Muscovites’ housing dilemna

By Nina Bachkatov and Andrew Wilson

The most burning question for millions of Muscovites is about housing, another sign that Russians’ political apathy stops when politics affect their personal daily life.

The current question is over a project to replace 50-60 year-old apartments blocs by new ones. A year before mayoral, and presidential elections, this project was seen as a good vote-catcher, since those buildings were considered an eye-sore and were often dilapidated beyond repair after decades of neglect. In any case, their layout, with minuscule kitchens and bathrooms does not meet current style of life.

In late February, the Moscow mayor, Sergei Sobianin, came up with a radical plan to modernise the capital housing offer, phased over the coming years. The project, which will affect one Muscovite out of ten (1.6 million people), consists in replacing some 4,500 four- and five-story buildings in 85 districts across the city by higher constructions. The inhabitants would be guaranteed a relocation in an apartment with a surface equivalent to the original one, on the same site.

People affected by the move have been invited to express their opinions of the scheme on Moscow government’s website from May 15. A building will be destroyed only if at least two-thirds of residents agree with the plans, non-voters being automatically counted as in favour of demolition.

Protests have been expected as always during any major transformation of the Russian capital such as the introduction of paid parking places in the centre, the redirection of the circulation inside the first ring road, the destruction of kiosks, and the renovation of public parks – all measures now saluted by most of the Russians.

Still, the 14 May march of 5-7.000 people through the streets of Moscow against the project took the authorities by surprise. A move which can be explained by 2 factors.

Most obvious

The most obvious one is that the city’s authorities, and the Kremlin which supported the move, were sincerely convinced that the vast majority of the so-called Kruschchevki apartment dwellers were simply impatient to change their old flats for new ones. Of course, there is a certain level of sentimental attachment to their places, especially when the occupiers have spent years of work and investment to renovate their homes after the introduction of privatisation. There are also concerns for the environment – a reduction of public and green spaces, and an increase of noise and pollution as the population can double or even triple.

This explains the numerous meetings and discussions at local level of people fearing that the plan may just be an artifice to empty spaces inhabited by poor but genuine Muscovites and replace them by richer outsiders. Never shy of exaggeration, some commentators even talked of “pogroms’.

The second is that the development in Russia of a feeling for private property has indeed developed, and the vast majority of the Kruschchevki inhabitants are perfectly aware that, contrary to Soviet times, one flat is not equal to another. They have discovered the value of a location, the quality of the construction’s materials, and equipment.

This is why dozens of people we have contacted personally say that they were hoping to be included in the project because it offers them a unique opportunity to replace a property whose value can only go down with years, is costly to maintain and to heat, by a modern apartment they could not afford otherwise. Some compare the change simply to “changing your old car for a new one”.


Of course, people’s experience make them suspicious of state structures – and here they deal with Moscow’s authorities. But they are even more suspicious of property developers.

All this encouraged talk of ‘civil activism’ at roots level despite that, according to credible witnesses, only a minority of participants in the streets have been Kruschchevki inhabitants. Demonstrators were simply opponents to the Kremlin, and its ally Sobianin, who seized the opportunity to expose the reject of the present leadership and the Putin’s regime.

Indeed, the questions raised by inhabitants wanting better guarantees of a fair relocation led to president Putin himself to intervene, by requesting the Moscow authorities to protect the rights of Muscovites. Sobianin enlarged the offer by saying that the new apartment ought to be of same value and not simply of same seize. And people can opt for receiving financial compensation instead of a new apartment. (The City Duma slightly modified the initial draft).

The debate has also put in evidence numerous questions about ownership still unsolved in Russia. This is not only a question of the citizens feeling poorly defended by the courts but also that legislation has not adjusted quickly enough to the evolution of society. In this case, many Kruschchevki apartments’ dwellers have problems to understand that when they privatised their houses or flats, they did not privatised the land on which they were situated, which stays public property – hence the claims that they were “expropriated”.

But today it is clear that the Kremlin, and Moscow’s city authorities, have concluded that the voices which matter are not those of streets demonstrators, but those half a million Muscovites who put their hopes in a project offering them better and more valuable housing.

If all goes well of course.

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