Sunday, September 27, 2015

Soviet-Style Housing Blocks Real Explanation for ‘Russian Disease,’ Historian Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 27 – Many explanations have been offered for what some call “the Russian disease,” the tendency for life expectancy among Russian men and then among Russian women to fall, something not characteristic of any other country in the world, historian Andrey Sklyarov notes.

            Among the causes that have been suggested, he points out in a new essay on the Rufabula portal are high rates of smoking, drinking and obesity, poor diet and inadequate medical care.  But there are other countries where risk factors are higher, and even “taken together,” they can’t explain this unfortunate Russian trend (

                That means, Sklyarov says, that “the real causes of the Russian disease are to be found in the psychological, cultural, and mental sphere.”  But the aspects of these people normally point to – atomization, the lack of critical thought, dualism and hypocrisy – he argues, are only symptoms. “They also are the result and not the cause.”

            The real cause, Sklyarov argues, is to be found “not in the character of the people, not in propaganda, not in some thought up defects of Russians and not even in history or geography.” Instead, it is located in the immediate environment Russians live in, the high-rise panel apartment blocks of the residential “sleeping” districts of Russian cities.

            “All the causes of the appearance and development of collective apathy in the USSR and the entire former ‘Eastern bloc’ lie in our sleeping districts,” he continues, places were all the building have been constructed according to a signal design, something that makes “impossible the formation of a healthy urban community.”

            Evidence for this, Sklyarov says, is to be found far away in a disastrous social experiment that conducted in the United States in 1954.  At that time, officials in St. Louis decided to build “a new micro-district” consisting of identical high rises. Known as the Pruitt-Igoe project, it became notorious for its high rates of crime and poverty and symbolized public policy failure.

            That marked the beginning of an American trend away from such projects, Sklyarov says. But in Russia, “there are thousands of such micro-districts across the country. These, our very own Pruitt-Igoe projects, have been left standing for decades and more than one generation has grown up” in them, with all the social pathologies they promote.

            In the West, most residents of the projects were poor and so the direct impact of such structures affected those at the bottom of the social and economic pyramid. But in Russia, “a large part of the population of Russia” is to be found in them and such people have become accustomed to live “according to the pattern of ‘work-home-television-sleep’” as a result.

            And it is precisely these people who are “the chief carriers of ‘the Russian disease.’” They feel that they have no choice and fall into “alienation, irresponsibility, and apathy.” They take to drink, get involved in accidents, or commit suicide because of this, Sklyarov argues, and that leads to ever lower life expectancies.

            These project-like “sleeping districts,” he continues, “are the real eco-system of the Russian matrix.” And he suggests that “Russia up to now has not taken shape as an urban community to a large extent because of the structure of the micro-districts” whose physical arrangements do not promote “the formation of an urban neighborhood community.”

            Consequently, “despite the high level of urbanization, Russian cities to a large extent are ‘concrete villages,’ which have never escaped from the archaic past or acquired anything contemporary. No self-organization or initiative in such conditions appears. Rather just the reverse.”

            “The rebirth of mystical obscurantism and superstition, on the one hand, and dumb soulless consumerism on the other all testify to the hopeless of people before the oppressing nature” of these Russian “projects” in which people feel they can change nothing and that nothing depends on them.

            “In these apartments, houses, and districts is being formed that destruction consciousness which is spreading through society ever more strongly with each generation.” Indeed, Sklyarov says, one can say that “our houses are killing us” or at least killing any possibility for a better future.

            Russians who live in these places feel that anything good was in the past, that “nothing new will happen,” and that “everything will repeat itself endlessly from day to day.” That takes away from individuals any sense of the need for their existence and creates stress, all as a result of “the oppressing sameness” of the immediate environment.

            “Everywhere where Soviet panel construction has appeared, similar processes have occurred,” with the residents over time “acquiring the psychology of atomized marginals,” even in the case of Afghanistan where there is a Soviet micro-district, the historian points out.

            According to Sklyarov, “the only means of escaping from the consequences given birth to by the housing structures of the USSR is to tear all such Soviet buildings down. Not improve them, not optimize them, and not reconstruct them. But tear them down and remove them from memory once and for all.” Otherwise even worse things are ahead.

            These Soviet projects must not be replaced by new brick monoliths which would have the same effect, he argues. Instead, Russia must shift to the European model of relatively small houses, in real neighborhoods that differ dramatically from one another and thus encourage people to do the same.

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