How the USSR’s identical housing blocks reflected each state’s own identity

They were once the answer to the empire's sweeping housing needs, but decades later, the copy-and-paste architectures have evolved into their own characters

Every new year, millions of people across the former Soviet Union watch a film about mass-produced public housing. The premise of Eldar Ryazanov’s Irony of Fate is that our hero, who has got phenomenally drunk on New Year’s Eve, has flown from Moscow to St Petersburg, gets in a cab and asks to be taken to 3 Builders Street. He arrives at a high-rise block in a housing estate exactly like his own, where he enters an identical flat, and then passes out on the identical sofa. Hilarity and romance ensues when he wakes up in a strange woman’s flat.

The vast housing estates of the former USSR can look startlingly monolithic, an image of an all-powerful state. But the popularity of that film shows something else – that most people have adapted and domesticated these places as they’ve lived in them over several generations.

Although they’re seen as typically ‘Soviet’, the story of the prefabricated housing estates that surround every post-Soviet city actually begins in France. It was in Parisian suburbs like Drancy and Sarcelles where it was first decided to solve the housing question by making flats like Ford made cars – identical, comfortable, any colour as long as it’s grey. This only came to the Soviet Union under Nikita Khrushchev in the late 1950s.

Part of his project of ‘de-Stalinisation’ involved solving the appalling housing crisis created first by the huge urban growth caused by the famine in the countryside and the need for factory workers in Stalin’s massive industrialisation programme, and second, by the destruction of hundreds of towns and cities by the Wehrmacht in the ‘Great Patriotic War’. Stalin, curiously, seemed uninterested in the problem, and concentrated on building luxury flats for the elite. Khrushchev, on the other hand, believed that without making sure every Soviet citizen had a decent home, the system would face a worker’s revolt. The French had shown how to do it – fast, cheap, modern – but the Soviets would add a whole new scale.

The Moscow suburb of Novye Cheryomushki (‘New Cherry Town’) was the showcase of the system-built blocks of flats that would be nicknamed ‘Khrushchevki’. It was, at first, a cause célèbre – thousands flocked just to visit, and Shostakovich wrote an operetta about every Muscovite’s desire to live there. But within a few years, it was one of very many identical ‘microdistricts’. The blocks would get bigger and longer under Brezhnev, but the scene was set for a country where a housing estate on the border of Sweden would look the same as one on the border of Afghanistan or Japan.

But after a while, you do start to notice the small differences in the towers and slabs. In the 1980s, especially, architects tried to bring in local motifs and materials – red brick patterns in Latvia, decorative Oriental concrete loggias in Kyrgyzstan. Meanwhile, the best microdistricts, like Lazdynai in Lithuania, were built around forests and public facilities – a model most of these estates would try and fail to follow. Monolithic from the outside as they undoubtedly are, compared to British housing estates these places were genuinely egalitarian, with doctors and workers under the same roof. Sometimes, they still are.

If they were homogeneous at the time, the fate of these places reflects the sharp differences within the post-Soviet world. In the Baltic states, countries with declining populations and an infusion of EU cash, they can be extremely pleasant – cleaned, insulated and painted pastel colours, distinguishable from new construction only by their larger public spaces. But in the Caucasus, microdistricts have rehoused thousands of refugees from wars in Chechnya, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh. With no prospect of new social housing, residents have had to improvise, with most apartment buildings having a second layer of housing attached to them by steel frames, often self-built. Housing estates that were built to stop the prospect of self-built slums have turned into them.

Any new social housing is rare, with some minor exceptions – until very recently, ‘Europe’s last dictatorship’ in Belarus kept the Soviet housing system going, with waiting lists, extremely low rents and prefabricated concrete panels. Even the newly anti-Soviet Ukraine tends to build its new housing using Soviet technologies, though it is then sold on the open market; as if to distract people from this fact, it is usually decorated in various kitsch styles – in Kiev you can find slab blocks with neoclassical dressing called ‘New London’, towers with Ukrainian folk patterns called ‘Patriotica’, mirroring the way that anti-Communist rhetoric is overlaid onto a continuity of elite power.

Demolition programmes are surprisingly rare, but in cities where there is a major real estate bubble, like Moscow, mass-produced housing is under considerable threat. Thousands of ‘Khrushchevki’ have been marked for erasure by the city government, as they sit on valuable land. But rather than being accepted, this has led to a major protest campaign, with residents praising the green spaces and human scale of their blocks. Not every identical block is the same. 

Owen Hatherley’s The Adventures of Owen Hatherley in the Post-Soviet Space is out now (Watkins Media, £14.99)

Illustration: Joseph Joyce