5-Story 'Paradise' Meets the Wrecking Ball

MTBy 2010, all khrushchyovki will be removed from Moscow. Residents are being resettled to large apartment towers.
Galina Nikitina is quite content with the apartment she's lived in at 113 Volgogradsky Prospekt for the past 43 years, thank you very much.

Compared to life in the old Army housing she'd been in, an apartment in a five-story pyatietazhki was paradise for Nikitina, her husband and 5-year-old daughter when they moved in -- as it was for millions who had never had their own home until Nikita Khrushchev decided it was about time.

"When we left the barracks and came here, it was like we had come into a kingdom," Nikitina, now 80, recalled. "In the barracks, we drank and washed with water that collected on the roof. We don't want to leave."

About 1,600 so-called khrushchyovki were built in Moscow from 1956 to 1963, including dozens along Volgogradsky Prospekt. Thousands of veterans with young families who had lived in dilapidated communal apartments and dank cellars filled with cockroaches flooded the apartment blocs.

Now, nearly every khrushchyovka in Moscow is coming down.

Under a city plan, the once-ubiquitous khrushchyovki are being razed and residents moved to new buildings ranging from 17 to 22 stories. The goal is to demolish all pyatietazhki by 2010. So far, about 900 have been bulldozed, said Alexei Vidansky, a spokesman for the city Architecture, Construction, Development and Reconstruction Complex.

The city insists the program will improve living conditions. "Pyatietazhki were built to last 25 years," Vidansky said. "They've already lived through two lifetimes, and they could soon be dangerous." He added that the thin panels comprising the walls of many of the buildings had become warped over the years.

The plan to remove the buildings, Vidansky said, comports with President Vladimir Putin's $770 million national project to improve housing nationwide, announced last fall. "For the government, people are always the most important concern," Vidansky said.

Many residents don't buy that. They say they're being forced to give up their homes so authorities can make a killing in the booming real estate market. Indeed, construction firms such as Satori, Krost, SU-155 and Don-Stroi are lining up to pay for the right to destroy khrushchyovki and build their replacements. Vidansky refused to say how much long-term leases bought by construction firms cost.

Profit margins are promising: It runs from $1,000 to $1,200 per square meter to build new apartments; the average price tag for a square meter of Moscow real estate is $3,920. And even though builders must move pyatietazhki residents for free, they can sell the remaining apartments -- expected to be 60 percent of all units -- to homebuyers at a profit. What's more, tearing down old buildings is said to be cheap.

"I don't care what they say on paper," said William Brumfield, a Russian architecture expert at Tulane University, in New Orleans, who has written the definitive book on the subject, "A History of Russian Architecture," and is a member of the Russian Academy of Arts and Sciences. "There is no comprehensive plan to take care of people."

Referring to khrushchyovki, Brumfield said: "These buildings can be successfully rehabilitated, but plans to do so have been squeezed out by property values, not a concern for people."

Vladimir Filonov / MT
Now decrepit, the pyatietazhki provided millions with their first apartment.
True, khrushchyovki are not spacious, allowing only 11 square meters per resident. Many haven't been renovated for decades; the pale green and yellow interiors of many apartments are chipped, fading and full of cheap, Soviet furniture.

But khrushchyovki gave the masses something they had been unaccustomed to under the Stalinist dictatorship, with its hugely invasive secret police, purges, camps and general lack of concern for how people lived: a bit of privacy.

Vidansky said: "It was the first time people could have sex without their neighbors there."

Marina, 82, who declined to give her last name, fears the future. With her cane, she can now get from her first-floor apartment in her khrushchyovki to a bench just outside. She lived her for decades with her husband, who died 10 years ago; both of them served at the front during World War II, she said.

"This house was full of soldiers -- to destroy such houses, this is Heaven," Marina said, doing her best to keep her composure. "I'm not going to move to the new building. I'm going to die here. I'll live here maybe two or three more years, and then I will die."

Khrushchyovki not only offered residents warmth and a place of their own, they also gave rise to a new Soviet order, a way of living and organizing daily routines. Semyon Mikhailovsky, a professor of architecture at the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts, noted that on any given block, there would be a school, stores, parks and playgrounds. The geometric order of khrushchyovki, Semyon said, were Russia's answer to the German Bauhaus movement.

While the old design under Leonid Brezhnev evolved into taller buildings with sturdier materials, the basic idea behind all Soviet housing well into the 1980s remained the same -- comfortable, no-frills apartments in large, impersonal housing blocs with easy access to all of life's necessities at no cost.

By 1985, the year the last Soviet ruler, Mikhail Gorbachev, took power, a total of 60,000 pyatietazhki had been built; thousands of larger but similar housing blocs had also gone up. The buildings were cheap, filled a gaping housing hole, and could be built almost overnight: The record was set in the summer of 1972, when builders in Leningrad erected a pyatietazhki in five days.

Now the old order is yielding to the pressures of a housing market that must make room for younger and richer residents born, in many cases, years after Khrushchev passed away in 1971.

Some of those who have been resettled have been won over.

Yevgeny Ivanov, a 77-year-old retired engineer, said many of those who had protested the move had quieted down since moving into their new homes.

"We went from 60-something to 80 square meters," Ivanov said, comparing his old apartment in the pyatietazhka near the Kakhovskaya metro station to his new residence. "Things were alright in the old building, but here it's better, more free."

On Volgogradsky Prospekt, the new and old tangle with each other, weaving in and out of the same, sometimes-schizophrenic skyline. While the new buildings housing Moscow's nascent middle class continue popping up, whole neighborhoods of decades-old storefronts, cafes, government agencies and grade schools linger behind.

According to the city complex web site, 40 apartment buildings on the avenue will be demolished within the next four years. At 113 Volgogradsky, where Nikitina lives, many of the original residents worked in the same textile factory.

Today, Nikitina, a widow who lives with her children, voices doubts about the government's plans. "For 70 years, people worked on the kolkhoz," she said, referring to the Soviet-era collective farm. "You didn't receive a single kopek. If you had a calf, or if you had a sheep, you were a kulak, and they took everything from you and sent you to Siberia. I have no trust in the government. What kind of trust could I have after those 70 years?"

The government promises that the last standing khrushchyovka will be turned into a museum, but that's not much consolation for the septuagenarians and octogenarians struggling to stay afloat in post-Soviet Russia.

Looking around, Nikitina said: "Here, before, everything had been all fields. There were carrots, tomatoes. We moved here, into what was a field, and we planted these trees ourselves. Look at how big they are now."