Staunton, May 22 – People are always profoundly affected by their physical environment, and now a Moscow architect is arguing that the creation of high-rise “sleeping districts” in Russian cities, regions that have become a kind of “ghetto” for those who live in them, are playing a major role in keeping the values of the Soviet past very much alive.
In comments to Lenta.ru, Vitaly Stadnikov, an urbanist at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says that Russians have been affected not only as a result of moving from villages to cities but from barracks and communal apartments to apartments in high rise housing in districts on the periphery of these cities (lenta.ru/articles/2016/05/20/sleep_district/).
If urbanization in general had positive consequences for many Russians, he says, the concentration of people in the high rises of sleeping districts has not. That is because this form of housing reproduces and reinforces some of the worst aspects of Soviet society, reducing the lives of residents to something “boring, dull and uniform.”
Residents of these districts like people in Soviet times want to get away from where they live and go to work as quickly as possible and when they return sit “in front of a television or computer. “If the authorities think it useful to give rise to an alienated and angry population, then high rise micro-districts are one way to do that,” the architect says.
Given that most Russians now live in such places – at present, he says, about 80 percent of Russians live in cities and about three-quarters of urban residents live in such micro districts – that constitutes the dominant psychological environment for more than half of the population of the country.
This pattern, Stadnikov says, sets Russia apart “from a majority of the other countries of the world.”
One of the reasons such housing has this influence, he continues, is that Russians retain “an outdated idea about their residences,” viewing their apartments as their real living space that they should take care of and everything “beyond the doors as somewhere one can spit and throw trash.”
“But today,” Stadnikov argues, “a residence out to be a full-fledged element of the urban milieu on which now to a significant degree depends the quality of life of people.” Micro-districts on the edge of cities not only do not offer much in the way of urban amenities but isolate residents from what a city should and can offer.
Since the death of Stalin, most urban residents in Russia have moved from barracks and communal apartments, although these still exist, first to five or nine-story panel housing, the so-called “Khrushchevs,” most of which are still near the middle of cities, to 17 to 24-story high rises on the edge of urban areas.
Nikita Khrushchev solved his immediate task of getting Russians into separate apartments but only by “de facto prohibiting architecture” and its concerns about space and its impact on people. And his successors, who were able to build taller buildings as the cost of lifts declined, did as well and with much the same side effect.
But while Khrushchev kept most of his new buildings in the older parts of the city, his successors built them on the edge of town where land was more available. And that has had a serious set of consequences: such tall buildings are put real pressure on people psychologically and even medically, and their location “inflicts colossal harm on the city.”
As a collection of housing alone, such districts “form a boring and depressive environment which gives birth to [their] own marginal figures and attracts aliens,” including criminals, without giving back to the city. Indeed, such places only require ever more resources from the urban government.
Overcoming their influence by taking the radical steps American states have done in the case of high rise public housing will be difficult if not impossible: most of the apartments are privately owned if not occupied by their owners, and the amount of alternative housing available is too small.
As a result, Stadnikov says, “the aggressive faceless environment of these panel buildings, in which Russians today live, exerts a definite influence on their behavior and attitudes. It forms in them a sense of total alienation from others and individualism in the very worst sense.”
Such an environment, he continues, “does not promote community – residents of high rises often do not know even their own neighbors on a common stairwell.” Moreover, the areas between such buildings “do not fulfill their chief function as a space of socialization but serve only as a midway point between the apartment and the street.”
That is a major reason why Russian society remains so “fragmented” and why “it is difficult to build horizontal ties,” the Moscow urbanist says.
Today, Stadnikov argues, “the sleeping regions are still not like ghettos because [Russian] society remains mixed, but already in recent years, in Moscow, one can see processes of the territorial delimitation between the rich and poor;” and the micro districts play their role in that as well.