Central Planning, Central Housing


The Russians had been doing the central planning about their peoples’ housing for centuries, and nearly always, this is somehow coupled with Machiavellian, Procrustean means.

From Ivan the Terrible’s decision to remove shops from the Red Square (in his defense, they were fire hazards) to some Russian general’s ingenious Moscow defense against Napoleon (which involved burning every house), these people are masters at urban planning. (To add insult to conflagration their homes had witnessed, the citizens of Moscow was asked to plant gardens to ‘re-beautify’ the city after Le Petite Corporal was gone).

But you have to give it to the Soviets when it comes to urban planning. The Palace of the Soviets, Seven Stalinist Skyscrapers (of which more will be said at a later date), the massive metro complexes, these Soviets transformed the face of the city.

Under Stalin and Khrushev, new apartments were built everywhere to house specific groups of people (akin to the tsars’ plan to confine all spinster female aristos to convents). So, the actors and directors lived near the studio, the government officials in the Kremlin (they later moved out), the intellectuals in their own apartments (from which they were sometimes dragged off to Siberia) and the doctors, engineers and scientists in the infamous House on the Embarkment, the largest apartment complex in the country (and possibly in the world).

House on the Embankment, by Yuri Valentinovich Trifonov, details the horrific story of his parents (his father being a Cossack leader) in the titular house of misery, whose apartments lack kitchens, laundry rooms, and dining rooms because Stalin believed that those things should be done communally in a Communist society to dissuade wastefulness. He might have been right but the idea of packing these people in a graduate-style housing didn’t go down well.

What happened next is detailed by Trifonov (his dad fall out of favor and they were moved to a shabby hut), but their fate was better than the others’–most of these intellectuals ended up in Siberia. In Moscow today, everyone knows which building you are talking about when you mention the ‘House on the Embarkment’. You can too; currently it is graced by a giant Mercedes logo–perhaps a reminder of how far the Russian society has come from those dark days. Or has it?


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