Historical overview of Soviet housing policy: Policy paradigm, problems, reform initiatives and the limits of economic explanations

From the beginning of the 20th century, housing for the lower classes of Russian society was scarce and of poor quality (Brumfield, 1993). The Soviet government, from the early days of the Bolshevik rule, made solving 'the housing question' one of the key points in its political agenda (Blizniakov, 1993; Hazard, 1939). The Soviet authorities held public ownership of housing as their ideal for the organisation of the housing sphere and took responsibility for universal provision of accommodation to Soviet citizens (Service, 1998; Kotkin, 1993; Andrusz, 1984; Hazard, 1939).

As I noted in the introductory chapter, the policy paradigm established in Soviet housing from the early years of Soviet power can be characterised as a paradigm of 'socialist distribution'.1 State ownership of housing in the country and state participation at all stages of the housing process represented the basis of this paradigm. This included state control over housing investment, construction, the allocation of housing to tenants, housing maintenance and the subsidisation of utility prices. The policy 'instruments' that were used by Soviet housing policy-makers to make socialist distribution work in practice included instruments of state ownership and a small proportion of non-state housing instruments (see Table 2.1). For a more detailed outline of these measures, see Appendix 2A.

Despite the great effort to promote housing construction during the 1960s-1980s, Soviet housing policy failed to cope with the ever-growing demand for new accommodation. While millions of Soviet families moved into individual flats during this time, millions of Soviet citizens continued to live in communal apartments often with poor provision of amenities. For instance, in 1986 in Soviet urban areas nearly a quarter (22.3 per cent or 12,660 thousand) of households were placed on housing waiting lists (Goskomstat SSSR, 1987: 519).2 Waiting times to receive a state-provided apartment were as long as 10-15 years, while the practices involved in housing distribution were often perceived as corrupt (Bogdanov and Kondakov, 1988; Zaslavskaya, 1986; Rimashevskaya, 1986). As a result, housing policy in the USSR operated

Table 2.1 Soviet housing paradigm and its components




The paradigm of socialist distribution:

based on the ideal and factual predominance of state housing ownership, investment, construction and maintenance but permitting non-state forms of housing ownership,

maintenance and rent

State housing instruments:

  • - ownership of urban housing by state enterprises, organisations and local soviets
  • - generic construction projects and industrial construction techniques
  • - construction and maintenance by state firms
  • - state allocation of housing based on waiting lists
  • - subsidisation of maintenance and utility costs

Small proportion of

non-state housing


  • - private housing in rural areas and smaller towns
  • - co-operative housing
  • - bank credit (low levels)
  • - private rent

Instruments of housing


- central planning in housing and construction performed by the State Committee, Gosstroy

  • - target volumes of housing construction
  • - the use of targeted programmes for housing construction, e.g. Zhil'e 2000 (Housing, 2000)
  • - levels of co-operative housing
  • - levels of private housing
  • - diverse generic housing designs
  • - targets for the quality of housing maintenance

under the perception of a perpetual housing crisis or 'shortage' of housing (Andrusz, 1992: 213; Szelenyi, 1983). This perception would survive well into the post-Soviet period (Struyk, 2000).

The dissatisfaction with the performance of the Soviet housing sector was exacerbated by the generational change and a shift in the system of values of Soviet citizens in the 1970s and 1980s. Their expectations for more comfortable housing were increasingly let down by the cumbersome system of Soviet housing construction and management

(Ruble, 1993; Bogdanov and Kondakov, 1988; Andrusz, 1984). Soviet demographers and sociologists raised concerns about the inadequacy of Soviet housing construction and distribution (Ruble, 1993: 253; Rubanenko, 1980; Belopol'skiy et al., 1980). Moreover, in this period, Soviet authorities grew to realise that inadequate and slow provision of housing and infrastructure held up the USSR's numerous developmental campaigns (Gustafson, 1983: 59).

As a consequence, different reform measures were introduced by Soviet policy-makers to improve the operation and quality of housing provision and maintenance. The reform initiatives mostly amounted to the introduction of different administrative measures to improve the quality of housing design, construction and maintenance. Above all, an effort was made to maintain and increase annual volumes of new housing construction.

From the mid-1980s, however, the shift towards more radical attempts to reform the operation of the Soviet housing sphere emerged: utility charges were increased; private forms of housing investment were encouraged; and legislation on the privatisation of cooperative housing was introduced (Kosareva et al., 1996; Hauslohner, 1991). Moreover, new policy measures introduced by the Russian Federation in 1990-1991 marked an even more radical turn in housing policy.

The radicalisation of Soviet housing reform between 1988 and 1991 was not linked directly to the perception of housing problems in the country or to the general problems of the Soviet economy.3 During the late Soviet period, the levels of new housing construction were high. Moreover, they were growing particularly fast during the 1980s (Goskomstat SSSR, 1987: 9).4 As Abel Aganbegian noted, in the late 1980s, Soviet Union reached a historic high in the volumes of the new housing construction per year - 130 million square metres (1992: 6). Instead, housing reform initiatives can be viewed as a part of the general process of perestroika (ibid), and they occurred as the result of the complex interaction of ideational, actors-related and institutional factors.

The ways in which institutions, actors and new ideas contributed to the reform of housing policy in the second half of the 1980s are not well documented. An important contribution by Greg Andrusz (1992) that examines the radical transformation of housing policy during the late Soviet years focuses on the magnitude and social consequences of this transformation rather than on its underlying causes. The analysis of 'the great paradigmatic shift' identified by Andrusz (ibid: 210) also does not distinguish between the two different processes at the all-Union and republican levels. This distinction, however, is key to understanding the subsequent development of housing policy in post-Soviet Russia. Later in this chapter, I conceptualise this legacy as the establishment of a general market but 'hollow' policy paradigm.

The next section examines the process of reform of Soviet housing policy from the mid-1960s until the collapse of the Soviet Union as a process of social learning. I distinguish between the period of 'normal' policy-making (1965-1985) and the period of paradigmatic change (1985-1991). The argument in the following sections focuses on the substance and importance of new policy ideas and their carriers - as well as the effects of institutional restructuring during the years of perestroika for the development of a new market paradigm in Soviet and Russian housing policy.

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