Facilitating International and Intercultural Exchange


Housing Trajectory

by Yulia Gradskova.

The case is based on the interview conducted in Moscow, 28.02.2014. I interviewed K (born in 1929) in her apartment. I asked her to tell me her family history in connection to their housing conditions. Thus, in this case, the interview from the beginning had to be used for research of the Soviet formal and informal institutions of housing in 1945-1980s.

K was born in Moscow, in a Jewish family. Her parents moved to Moscow from Odessa in the 1920s. K was born in a house in the center of the city, before 1917 the house, most probably, was used for accommodating servants working in the big house nearby. There was a cold water, toilet and a stove in the house.


Historical Background

The historical background for this text is the Soviet history of the 1930s-1980s. The family becomes a victim of the Stalin’s repressions of the late 1930s. K’s father, an engineer at the Moscow plant, get to be arrested in 1937 and sent to GULAG (to Magadan) for 10 years. According to the Soviet legislation of that time, after  being released from GULAG, a person was not allowed to live in central cities, in particular, in Moscow. That is why after K’s father comes back in 1947, he is immediately demanded to return to Magadan to live there. This legislation was changed only after Stalin’s death. K’s father could return to Moscow only after 1956 – the year of the 20th Congress of the Communist Party when the new Soviet leader, Khrushchev partly criticized Stalin’s crimes.

Anti-Semitism was present in the Communist Party, but the last years of Stalin’s life are characterized by a particularly strong anti-Semitic campaign (early 1950s).[1] Even if anti-semitic campaign slowed down after the Stalin’s death, It influences K’s possibilities of finding job in Moscow hospitals after she finished her medical education in the mid-1950s.

The registration – propiska – was introduced in Moscow and other big Soviet cities in 1932.[2] It was an institution of control over the population movements, in particular, against those who wanted to escape the kolkhoz. Usually it was impossible to find a job without such a registration.  Not rarely, propiska could be obtained through bribes and frauds. In K’s story, in order to get such a registration for her husband, the family makes efforts for finding a person, connected to police. K’s extended family was trying to help her though bribing that  person in order K’s husband (born in another city) could move in with her in Moscow. However, in 1957 the local registration regulations were slightly changed and K’s husband was registered legally.

In the Soviet Union families did not have legal right for a separate housing, but each person, individually, had right to an amount of squire meters (around 5 m2 in big cities).  When this number of meters was below the norm, the person, family or part of family could be registered by the municipality or work place as those who is “waiting for improvement of the living conditions”. However, usually the line of those waiting for improvement was not moving forward, many Soviet people were in such a line for more than 20 years.


The story shows that in the case of K, family solidarity and mutual help of the members of extended family to each other was crucial for protecting family’s small living space (two rooms), for providing the new family members (like spouse or children) with the possibility of living together and for improvement of family’s housing situation in the 1960s. The early return of two members of the extended family from voluntary evacuation during the Second World War helped to the whole family to protect the family rooms from other people – “to save” the living space as it was said in the interview. Family was also ready to support K’s return from city R. to Moscow in the mid-1950s and to find money and connections in order to provide her husband with Moscow registration. Finally, the family was ready to help each other collecting money for cooperative apartment in the 1960s in order to prevent K’s father from returning to the same overcrowded communal apartment after his last sentence in prison.

In order to preserve the anonymity of my informant I use only one letter of her family name. The names of some cities in her story were also substituted by just one letter.

This story could be useful for research on everyday life under the Soviet rule. The story could be used in the university courses dealing with family history.


Quotations and description of family history:

“Before the war we were living in the communal apartment and we were two families in a flat. Each family had two rooms. At that time we had not so big family: it was me, my mother, my grandmother, my aunt and her husband. It was so that in 1937 my father was arrested, but my mother was close to finishing her university studies and she was strongly advised (by friends) to leave Moscow.[3] Thus, after finishing her studies she accepted to be send (raspredelenie) to Kostroma.[4] That is why my aunt, she lived in G. by then, together to her husband came to live with us. And my mother lived in K., she lived there up to the war. Me and my grandmother were visiting her only during the school holidays. And the other family that lived in our flat, there were four of them, they were very calm. We had a very quiet communal apartment.”

During the war period the family moved to Ural by own decision (they were not evacuated there officially by the Soviet authorities, just moved in with their relatives who were evacuated there earlier).

“Me and my mother lived there up to 1944, but my aunt and grandmother left earlier in order to save our flat: it was a lot of rumors that these flats get occupied by the people who did not leave Moscow”.

