No matter where you go in the former Soviet world, you always seem to come across the same five-story blocks of apartments. Squat and ugly, they are usually arranged around a dusty square or in serried rows. Washing hangs on lines from window to window or across small balconies. The stucco is probably peeling, the stairs broken and common areas unpainted for decades. Where did they all come from and why are they in such poor condition? I set myself the task to find out.
I’ve seen them in Russia, Bulgaria, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and now here in Azerbaijan. Increasingly decrepit, they are where the majority of urban Azeri families continue to live, nearly twenty years after independence.
In 1920, Azerbaijan became part of the Soviet Union and immediately, all property in urban areas came into the ownership of the state. Large and medium-sized private houses were broken up into multi-occupancy apartments along with some public buildings like churches. This was done as part of Communist philosophy but also to ease the housing crisis, that had plagued Baku since the beginning of the first oil boom in the 19th century.
Between 1898 and 1930, the population of the city doubled from 150 to 310,000 people, as increasing oil production drew more workers to the area. The building of houses for the workers was not however, a priority for the Soviet leadership until the 1950’s, so whole families were often forced to occupy a single room. It was only after the death of Stalin that priority was given to addressing the housing needs of the workers.
For the 1920’s until the early 1950’s most Soviet architectural endeavors in Baku consisted of building landmark and prestige projects like the Palace of Soviets of Azerbaijan (1934), Azerbaijan State Music Academy (1936), Nizami Museum (1940) and the Akhundov Public Library (1947). All of these buildings were designed by Bakuvian architect Michael Useynov. [see: http://azer.com/aiweb/categories/magazine/64_folder/64_articles/64_useynov.html].
In 1934, the Communist Party issued a decree calling for a return to a “national”style of architecture . From then until the mid 1950’s, buildings incorporated architectural elements found in for example, the Shirvan Shah Palace in the old city of Baku. This included, arches, columns, inner courtyards and fountains. When Nikita Khrushchev came to power in 1955 however, he sensibly said “the architect needs a beautiful silhouette, but the people want apartments.” He decreed that henceforward, architectural “extravagances” were against Party policy and would be abandoned.
Starting in the late 1950’s new “micro regions” were built outside the historic center of Baku, consisting of hundreds of Khrushchev’s utilitarian “matchbox” apartments. Most of them were built of prefabricated units that were quick and cheap to assemble. Jokingly, people called them “Khrushchevki,” (or “Khrushcheby,” which rhymes with the Russian word “trushchoby”, meaning slums). They did though, provide many families their first real homes. Even so, some families living in just one room could be denied access to housing waiting lists if their present space exceeded the legal allowance of five square meters per person.
Usually, blocks were built of eighty individual apartments, the cast concrete panels made off-site and delivered ready for assembly. They were built without lifts that were seen to be too expensive and time-consuming to install. The apartments featured space-saving “sitting baths” that were only 1.2 meters long. The bathrooms themselves were constructed off-site and delivered as a single piece, all that needed to be done was to connect the pipework. Kitchens were also tiny, just 6 square meters. In total, a “large” three-bedroom apartment might be only 60 square meters while a one bedroom, only 30 square meters. Corridors were kept to a minimum and in later examples done away with all together, so you had to access your bedroom through the living area. For more information about Khrushchyovka: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khrushchyovka
Over the years people have made many changes including closing in the balcony to create another bedroom or installing a gas-fired “petch”, a crude gas burner encased in a steel box that acts as a radiator. I have several friends who live in such apartments. They are freezing in winter and boiling in summer, lacking adequate ventilation or any form of thermal insulation. Often they suffer from damp penetration and problems with drainage. Nonetheless, these apartments for all their failings gave people their own front door that they could close against the world.
During the Soviet period, workers paid very little to live in these apartments. The cost of utilities like water, gas and electricity massively subsidised by the state, with repairs carried out to the fabric of the building free of charge.
After independence, many families occupying their apartments became home-owners but the state retained responsible for the upkeep of roofs and common areas such as stairwells. The tariffs payable by this new class of home-owners to maintain these areas were set at an affordable level for families but far below that necessary to provide a good level of maintenance. Another problem was the payment of utilities.
In the Soviet era, there was no need for separate meterage of water, gas or electricity and in many blocks, there is still no metering system. In such circumstances, non-payment of bills by one family becomes a problem for the whole block. Even when separate metering is available, it can be problematic. A friend of mine has to pay her water bill weekly. If she is not around when the water-man comes, she may be cut-off the next day.
According to a 2006 survey, “one-fifth of households in apartment buildings interviewed, did not pay for maintenance. Payment and billing systems are weak. Most households surveyed (56 percent) did not receive a paper bill”. See the World Bank report on HOUSING AND COMMUNAL SERVICES IN THE SOUTH CAUCASUS – Multi-apartment Housing in Azerbaijan: Infrastructure Department Europe and Central Asian Region.
Under such circumstances, it is not surprising that minor repairs are not done, stairwells and common areas have not been repainted, and broken windows left broken.
Baku is undergoing massive change as I write this blog. Shiny new apartment blocks are springing up across the city and many old [mainly pre-Soviet] buildings are being torn down as a consequence. It remains to be seen if the new generation of apartment buildings will benefit the majority of people as monthly rents in these new blocks, are often several times the salary of ordinary Bauvians.
My hope is that in the medium term, the gap between what is required to maintain the Khrushchev era apartment buildings and what is currently available will be close and the massive backlog of building maintenance work can be tackled as a matter of urgency.