever to gain a foothold in somewhere as prestigious as Moscow or St. Petersburg? Not all were destined for such bright lights however, as former residents of Soviet industrial towns, with their murderous air (and water), can attest.
A shared box at the heart of change, in return for guaranteed menial work and the possibility of greater things. The prospect could beat a nameless backwater existence at the end of the world, and the incumbent Bolsheviks were making it possible.
By the 1950s the poles had truly flipped and the draw of urban existence left a mere 20% of Russians in a countryside abandoned to the past, whilst grey hearts of Soviet concrete blossomed into a future forming elsewhere.
Death and inheritance
Stalin’s death in 1953 left both his work unfinished and Nikita Khrushchev with a housing problem. In pursuit of the 1930’s proposal to furnish every family with a home of their own, he commenced a vast building project of jelly-mould blocks that were pre-fabricated as panels and sent to be assembled and stamped, 3D, into urban cityscapes across the republic.
The prototypes appeared in 1930’s Moscow, but Khrushchev’s promotion of them would forever link his name to these ubiquitous concrete slabs. Typically, each block consisted of multiple units of accommodation stacked into 5 storeys of concrete and internally divided into several subgroups of stacked apartments. Each group was served by a single outer door, behind which sat a central, raw-edged stairwell and a claustrophobic lift (not always). From these hearts of gloom, the vacant arms of unwelcoming corridors sank into the dinge, beyond. The forms of trees, even, but sculpted in empty space as the antithesis of lives once lived.
Designated as “K-7” style blocks, in official parlance they were subsequently christened Khrushchevki by the locals (plural), or Khrushchobi – a slang hybrid set to rhyme with Truschebi or “slum”!
The interiors were utilitarian and modest in size, although the pattern of divided space could vary (that’s variations on bed-sit by our comparatively extravagant standards). Aside from the main joint living and sleeping room there was a small bathroom and a compact kitchen/dining area, with the added luxury of a storage room, although this may not grant extra floor space; merely a finer division of the total area available. In any case, this would usually be seized as another bedroom, despite being essentially a windowless walk-in cupboard.
Rooms typically branched from a small hall, allowing separation; although later designs could necessitate bedroom access via a main living area. The K-7 series boasted 30㎡, 44㎡ and 60㎡ variants, as 1, 2 and 3 room apartments respectively, plus the bathroom (in case you were wondering), although later revisions reduced the size of these already modest spaces further.
For a single person, the K-7 format would seem adequate, cozy, even “not bad” for the short to medium term at least, the kind of accommodation that we may have shared at college or university. Remarkable then that 3 generations of Russians could often be found living in a 2-room design as a temporary stop-gap whilst outside the Soviet dream set about fabricating enough of everything, for all.
Some K-7 blocks were only designed to last 25 years, when utopia was due for completion. That was the dream of course, and the promise too. In reality, Leonid Brezhnev saw a downturn in the economy and was still promising extra living space in the 1970s; a room for each resident plus one extra – if one only chased the dream for a while longer.
He also left his name permanently embedded in his own program of larger, though less common Brezhnevka housing. Today, despite some demolition and modern rebuild, K-7’s still abounds, some “permanent”, others patched up and staggering on into their 60s; at more than double their proposed lifespans, and counting.
The final demise of the Khrushchevki era has surely commenced, with a modernisation drive led by Moscow’s Mayor Sergei Sobyanin. The Guardian reports:
“In the most extensive Russian resettlement project in half a century, a full 10% of Moscow’s housing is set to be torn down and 1.6 million people moved as the city’s ‘Khrushchevka’ flats are destroyed.”
For now, such modernisation is confined to moneyed locales, soon (perhaps within two decades) the rest will have to join the initiative as these living Soviet relics follow the system that birthed them and crumble to dust.
Photo by Dmity Fablov