Gentrification, Post-Soviet Style

Moscow seeks to finally leave behind an architectural vestige of its communist past, but at a high cost to its residents.

A worker passes a building, which is part of the old five-story apartment blocks demolition project launched by the city authorities, in Moscow, Russia.
A worker passes a building, which is part of the old five-story apartment blocks demolition project launched by the city authorities, in Moscow, Russia. (Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters)

She was, on first glance, a most unlikely civil activist, and certainly no obvious rabble rouser: an aged, stooped, frail, silver-haired pensioner, who also happened to be the starshaya po domu—something like “chief resident”—of a Khrushchevka, a five-story apartment building dating back to the era of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. My wife and I had lived in this particular Khrushchevka from 2001 until just a few years ago; we still own an apartment there.

We had returned at the invitation of this pensioner, whom we had never met before. Her voice trembled with anger as she explained why she had invited us into her home. The municipal authorities, she said, would likely soon demolish her building, along with the rest of Moscow’s Khrushchevkas, and relocate the tenants. But she had no desire to move and was, as a result, asking my wife, a Russian citizen, to sign a petition of protest that she would send to the mayor’s office—and possibly even to President Vladimir Putin himself— asking that her building be spared from destruction.

That the demolition and rehousing were, according to press reports, supposed to happen only with permission of the residents mattered little; they would assent, as the Russian saying goes, “dobrovol’no prinuditel’no”—voluntarily but forced. That is, the government would eventually do what it wanted, whether its citizens liked it or not—not entirely strange for Russians, given their country’s Soviet-era history of mass expropriation, deportations, arrests, imprisonment, and so on. Today’s Russia is not the Soviet Union, of course. But potent, fearful memories, passed down from generation to generation, live on in almost every family.

“And what’s worse,” the woman added, “a deputy from our own district is supporting this plan, and without asking us! What about our property rights? … This will all profit the city deputies”—who, she assumed, based on Russia’s post-1991, crony-capitalist history, would have ties to the construction companies that would build new housing on her Khrushchevka’s land. “They’ll promise us everything but end up putting us out in some suburb of high-rises, with no parks and no metro station. We can’t believe anything they say.” Her words reflected a deep-seated fear among Russians that their government, more than a quarter-century after the fall of the Soviet Union, may be lurching further into despotism, disregarding the interests and legitimate demands of the country’s most vulnerable.

If the reputation of Khrushchev—regarded in Russia as a liberal reformer, at least compared to his brutal predecessor Joseph Stalin—has suffered much during Putin’s authoritarian era, the buildings informally named after him continue to evoke warm feelings for many of their inhabitants, despite their age and ill repair. After all, in the decades following the 1917 Russian Revolution, most urban Soviets dwelt in cramped communal apartments; Khrushchevkas were the first state housing projects to give them a place of their own, even while communist ideology reined supreme.

Khrushchevkas have no elevators; each apartment unit consists of one to three rooms, a kitchen, a bathroom, and at times a balcony. They are, to be sure, eyesores, made of either brick or prefabricated concrete panels. The pensioner’s building stood in central Moscow, near a metro station—prime real estate. It made sense that Khrushchevkas in such neighborhoods would be the first to go; after all, housing built in their stead would afford urban developers huge profits, and to Moscow, increased tax revenues. New buildings would also give many districts a more modern, less Soviet look, just as Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin has envisioned for Russia’s showcase city. But most of all, the proposed demolitions seem to be about money. Or, at least, no other reason seems to exist—Khrushchevkas have not begun collapsing, and their residents are not clamoring for relocation.

That authorities would even consider forcing the elderly out of their homes now seems callous. But rumors that they would demolish such buildings have circulated for the better part of two decades, ever since Moscow’s former mayor Yury Luzhkov announced, in 1999, that 500 Khrushchevkas would be torn down and their inhabitants allotted housing elsewhere. The initiative was designed to rid the capital of dangerously decayed buildings. It offered residents, a year in advance, a range of options for compensation and relocation.

The issue lay dormant for 18 years, until late February, when Putin met with Sobyanin and told him that tearing down the Khrushchevkas and replacing them with new apartments would be the “best decision” because Muscovites were, he understood, expecting their city to provide them with new, more comfortable, housing that would improve their lives. (Why Putin chose that moment to make such a statement is anyone’s guess; he did not elaborate.) It all came as a shock to Muscovites. Just 10 days before Putin’s pronouncement, Moscow’s chief of urban planning had declared such an idea “impossible” on account of, among other things, the “need to accommodate the interests of residents, investors, and the city.”

