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Friday, Nov. 23, 2012

Long wait for Putin's 'residential renaissance'


MOSCOW — In Russia, as in many other countries, one main measure of living conditions is the number of "squares" — square meters — in a flat.

For example, "normal" for a modern middle-class nuclear family of two adults with a child is regarded as a flat that consists of three — preferably separate — rooms, a kitchen and a bathroom with an overall living space between 70 and 120 sq. meters. A small bedroom usually contains between 9 and 12 sq. meters — a rough equivalent of a bedroom of six to eight tatami in Japanese homes.

However, for many Russian city dwellers and town folk, normal residential conditions remain an unattainable ideal. In many cases, obtaining a self-sufficient flat with no need to rely on a communal kitchen and bathroom, represents the main family goal for up to decades. Its realization may involve a prolonged frustrating wait.

This is a historic result of the seven decades of communist rule. The economic development stereotype forced upon the country by Lenin and Stalin did not include anything resembling a massive housing construction effort, although such an effort was desperately needed amid the intensive process of urbanization that followed the almost complete destruction of the traditional rural way of life for "socialist industrialization."

Until the mid-1930s, hardly any real residential construction activity was carried out in Moscow. The usual housing arrangement included the so-called communalka (communal living quarters).

Under "socialism," thousands of spacious and convenient flats formerly leased by the private homeowners to well-to-do representatives of the upper classes, bourgeoisie and intelligentsia, were requisitioned and transformed into "beehives" housing several families each in a kind of unnatural symbiosis.

Coming from various milieu and typically representing different social strata, such "forced neighbors" had to share kitchen, bathroom and "water closet" facilities (if any) with each other. As an ugly social phenomenon, communalka, perhaps, represents the biggest shame of "real socialism."

This regretful state of affairs prevailed until the late-1950s when, under Nikita Khrushchev, a "residential revolution" took place — one of his few truly important, genuinely historic, endeavors. Cheap housing facilities playfully nicknamed Khrushcheby ("Khrushchev's slums"), which since the mid-1950s have been mushrooming all over Moscow and many other cities, represented a decisive step forward in resolving the painful issue of communalka by offering thousands of families separate flats — a first in Soviet history. During the second half of the 1950s, the housing facilities of the country roughly doubled. In the early 1960s, residential construction reached its historic peak.

By 1982, 80 percent of Soviet families already lived in their own apartments — a considerable achievement, even if those flats were typically tiny and poorly furnished. In the last several years of Soviet rule, the average volume of annual residential construction in the territory now comprising the Russian Federation was estimated at 72 million sq. meters.

In the "stormy 1990s," the overall scale of residential construction in post-Soviet Russia made a sharp dive, then partly recovered and resumed growth — though with many crises and scandals surrounding private housing construction activities. Under new and more liberal business conditions, people learned the art of gradually improving their way of life.

As for President Vladimir Putin's "residential renaissance," though repeatedly promised, it has yet to happen. In 2004, only 39 million sq. meters of living space were built. The "ruling tandem" repeatedly promised to bring housing construction volume to 80 million sq. meters by 2010, thus creating additional an 0.6 sq. meter per resident. However, little came out of it. Actual residential construction in 2010 was estimated at 58.1 million sq. meters (even less than the 59.9 million sq. meters built in 2009). In 2011, it was 62.3 million.

The Achilles' heel of the housing sphere — overall and, especially, in the capital — is artificially super-high prices. According to estimates, only 2 percent of the people can afford to buy an apartment, and only 15 percent may consider taking out a mortgage. Land and housing prices have been skyrocketing; to get a mortgage at 8 to 9 percent is regarded as a stroke of luck.

In early 2011, the "tandem" promised to raise housing construction volume by 50 percent in five years — to 90 million sq. meters. This autumn both Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev aired even bolder new plans: to bring this volume to about 92 million sq. meters and to reduce the mortgage rate to 5 to 6 percent, at least for the privileged categories — such as families with many children or a disabled family member etc.

What remains unclear, however, is just how to achieve a breakthrough in this truly vital but capital-intensive sphere — especially considering the peculiar federal budget priorities projected for 2012 and for the next two years. With military and security spending rising steeply and with social expenditures, including those for housing and utilities, radically cut, to keep those vague promises looks like a "mission impossible" indeed.

Recently, on Russian TV screens, there have appeared several video documentaries describing ugly social circumstances in the United States (Cleveland, Ohio, for instance) — showing poor people who were unable to keep up with monthly mortgage payments being thrown out of their homes, and the forcefully emptied houses being pulled down.

This may be perceived as a mass media preparation of Russia's own city residents for something similar in store for some of them. The newfangled institution of so-called court bailiffs is getting ready for tough actions resembling that in the aired videos of U.S. conditions. Their feats already figure in recent TV coverage.

There is no end to the economic crises in sight, so it looks as though the powers that be are flexing their muscles well in advance of forthcoming social shocks.

Andrey Borodaevskiy (annabo36@mail.ru), an expert on world economy and international economic relations, was a professor at Seinan Gakuin University, Fukuoka, from 1994 to 2007.


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