Outcry at Moscow plan to raze thousands of communist-era flats

Moscow city authorities have backed an initiative to knock down low-rise housing, focusing on the iconic five-storey buildings thrown up under Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in the 1950s and 1960.
Moscow city authorities have backed an initiative to knock down low-rise housing, focusing on the iconic five-storey buildings thrown up under Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in the 1950s and 1960.PHOTO: AFP

MOSCOW (AFP) - Valeriya Yevseyeva and her husband Alexei bought a flat last year in a five-storey brick building near a Moscow park where they love to cycle.

Now they face the possibility that authorities will demolish their 1950s-era building and rehouse them in a tower block, in an urban development plan not seen since Soviet times to demolish more than 4,500 apartment blocks and relocate hundreds of thousands of Muscovites.

"This is a brick building, everyone knows they can stand for up to 150 years, so this is a shock," said 31-year-old Yevseyeva, who works for a medical device company.

Backed by President Vladimir Putin, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin wants to knock down low-rise housing, focusing on the five-storey buildings thrown up under Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in the 1950s and 1960s as the USSR rushed to build housing for everyone.

Supporters argue the vast 3.5-trillion ruble (S$84.7-billion) project is vital, replacing the smaller, aged buildings with high-rise housing in Russia's fast-developing capital of 12 million which faces a housing crunch and rising rents.

But the programme - due to start in September - has prompted protests from residents fearful of losing their homes and who say it rides roughshod over their property rights.

And the level of outcry has even forced Putin to react in a bid to reassure residents.

"The aim is to improve housing conditions for people who live in buildings that are falling down," the Kremlin strongman told ministers.

"It goes without saying that this should be done in such a way and with such means and methods so as to not breach the rights of citizens." .

'Deportation of Muscovites'

Authorities initially wanted to demolish 8,000 buildings, home to 1.6 million people, but reduced the scale this month after conducting opinion polls.

The first five-storey buildings - nicknamed khrushchevki after the Soviet leader - rehoused people living in communal flats - where entire families were squeezed into one room - and were celebrated as a symbol of social progress in films and Dmitry Shostakovich's 1958 operetta, "Moscow, Cheryomushki".

Now, some seven decades later, those backing the project to pull them down are billing it as an equally important transformation "It's a historic step. There probably hasn't been such large-scale change to Moscow since the 1950s," said ruling United Russia party MP Pyotr Tolstoy.

Often situated in leafy communal settings, the apartment blocks were built without lifts and kitchens are small. The worst are made of pre-cast concrete panels but many are brick.

"They're outdated. It's impossible to repair, renovate or reconstruct them - people really do live in awful conditions," said the lawmaker.

Tolstoy co-authored the bill on the demolitions that got the preliminary backing of parliament, but many details are vague and remain left to be worked out.

Under the programme people are promised a flat of "equivalent" size - not the same value - in the same, albeit likely spread-out, district.

It would be impossible to legally contest eviction - only the new flat's size - and residents have just 60 days to move out.

'Nightmare'

Some people are happy to swap their pokey flats for new ones.

"The building's worn-out: there's not much pleasant about it," said one resident, who gave only her first name Yekaterina, adding her kitchen measures just five square metres (54 square feet).

But many are deeply upset and have not been afraid to express their anger.

Yevseyeva, who lives in a spacious 1957 building with high ceilings and thick walls, was horrified to realise her home could be at risk if demolition plans for her building go ahead.

"We were sure it didn't face any threat, but according to this bill, it's possible to take away any property," she said, calling the plan "a nightmare".

She has joined a Facebook protest group with 16,000 members and held a placard against "deportation of Muscovites" at a rally - the first she ever attended.

In theory, a majority of residents in each building will need to approve demolition and only unsafe buildings will be touched, but with property developers standing to profit from taking over prime real estate, many people say they are worried they will be forced out.

"We risk handing Moscow over to business and city contractors," warned lawmaker Mikhail Degtyarev, of the nationalist Liberal Democrat Party, in parliament.

At a packed public meeting in Izmailovo, a district by a large park, officials didn't help their cause by failing to specify where the new flats would be, leading to tempers fraying.

Sergei Mitrokhin, a leading member of the liberal opposition Yabloko party, warned inhabitants: "They're asking if you want to be moved or not - but they're not telling you where they're moving you to."