Putin’s go-ahead, it seems, was all Sobyanin needed to proceed. In scale, his proposal would eclipse Luzhkov’s still-unrealized plan, destroying 8,000 Khrushchevkas and rehousing 1.6 million people (Moscow’s total population is an estimated 12 million), at a cost to the state of some three trillion rubles, or the equivalent of $53 billion. All this, by the end of 2018, the year of both Russia’s next presidential elections and Moscow’s mayoral contest. Legislation backing Sobyanin’s scheme is still being put together, but a draft law approved by the Moscow Duma on its first reading on April 20 stoked worries. It would permit the city to declare entire blocs of Khrushchevka buildings “renovation zones.” Putin pledged not to sign any bill violating people’s rights, but until residents see the fine print, they have not been inclined to relax.

Dismayed Russians are making their voices heard. Angry town hall meetings in which citizens have confronted their elected representatives, demanding to know whether their homes will be knocked down, have proliferated. On April 27, Sobyanin made concessions, delaying the project’s completion date by 10 to 15 years. (Presumably, by then, many of the Khrushchevkas’ original inhabitants will have died.) Residents will have the right to exclude their buildings from demolition lists; those who agree to be rehoused will be guaranteed well-appointed apartments in new buildings (and assistance with moving into them), and in the same districts, even the most-coveted ones in central Moscow. But these promises failed to squelch the controversy; only the text of the laws, which are yet to be passed, will do that.

It might seem surprising that the Moscow government would undertake such a project with elections looming—the last thing officials would want, one might think, is to give already-restless Muscovites reason to take to the streets. (Recent anti-corruption and anti-Putin marches may signal a year of political turbulence ahead.) Putin, perhaps with this in mind, seemed to respond to the Khrushchevka residents’ anger. “There are problems we know of, and we have talked about them with the mayor. I hope that everything will be corrected in accordance with the citizens’ wishes,” he said on May 4. When Putin says he “hopes” something will happen, usually state functionaries hurry to make sure that it does. Yet his words proved insufficiently reassuring.

On May 14, discontent over Sobyanin’s plan drove irate Khrushchevka residents to assemble on Sakharov Prospekt, the site of major demonstrations during the protests of 2011 and 2012. Depending on whether you believe the Ministry of the Interior’s estimates or those of the event’s organizers, between 5,000 and 20,000 Muscovites attended. The prevailing mood was one of decidedly post-Soviet defiance, as placards held by demonstrators made clear. They read, variously: “NO TO DEPORTATIONS!” “NO TO RESIDENTIAL TERROR!” and, perhaps most ominously for the mayor, “TEAR DOWN SOBYANIN’S BUILDING!” Another read, ironically, “I WILL BURY YOU MYSELF!”—an echo of Khrushchev’s warning to the capitalist West issued from the United Nation’s podium in 1960. Some protestors even carried portraits of the former Soviet premier. Emotions ran high, but only one arrest was made. The opposition leader Alexey Navalny showed up to make a speech, but the police would not let him ascend the stage. His presence at the rally nevertheless showed that he took the issue seriously, and would have exploited it for his own (unlikely) electoral prospects, if he had been allowed.

The angry spectacle of the demonstration apparently prompted the mayor’s office to conduct a public relations—read, propaganda—campaign to persuade Muscovites to back Sobyanin’s plans to do away with the Khrushchevkas. A couple of days later, Khrushchevka residents who supported the mayor’s proposed demolitions appeared to have flooded the Internet with comments and pictures. The younger ones complained of living in “shabby homes without elevators or garbage chutes, with leaking roofs and smelly basements,” yet posted pictures showing that they also happened to own Mercedes’ (that surely would cost more than their apartments) or that they dined in pricey restaurants—a luxury few Khrushchevka dwellers can afford. Unsurprisingly, a good number seemed to hail from a “Youth Chamber” associated with and funded by the mayor’s office, or with pro-Kremlin youth movements.

This media campaign notwithstanding, Sobyanin has, since the May 14 demonstration, even more forcefully pledged to respect the interests of Khrushchevkas dwellers. He has promised not to tear down any buildings without first receiving permission from their residents, with transferrals to new housing not to start for another two or three years, and a majority not happening until “eight, ten, or as many as twelve years” have passed—an eternity in political time. But the city is still laying the groundwork for the project; it has just moved to reduce property values (and thus the compensation it will have to pay residents) associated with the Khrushchevkas.

Since the controversy arose, there have been other protests against the planned demolitions. The Moscow government recently published a list of the Khrushchevkas to be eliminated; our old building did not appear. We have not seen its chief resident since she invited us into her home to ask my wife to sign the petition. She can, thankfully, relax—at least for now.