Russia past and present, from a historian in Cambridge
In 1956, they started to build a new future in Moscow out of both words and bricks. This was the year that Khrushchev gave the Secret Speech. He condemned the worst of the Stalinist past as a catastrophic diversion from the true Leninist path. Instead, he wanted the Soviet dream to stretch from the Bolshevik Revolution to the communist future, unmenaced by Stalinist obstacles.
Meanwhile, just to the south of the centre of the Moscow, not far from the grand buildings of the Academy of Sciences, this route from past to future was to be cast in present-day permanence. Designs were emerging for a completely new kind of housing project: the 9th Microdistrict of Moscow’s Novye Cheremushki quarter.
The 9th was of its time, widely publicized and celebrated. It helped to define the Khrushchev-era present. But it also linked the revolutionary past with the Soviet future. Twenty-one years later, the wide street that borders the 9th Microdistrict was named The Avenue of the Sixtieth Anniversary of October. And the district outlived the Soviet future. Not only does it still stand, but so does its statue of Lenin.
It consists of several low and wide four-storey blocks of flats, separated by trees, green space, yards, playing areas, and municipal institutions. This was to be an integrated living mechanism for delivering the Soviet way of life, combining separate family apartments with communal facilities, blending zones of individual and public space. Rooms were supposed to be decked out with modern furniture. The buildings themselves were carefully built out of good quality materials.
The 9th was a prototype. Within a year of the project’s commencement, Khrushchev’s government introduced a decree that promised millions of square metres of housing space and thereby to end the housing shortage within twelve years. Expanded to five storeys and usually prefabricated from concrete, built fast and often sacrificing quality, these apartment blocks transformed the Soviet Union, improving conditions for millions of people and amounting to one of the great social reforms of modern European history.
The programme is remembered in two big ways. Its dramatic effects continue to be celebrated, while its many surviving traces in the built environment enjoy a mixed reputation.
Tens of thousands of these buildings have been demolished, though many survive in Moscow and in other cities. Sometimes they are seen as low-quality zones that should be knocked down as soon as the chance arises. In other cases, when development threatens, residents fight to keep their old homes, which have been renovated, maintained, and lie in the middle of an established community.
When you walk through the 9th Microdistrict today, you sense history all around you. It is in part the history of a future that did not come to pass. Meanwhile, another future gathers just over the rooftops — the future of prestige high-rise buildings. But there is a sense that this living Soviet monument might survive that future too.