However, to that moment the inhabitants of the flat have changed.  One of two rooms where the neighbors lived was now given by the authorities (podselena) to a family of three with a child, later on three more children were born to this family. After that K’s communal apartment stopped to be quiet, it is possible to understand from her story that the new neighbors were not trusted by K’s family.

In 1947 K finished the school and entered the Medical University. The same year her father finished his sentence in Magadan and came to visit his family. However he had to leave Moscow and return to Magadan (before that K’s mother and father spent 2 month together hiding in a countryside summer house near Moscow)[5]. In 1950 the Medical University was moved to R., a city not far from Moscow, and K had to start living in the dormitory there.

“The dormitory was very bad. There were 7 people in one room, we had 7 beds, but only three bed tables. ….The kitchen was on the first floor and we lived on the fourth. And it was supposed that  we would cook there. First we did it, but later, we made this – du you know what is zhuliki? It is a kind of special contact that you can put into the ordinary lamp. Thus we put an electric stove there”.

After finishing the university K started to work in a psychiatric hospital in the same city. At that period she lived in a former hospital building: former medical offices were transformed into temporary housing. After giving birth to a child in 1955 and spending 9 months in Moscow with parents, K returned to R. and had to stop her Moscow registration in order to continue living in her temporary housing in R. In 1956 her father came back and she could leave R.’ hospital due to her mandatory years of work in a particular place were finished. However, her Moscow registration (propiska) had expired. It was very difficult to get to be registered again in the room where her parents lived. K told that all of them, including her father who was now rehabilitated, wrote lots of letters stating that K’s housing in R. was only provisional (with toilet outside, etc.).  In her letters K stressed also that her relationships with her husband are bad (it was not true)[6] and she needs to move back to her parents’ flat. Finally, K had managed to get a registration and found a job in an ambulatory (due to anti-Semitism of the time it was difficult to find job in hospital).  When K’s husband was trying to move in with her, it was very difficult.

“I did not know that only wife could be registered together to her husband, not vice versa. Thus, when he came, immediately, the street cleaner (dvornik) or, may be the neighbor, that one with four kids (who lived at the same apartment), denounced him to the police. The police came and said that he should leave Moscow. I don’t remember, it seems that also in three days”.

Thus, K’s husband had to return to his home city, G. But K and her family started to look for new possibilities for getting propiska  for her husband. They found a person connected to police who agreed doing it for a sum of money. But, it was a Youth Festival (1957, Moscow[7]), the registration law was lightened and K’s husband was registered in her flat.

“thus all of us, 7 people, started to live in that flat. We had two rooms, but one room (we had one room that was 30 m2, another was 15) we divided it into three. “

Soon K’s second child was born. The family was on the waiting list for housing improvement but anything was happening. At that time K’s father who did not feel himself  psychologically not well after 20 years of GULAG, had a violent quarrel with the neighbors in the apartment, they called police and he was sentenced for 1,5 years.   The family decided that K’s father should not come back to the same flat: they must help to him. It was 1965 and K’s mother bought small two-rooms cooperative apartment, 24 m2. The flat was bought on the name of the father and it was his brother who came and signed the contract (father was in prison at that moment). In 1967 K’s family also entered into housing cooperative (with the help of relatives’ money) and moved into the apartment where I was taking my interview with her in 1967. K’s family paid for apartment during 13 years. As doctors, K and her husband could also teach evening courses in a professional school and to get an extra-income.



[1] Konstantin Azadovskii & Boris Egorov, From Anti-Westernism to Anti-Semitism, Journal of Cold War Studies, 4:1, Winter 2002, pp. 66-80

[2] Tova Höjdestrand, The Soviet Russian production of homelessness: propiska, housing, privatization 2004, http://www.anthrobase.com/Txt/H/Hoejdestrand_T_01.htm

[3] The informant implies that her mother also could be arrested as a ”relative of people’s enemy”.

[4] According to the Soviet law those finishing university studies had to be dispatched (raspredelenie) to different parts of the Soviet Union where it was a demand for their qualification.

[5] Moscow inhabitants could rent some rooms or part of the house for summer if they have money. Such summer house (dacha) was rented privately, usually without state’s intervention, In this case K’s mother and father could live there for two months.

[6] The Moscow authorities were aware about overcrowded apartments and were doing everything possible for preventing more people to live in the capital. In the case K, she  presented her marriage as a “problematic” one and at risk to be ended soon. It allowed her to get to be registered “back” to Moscow.

[7] Moscow Youth Festival of 1957 supposed many foreigners (mainly from countries of the Soviet bloc) to come to Moscow. The presence of the foreigners influenced certain improvements in city maintenance and even in housing regulations.