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Moscow's Plan To Raze 'Khrushchyovki' Sparks Anger, Confusion Ahead Of Elections

Workers demolish a five-story "Khrushchyovka" in Moscow in October 2016.
Workers demolish a five-story "Khrushchyovka" in Moscow in October 2016.

MOSCOW -- Keri Guggenberger describes her old life as "apolitical" and "girly" -- chilling out in her pink-walled apartment with her six cats, going to the gym, and saving up for beach holidays in the Mediterranean.

But after her home was targeted for demolition as part of a program to raze Soviet-era housing blocks known as "Khrushchyovki," the 35-year-old IT manager transformed overnight into the consummate street activist.

She now oversees a resistance group on Facebook that boasts 20,000 members and has earned her enemies. With surprising calm, she recounts how she was assaulted last month near her home -- hit in the back by assailants who fled after threatening to "beat out her spirit" to campaign.

"They tried to scare me, but it didn't work," she says. "They want to take away what is most valuable to me. I could now lose my only property, which I earned through extremely hard work and which I renovated myself."

Activist Keri Guggenberger in her Moscow apartment that she shares with six cats: "They tried to scare me, but it didn't work."
Activist Keri Guggenberger in her Moscow apartment that she shares with six cats: "They tried to scare me, but it didn't work."

The Moscow renovation program -- or "deportation" program, as opponents know it -- has rapidly become one of the most closely watched political stories in Russia as the authorities and a powerful construction lobby face off against thousands of angry Muscovites ahead of mayoral and presidential elections in 2018.

At first, the program seemed commendable: Knock down 8,000 dilapidated Khrushchyovki, the five-story housing blocks mass produced under Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, and resettle their 1.6 million tenants in new homes. When President Vladimir Putin approved the ambitious plan at a February meeting with Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, it was widely seen as a populist move to shore up support in the capital and rid the city of its cookie-cutter housing blocks.

The prefabricated Khrushchyovki were erected on an industrial scale across the country in the 1950s and '60s to alleviate a huge housing crisis brought on by the rapid urbanization overseen by dictator Josef Stalin. They were designed for rapid assembly, and some versions were considered to have a shelf life of only 25 years.

A state poll has claimed 80 percent support Putin’s initiative, but a deep current of anger and confusion is also evident. Over the last month, local rallies have been held in Khrushchyovki courtyards with families and old residents wrapped up in warm clothes chanting, "Leave us in peace!" and holding posters saying, "We're against the demolition":

'Leave Us In Peace!'
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Activists are giving public seminars on "Renovation: How To Defend Your Rights" and have won authorization to hold a demonstration against the program on Prospekt Sakharova in central Moscow on May 14.

For many, the incursion into the sanctity of the home has touched a nerve, while others are shocked at loosely worded legislation under discussion to streamline bureaucracy for a program that, opponents say, allows for an assault on basic property rights.

The legislation passed its first reading on April 20 with almost unanimous support, despite lawmakers promising to push for changes in later readings.

The bill says that evicted residents will be offered housing of equal size -- not of equal value -- and that the offer is final. There will be no options to choose from and residents cannot appeal for a different apartment in court. The legislation also opens the door for the demolition of other buildings deemed to be structurally similar to Khrushchyovki or other buildings located in designated "renovation zones."

I'm amazed myself how the Facebook group is growing. The first day I was really scared I'd be the only one in the group -- that everyone is in favor and that I'm the only one against. I'm happy that's not the case."
-- Activist Keri Guggenberger

In a sign the Kremlin has taken note of the public outcry, Putin on April 26 publicly told officials that the legislation should not violate property rights and that he would not sign a bill that does.

Moscow authorities this week decreed that 4,500 apartment blocks listed for "renovation" will only be demolished if two-thirds of the apartments vote in favor. But activists protest that dwellings that do not vote will be considered to have voted "yes" and worry about the likelihood of falsification.

On April 27, Yelena Zalterova, 41, who lives in the district of Savyolovsky, was in a line of Muscovites on Pushkin Square waiting to sign a petition against the program.

