The five-floor-flat on ul. 8 Marta

Moscow targets its last “khrushchevki”

Last week I dreamed I was back in Moscow.

I was on 8th of March Street, a long avenue behind the Dinamo stadium, named for International Women’s Day.

In the dream I was many stories above the street, standing on the roof of the building I lived in when I lived in Russia a quarter century ago. I was back in Moscow, not just in a physical dreamscape, but in a temporal one. This was the city in its post-Soviet infancy, when there were suddenly two options for whiling away the winter evenings: you could brave the bright lights and long lines of the brand new McDonald’s on Pushkin’s Square, or you could carry on doing what Muscovites had been doing for decades — smoking and drinking in a tiny kitchen of a five-floor-apartment building.

Yesterday the Mayor of Moscow announced that every five-floor-apartment building in the city will be razed. It was not an arbitrary architectural directive; in Russia the “five-floor-apartment-building” is a thing — a very specific, if ubiquitous, thing. It is the standard post-war housing model of the last century: quick-rise, just-adequate, unadorned living space. It is Soviet social housing, it is the kommunalka with more walls, it is the soundstage of stagnation and all its quotidian drama.

Built on a command quota to address a post-war housing crisis, the “Khrushchevki” are a quintessential Soviet product. The first series were made of brick; later generation constructions made do with reinforced concrete. None of them benefitted from the craftsmanship displayed by the German POW’s whom Stalin put to work building his capital. They came in five layouts featuring two rooms, a tiny kitchen and a balcony. They were laid out in barrack-like ranks. They were shitty, shitty little five-story-buildings … but at least they weren’t barracks. Two generations later that are still shitty, shitty little five-story buildings … and home to 1.8 million Muscovites.

The idea of Moscow without the khrushchevki, unlovely in their utility and strangely fungal in their order, saddens me. It’s a stupid sentiment, the nostalgia borne from turning seven months in a dreary exotica into an annus mirabilis. Stupider still in that the khrushchevki have been disappearing for the last fifteen years, and yet I pretend, on my occasional visits back, that they are just hiding behind the skyscrapers and LED billboards. In fact they are very nearly gone. And they should be, I suppose. They are shitty, shitty little buildings… built to last 25 years.

But still I felt a tiny grief at the news that full extinction (at least in the capital) is nigh. I think of that dream – did it come to soften the blow. In the dream, I was standing on the building’s roof and I could see, in that way that you can see things in dreams with a sense that isn’t visual, the stairwell that was its building’s spine. But I also knew that I stood on its ruins. My old building was a carapace.

And then I was on the ground again, exiting the building without visiting the flat I had lived in. There was a child behind me with a toy gun to my back. “Hands up,” he said. I turned and looked at the building and was surprised to see that it was not a khrushchevka at all. It was not a five-floor-flat. It was twice the height and made up entirely of tin cans and corrugated iron and slats and vents. One half of the building was cantilevered, a Pompidou cabinet of Caligari. In my dream I told the child with the toy gun that I once had lived there, and it had been run down and dilapidated.

Da,” agreed the child. “And now it’s completely destroyed.”

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For those readers who may think this is a ‘fiction’ as opposed to ‘fake’ news of some kind, Elizabeth’s story is real and a current affair: From the BBC News ‘News from Elsewhere’ this morning, comes this headline: Moscow to demolish 8,000 Soviet-era housing blocks.

Moscow to demolish 8,000 Soviet-era housing blocks – BBC News

Moscow city authorities are to tear down about 8,000 blocks of flats built in the 1950s and 1960s in a major clearance…

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