Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
An early ‘60s film captures the allure of the Soviet-style apartment living. More than 50 years later, these same housing complexes are facing deterioration and demolition.
About 14 minutes into Gerbert Rappaport’s Cheryomushki—a 1963 movie adaptation of Dmitri Shostakovich’s operetta—a young Moscow couple break into song about the home of their dreams that the State would soon provide them.
Sasha and Masha soon find themselves in a fantasy landscape anchored by a single apartment tower and surrounded by dancing couples with the same dream. Later, corruption around who gets to live in these new apartments takes over the plot. But Sasha and Masha’s dream sequence represents the most optimistic hopes for the Soviet’s mass housing program at the time.
Cheryomushki is also the name of a district in southwest Moscow where, in real life, many of these simple apartment blocks emerged. Cheryomushki's image was so defined by this mass housing that they were known to many by the same name. Also called “Khrushchyovka,” for the Soviet premier who initiated their construction, thousands of these post-war buildings are at risk today either through neglect or targeted demolition.
Earlier this year, current mayor Sergey Sobyanin announced that the city would soon demolish 8,000 of them, displacing 1.6 million residents. More recently, Sobyanin revised that number downward: 4,566 buildings are currently targeted for demolition, which would displace 1 million residents. According to The Economist, owners and tenants of targeted buildings can vote on the matter until June 15. If two-thirds vote in favor of demolition or abstain, the building will be no longer and its residents will be moved into “replacement apartments of equal size, rather than equal value,” while anyone who refuses will face eviction and no chance to appeal in court.
A previous and more modest wave of Khrushchyovka clearance was initiated in the late ‘90s under then-mayor Yury Luzhkov, but that came with little public outcry. As explained in the Moscow Times, “Owners of apartments in buildings eligible for demolition were warned a year in advance. They were offered three alternatives in the same district, equivalent in market value. They could opt for a payout instead. Improved construction standards meant the new apartments tended to be larger and of a higher quality.”
Sobyanin’s plan, meanwhile, has caused great suspicion and anger. As reported by it won’t just be Khrushchyovka biting the dust. Other historic buildings, late 20th-century homes, and even newly renovated residential buildings would be eligible for demolition under the most recent draft of the bill by the State Duma.
City officials have faced hostile crowds who see the initiative as a top-down land grab intended to benefit a stagnant construction industry. Few tenants seem to believe in assurances from officials of a fair deal and the fallout from the plan has led to an unexpected political awakening among average citizens who may be affected. A protest is planned this Sunday.
During Sasha and Masha’s housewarming in their new home, neighbors agree to stand up to the apartment complex’s corrupt bureaucrat and property manager. After the tenants build a magical garden and a bench outside where only the truth can be told, the antagonists come clean and everyone gets to live the life they deserve. If today’s fight over the fate of such apartments finds a happy ending, it’ll only be thanks to residents who won’t accept anything less.