She expressed astonishment that Muscovites are being asked to vote on whether to keep or demolish their residences without knowing the terms of the legislation or where they will be told to move.

"How can you be expected to vote without knowing what you’re voting for?" she asks, saying she fears her home will be targeted in the program, even though it is in good condition.

PHOTO GALLERY: The Clock Is Ticking For Russia's 'Khrushchyovki' (click to enlarge)

She says she moved to the five-story block because she likes the area and that her two children go to school locally.

"[The authorities] live completely separately from us," says Zalterova. "They don't see us. They don't notice how people are and how they live. They don't know what a five-story building is. They've never been in one or else they have forgotten. You have the impression they live in the clouds."

Activists organizing the petition believe the real plan is to demolish their low-rise housing tracts in order to free up land for high-end developers, and then resettle those evicted to unlivable high rises in more remote areas.

Guggenberger lives on the fifth floor of one the city's many Khrushchyovki. She described her previous apartment on the fringes of Moscow as being in a "ghetto" of new high-rise blocks with no green space. She says she actively sought out one of the low-rise Khrushchyovki – which typically are surrounded by ample green space -- and bought her apartment in 2010 with help from her relatives after scrimping and saving for six years.

President Vladimir Putin (left) approved the plan at a February meeting with Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin. (file photo)
President Vladimir Putin (left) approved the plan at a February meeting with Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin. (file photo)

She says the members of her Facebook group have different motives. Some have mortgages on their homes, some have just finished lengthy and expensive renovations, others are attached to a home that once belonged to their grandparents.

"I'm amazed myself how the Facebook group is growing. The first day I was really scared I'd be the only one in the group -- that everyone is in favor and that I'm the only one against," she says. "I'm happy that's not the case."

On the heels of major opposition protests on March 26, observers are watching closely for signs that the issue will be politicized. Guggenberger says she wants her Facebook group to remain issue-focused and nonpolitical.

She says she has never taken an interest in politics or even voted, but makes no bones of her disillusionment with the authorities.

"I don't believe a single word in the press or a single word of Sobyanin and Putin. I don't believe it," she says. "I've completely lost trust, although of course I realize they couldn't care less."

Dmitry Oreshkin, a Moscow-based political analyst, says that although the public reaction poses no direct threat to the authorities because it is "scattered" and "disorganized," he sees it as a sign of "growing irritation, frustration, and disenchantment."

"They are a symptom of how there is growing misunderstanding between the authorities and the population," Oreshkin says.

The opposition, meanwhile, is making overtures to the activists. Opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov, who intends to run for Moscow mayor in September 2018, has taken up their cause by widely criticizing the plan, while allies of opposition leader and staunch Kremlin critic Aleksei Navalny have invited them to appear on their online Kaktus talk show on May 4. The Parnas and Yabloko parties on May 5 called for a rally and march on May 21 and 28, respectively.

Some analysts, however, suggest the public outcry could actually suit the Kremlin.

Pavel Salin, a Moscow-based political analyst, says the wave of media attention over the renovation program has put the Kremlin back in control of the political narrative and has distracted from Navalny's bid to run for president in March 2018.

Salin said authorities lost control of the narrative on March 26 when Navalny, whose guilty verdict in a controversial embezzlement case placed his ability to run for president in question, brought tens of thousands to the streets in a nationwide protest against alleged government corruption.

"After the protests on March 26, the authorities lost control of the agenda and they had to somehow get it back under control," says Salin.

"One-off moves like arresting governors [over alleged corruption] bore no results. The public didn’t see this as signs of a battle against corruption, so they had to switch the public's attention to a different issue," Salin says, "and there was this whole unfolding problem around five-story buildings."

The activists themselves are digging in for a protracted battle.

"Whether I will be able to return to my girly world, I don't know," Guggenberger says. "Probably not. I think the situation has gone too far. You can't even go on holiday. You want to close the whole affair and go on holiday, but you can't. Every day there's the threat your house will be knocked down."

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