“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.”