In early March, a group of Duma Deputies from the ruling United Russia party proposed amending the law “on the status of the Russian Federation’s capital”. The aim of this is to give the Moscow authorities the right, under the guise of “renovation”, to raze to the ground hundreds of thousands of flats across Moscow. Over one million people face the threat of forcible “rehousing”. As a result, residents’ committees are springing up and several large protests have already taken place.

As soon as the law was proposed, the propaganda machine of the Moscow Mayor’s office moved into gear: not only were the press and TV utilised, websites and social resources sprung up all pushing the myth that this new law was aimed at improving the image of the city and the living conditions of its residents. Meetings, rallies and pickets were organised by supporters of the Mayor to encourage people to support these measures.     

Targeted by this new law are the so-called “khrushchevki”, which are five-storey blocks of flats that were built in huge numbers in the fifties and sixties, often using cheap, pre-fab technology in order to tackle the huge post-war housing shortage. At the time, the achievement of the soviet planned economy was impressive. “What the Russians have done” an official from the United State’s National Bureau of Standards (now NIST) told the Chicago Tribune in 1967, “is to develop the only technology in the world to produce acceptable, low-cost housing on a large scale.”

But for thirty years the city authorities did not take serious measures to improve these blocks. Suddenly they announce that all these five-storey blocks in sought after locations and within walking distance of metro stations are in a ramshackle state and threaten the image of the city. Television programmes are full of reports of disgruntled residents complaining about how difficult life is in these blocks that are overrun by rats and cockroaches and they demand to be rehoused in better conditions.

Naturally, the pro-government media do not mention that the 96 billion rubles (1.2billion euros) allocated for renovations from the city budget is really allocated to save the skins of the construction companies. These companies see the opportunity to build new business centres and elite homes in the spaces being cleared, at a time when the construction market is facing serious difficulties. This was confirmed in May when it was revealed that five of the largest companies were merging into a consortium to carry out the renovation programme. It does not take much investigation into who owns these companies to discover that they it is oligarchs and companies infamous for their roles in corrupt schemes which take huge amounts from public budgets.    

Alarm bells

As the real nature of this scheme began to dawn on people, alarms were sounded. It was discovered that the new law, although depriving people of their homes, provided no real guarantees of rehousing. At best, residents may be offered flats in regions outside Moscow or in the city’s suburbs, with no financial compensation. Their current flats and the land they are built on will be transferred to the city. It became clear that many of the new flats for residents would be smaller and far from workplaces and friends. Within weeks, action groups sprung up and by mid-May they were strong enough to organise a 20,000 strong protest in Central Moscow.

Sotsialisticheskaya Alternative is actively involved in this campaign. At a round table discussion it organised in June, activists from eight different regions discussed the complexities around the housing crisis. In some areas, where residents who are well organised, they succeeded in getting their blocks removed from the list. In other areas, particularly those places attractive for elite investment, huge pressure is being put on residents. Not only is there a media campaign but the city authorities have their own network of people, who have been bought-off in various ways, and are mobilised against those fighting to protect their homes.

At the same time, nobody doubts that many of these housing blocks are in a bad state and urgently need real refurbishment, and even, in some cases, they need to be knocked down and rebuilt. Of course, no-one in the Mayor’s office is proposing to do this.

Many residents fear losing their homes after the relevant legislation was rushed through the Duma (parliament). When protesters turned up outside the Duma to express their concern, many were detained by the police. Provocateurs regularly turn up at residents’ meetings to disrupt them and activists who want to save their blocks from “renovation” are threatened. The authorities consciously use the “divide and rule” tactic, playing off those who live in even worse conditions against those trying to save their homes.

At the moment, housing activists still hope that there are legal methods, using lawyers and the courts, to defend their homes, even though the first court cases have gone in favour of the city authorities. At the same time, the active organisation of street protests has forced some minor concessions. The Moscow Mayor has conceded, in words, that flats offered to residents should at least be in the same region and of the same value. The use of more radical measures, such as the occupation of threatened homes, is not yet seen as necessary by many activists. But as the authorities step up pressure on them, residents may have no alternative. With this in mind, the participants in the round table discussion organised by Sotsialisticheskaya alternative agreed to set up a “quick reaction network” i.e. people ready to react when the authorities try to forcibly remove people.

At the same time, Sotsialisticheskaya Alternative argues that more political measures are needed. In the first place, of course, is the repeal of this new law which is intended to implement the ideology of those in the Moscow city government who think that the poor and working class should leave Moscow so that it becomes a city for the Russian elite. We believe that the money in the city budget “for renovation” should be transferred to a special fund democratically controlled by residents and used for the genuine repair and rebuilding of flats. The building companies, whose owners are making huge profits from construction, should be taken into municipal ownership and controlled by the workers, so that repairs and construction are conducted, not for private profit but in the interests of residents, tenants and all working people. In those cases where repairs are no longer feasible, residents should be offered flats of equivalent size in the same area, under the control of resident’s committees. In addition, the tens of thousands of empty flats throughout Moscow that have been built for private speculation should be taken into municipal ownership and used for housing for those on housing waiting lists, including parents with young children and others in desperate need of proper housing.

Chaotic “market”

Housing is too important a question to be left to the chaotic “market”. The skyline of Moscow and other large Russian cities are littered with huge new tower blocks, built using cheap methods, and mainly aimed for the elite and better-off population of these cities. But overall housing construction, which collapsed to almost zero in the nineties and even in the economic boom of 1998-2008 (which did not achieve the output produced at the end of the Soviet era), declined again since the start of the global crisis.

A solution to the Russian housing crisis therefore cries out for a radically different approach based on effective economic planning, with construction based on need, not profit. This should be carried out by a network of state-owned construction organisations, and finance structures all under the control of democratically-elected management committees. This is why Sotsialisticheskaya Alternativa argues for a socialist government that can bring an end to this capitalist system and establish a genuinely democratic socialist alternative. 

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