A Moscow Apartment Exchange

Daniel Brooks

I spend most of my time in the northwest part of Moscow and when I venture beyond it, I almost always discover an area that has radically changed. Metro stations have been rebuilt, shopping centers have gone up and above all, new high rise apartment buildings dot the landscape. Once again, Moscow is being rebuilt. 

Moscow saw the construction of about 6 million square meters of new housing in the first nine months of 2020. Many of the new apartment complexes are replacing badly constructed, Soviet era apartments known as Krushchyovky. They are named after Nikita Krushchev who had them built in the 50’s and 60’s. These buildings have the distinction of being so shoddy that they are unique. The city is tearing them down and moving people from the Krushchyovky to new high rises, towering over the neighborhoods they replace.

We have an apartment in a Krushchyovka that is on the list of buildings to be torn down. Despite being small, dingy and jammed to the rafters with Soviet era furniture and a lot of stuff, it’s been a reliable renter for many years. We assumed that once our Krushchyovka is removed, the new apartment would be smaller, or worse in some other way. Better a bird in hand than a crane in the sky, as the Russian expression goes (or “two in the bush” in English).

Finally, a letter arrived saying a new apartment had been assigned to us and the old building will be vacated on the 21st of January. We were given one week to tour the new apartment and accept it. We took the long drive to the other end of the city right away, thinking if we waited, we’d end up with the short end of the stick. After the long trek, I discovered life exists in the eastern area of Moscow. It might be far away from my own neck of the woods, but people live there, and no one seems to mind. 

The new building turned out to be a couple of blocks away from the old one, brand new and 30 stories tall with a familiar, modern design. The façade of such buildings in Moscow often feature a rectangular checkerboard design with different colors on the outer walls and balconies. Perhaps someday they will be remembered as the God-awful high rises built in the 2020’s. A new mayor can come along and tear them down. Everyone will be moved to newer buildings 100 stories high, or more. In this way, the reconstruction of Moscow can continue forever.

Someone led us to the new apartment and gave us instructions not to touch the walls or turn on the water. I was warned twice not to do anything wrong in the toilet. We were barked at by the people showing us the facility. It was a familiar bark denoting that the government was in charge. Let them bark. It is the Russian way.

The new apartment offered to us turned out to be bigger, and better, than the old one. The lift didn’t creak and groan as it ascended. Instead, we were whisked to the 18th floor without a sound. The apartment came to 60 square meters, versus 38 m2 for the old one. It was laid out in a rational way with a high-quality interior finish, to our astonishment. It was ready to go. Nearby, we found a small shopping center, sports facility and metro station. We said yes. About twenty minutes later, after signing a few documents, the deal was done. 

It turns out that having an apartment building torn down in Moscow can be a good thing. Better a big apartment in a generic high rise than a small one in a horrible, five story building made of concrete blocks. I was hoping another apartment of ours might be destroyed, as well. Around 8000 apartment buildings, erected in the late 50’s and 60’s, are slated to be replaced over the next 20 years in Moscow. Chances seemed high. Sadly, none of our other properties are on the list to be removed. One minute, I was concerned about destruction and the next thing you know, I was disappointed that it wouldn’t happen.

I have spoken to people who live in new high-rise apartment buildings in Moscow. They tell me that maintaining them in pristine condition can be difficult. These buildings have a large number of people in them. If a small percentage are messy, there goes the neighborhood. Traditionally, Moscow apartment buildings have garbage chutes. Garbage can be thrown out by walking down the hall and tossing it into a chute. It can be smelly, but convenient. The new buildings don’t have the chutes and trash has to be taken outside. Some don’t bother and as a result, others follow suit. In many apartments, the corridors and stairways have bags of garbage in them. The disarray seems to be contagious, causing bad behavior, such as drinking sessions in the stairwells and people singing loudly. When people move into the new buildings, an outbreak of repair work begins. One family we know wakes up to a concert of drills and hammers every morning that continues all day. This is expected to last for several months. Some locations are better than others, depending on the neighborhood and the people living in them. Perhaps we will swap the new apartment for one that is not in a high rise. Stay tuned for more exciting news about real estate in Moscow. 

Many of the older apartment buildings in the city are about 10 stories high, give or take a few floors. They give Moscow its unique feel, even though many of them are not especially well designed. In contrast, most of the new apartment buildings going up today tower above their smaller neighbors. The city is gradually being converted into something like Singapore.  Moscow, however, is not a small island. It is in a country with more space than any other. You’d think the city could spread out a bit in the rest of the country, allowing people to live in smaller, more accessible buildings. Such is the demand for living in Moscow, whose GRP per capita is double the national average. People are flocking to Moscow, providing an incentive to stack them on top of one another, higher and higher above the city below. 

Perhaps the Russians like it this way, all together in large groups. Better to be taken up to the 25th floor in a high-speed lift and look out over the city from a spiffy red balcony, than living out in the sticks. In any event, it is too late now. The high rises are springing up, come what may. We will probably learn to live with our nostalgic ideas about Soviet and Russian architecture when the rent payments arrive, or we sell for a profit. And that, perhaps, was the original intention. 

Daniel Brooks, Copyright 30 December 2020