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  • Property of Communists: The Urban Housing Program from Stalin to Khrushchev by Mark B. Smith
  • Paul Josephson
Mark B. Smith. Property of Communists: The Urban Housing Program from Stalin to Khrushchev. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2010. xii + 240 pp. ISBN 978-0-87580-423-1, $40.00 (cloth).

One of the signposts of the Khrushchev-era reforms was the massive housing construction campaign that enabled millions of citizens to move into their own homes from communal apartments, shared flats, underground dwellings, and ruble. While many citizens came to criticize the apartment buildings for the low-quality construction and finishing, and the absence of such amenities as elevators, let alone nearby stores and schools, most others were thrilled at long last to have their own homes. The housing program exceeded virtually all others in the world in volume and speed. Millions of Russians still live in that mass-produced housing. Khrushchev announced the housing program with a July 1957 decree. As Mark Smith shows in this thoroughly researched book, the construction program—and the industrial housing industry—had roots in the Stalin period. Smith explores this point to indicate continuity between the Stalin and Khrushchev periods.

The housing campaign had roots in the effort to rebuild dozens of cities from the war. Unfortunately, the authorities often focused on rebuilding of palaces, opera, ballet, and industry first, and a pompous and triumphalist architecture prevailed. The war destroyed already inadequate housing. Existing barracks and huts were overcrowded, unhygienic, and decaying. People lived in misery. They petitioned the authorities for help based on their service during the war or the loss of a loved one. Many people recognized the state did not serve them and they also were keenly aware of the gulf between elites and the masses. Smith writes that officials and citizens were forced to engage over housing through a series of bureaucracies that were entirely inadequate to the tasks of building new homes and apartments; he describes Stalinist housing policy as piecemeal and incoherent.

By 1951 leaders knew how dire the situation was in reconstruction of housing—piles of rubble lay everywhere, and new construction lagged [End Page 582] significantly. A gradual shift to standardized construction had begun, even if officials could not agree what standardized apartments should actually look like. These were the strands of housing policy, not a housing policy. The range of options became smaller when Khrushchev condemned excess in architecture. Industrial approaches were the only way to make up for lost time. This led to an industrial aesthetic prevailing throughout the nation in the five-story, standardized Khrushchevka, which then spread like mushrooms into microregions and cities across the USSR. Smith provides additional insights into the nature of massproduced cityscape in the mention of a series of postwar films.

Another focus of Smith’s book is property ownership. Although private property was abolished after the Russian Revolution in 1917, forms of individual ownership survived and evolved, especially concerning housing. People who possessed housing pursued its maintenance with greater determination in the postwar years. During the Khrushchev era, people’s occupancy of state apartments had become essentially a kind of ownership. Crucially, Smith indicates how citizens acted autonomously even within the framework of Stalin-era politics.

Urban construction output continued to grow until the early 1970s with annual output stabilizing at seventy-five million square meters into the mid-1980s. The housing program put emphasis on housing, so that construction of other essential aspects of new housing, for example local infrastructure, lagged considerably. In twenty-five years of archival work I have yet to find any new town or city construction in the USSR where housing kept up first of all with industrial construction or that infrastructure then kept pace with housing.

I found less continuity than Smith between the Stalin and Khrushchev eras. Only under Khrushchev was it possible to realize that to live as before—that is, in barracks or on the street—was impossible, and that “communism” required decent housing for all. The Khrushchev-era leadership publicly determined to pursue mass production of housing for all Soviet citizens, and established standards for future leaders. As Smith notes, the mass housing program...


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