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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Khrushchev's Walls Come Tumbling Down

Wandering past the dilapidated five-story apartment blocks, or khrushchyovki, of Moscow's Novye Cheryomushky region, it is hard to imagine that these buildings once symbolized a bright future being built by Stalin's successors in the Politburo.

Until, that is, one meets 68-year-old Sasha Yelenova.

"You can't imagine how it was," she said, standing outside her khrushchyovka at 21 Ulitsa Profsoyuznaya, where she has lived since it was built in 1958. "I lived in a communal flat in a basement. I was living like a country girl, carrying water, heating with fire and cooking on just a hot plate. Suddenly, I had my own place. It was a dream."

Today, Yelenova's "dream" is targeted for demolition under a plan to rid the city of thousands of the legendary khrushchyovki, named for Nikita Khrushchev who spearheaded their construction shortly after Stalin's death. Though a strapped budget plagues city plans, officials vow that, after a decade of talk, work will begin this year in earnest.

"They are in terrible condition," said Yury Nikitenko, the local prefect official in charge of housing in the Novye Cheryomushky region. "They are very expensive to maintain. It would be cheaper to simply rebuild better homes. Soon they will be unsafe, and then what will we do? Their time and usefulness has passed."

When Khrushchev came to power after the death of Stalin, millions of Muscovites lived as Yelenova, in communal basements, attics, converted kitchens and closets. In a program rivaling its space effort, the Soviet Union began a frenzy of housing construction aimed at getting people into private apartments.

The khrushchyovka was the most popular answer. At five floors in height, it required no elevator. It was made of prefabricated wooden panels, pre-assembled bath fixtures, even pre-cut lengths of plumbing pipes and electrical cable.

But a typical one-room apartment is just 13 square meters, making khrushchyovki the butt of endless Soviet-era jokes. One tells of an inventive designer who proposed a chamber pot that saved space by attaching the handle on the inside. In another joke, a tenant paints his ceiling by lying on his back on the floor.

In Moscow, one-fourth of all apartment buildings are khrushchyovki, according to 1992 statistics, the latest year available. The first of these were built in the Novye Cheryomushky region. They are among the first set to be razed.

A stroll through the area reveals the reason. Pipes frequently run outside, the result of new plumbing retrofitted to the buildings. Balconies are crumbling, large cracks rake over the facades and windows fit unevenly into their frames.

"One day the ceilings are going to start falling on people," said the superintendent for Yelenova's building. "They built these apartments to last 25 years and 35 years have already passed. I say, 'Knock them down tomorrow.'"

Last summer, tenants received notices that their buildings would be razed. They have been promised temporary quarters while a new building is constructed.

Many are suspicious of the motives.

"We have such a good location, and they want to kick us out," said a tenant in the region. "I know that if I move out of here, I'll never have a decent apartment again. They'll have to kill me first."

But Nikitynko, of the local prefect, vows: "No one will be moved without a place to live first."

Some doubt the city's commitment to replacing the buildings. In 1993, Moscow added just 3 million square meters of housing space, one-fourth of its needs, a city housing official said.

"With so many people needing housing, it's hard to spend money rebuilding existing buildings," said the official, who asked not to be identified.

At the earliest, work could begin this summer, Nikityenko said. Currently, officials refuse to say which buildings will be razed first -- or when.

"We don't want to start a panic," Nikityenko said. "We're still deciding the basis for our technology and economics."