Finding Happiness in a Khrushchevka

Author: Maryam Mumladze

It was 1979. Communism was supposed to be on the verge of solving the Soviet Union’s housing problems, but there was no sign of that in Luisa Mzhavia’s five-storey Tbilisi Khrushchevka.

“When I moved here, there was nothing, not even running water,” she recalls.

Mzhavia, today a 69-year-old retired physician, eventually turned the cookie-cutter, two-room apartment on Tbilisi’s Vazha Pshavela Avenue into her own space. But for many Georgians, these plain, reinforced-concrete buildings, first introduced under Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev (1953-1964), reflect a time and mentality that they would like to forget.

“This product was aimed at visualizing the Soviet ideal of equality: ‘Everything is identical and everyone is happy with this,’” scoffs art expert Davit Tskhadadze, a former Georgian deputy culture minister.

Tbilisi’s city government cannot state how many Khrushchevkas still exist in the Georgian capital, but, in a campaign video last summer, Mayor Kakha Kaladze called for the buildings’ destruction. Owners would receive compensation or a new apartment, he said. He pledged the change would mean “the liberation of Tbilisi” and the “replacement of Soviet ideology.”

From the 13th floor of a neighboring building, a row of look-alike Khrushchevka-style buildings extends through Tbilisi’s Saburtalo district.

In Tbilisi’s Saburtalo district, Khrushchevkas stand alongside so-called Brezhnevkas, apartment buildings constructed under Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev (1964-1982), and more modern residences.

Built-in furniture, like the closets on the right, are typical of Khrushchevkas. Often, these closets are ceiling-height and take up an entire wall.

Not all Khrushchevka-style apartments have a balcony. Instead, plants may be placed in a living room that has plenty of light from a wall of windows.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, bars increasingly started appearing on Khrushchevkas’ ground-floor windows.

Originally expected to last for only about 25 years, Khrushchevkas primarily sprang up in Tbilisi during the late 1950s and 1960s in what were then the city’s more spacious outskirts – Saburtalo, Gldani, Varketili, Temka, Dighomi; now, some of its most densely populated areas.

The one-to-three-room apartments were strictly utilitarian – between 31 to 58 square meters in area – with storage built into the walls to use every bit of space. The ceilings were mostly 2.48-meters high, but felt lower. Oneanecdoteclaimed that the relatively short Khrushchev just put his hand over his head to determine the measurements.

His emphasis was on cheap, fast construction. The neutral-toned, four or five-storey buildings came with no elevator, no garbage chute and, sometimes, no balcony. Cartoons in the satirical magazine Krokodil (Crocodile) mocked their flimsy roofing and thinly panelled walls.

Yet for millions of people, these apartments -- meant as a temporary stopover en route to better housing -- were a welcome change.

Despite the fact that Luisa Mzhavia’s apartment no longer contains most of its Khrushchevka features, one original, built-in china cabinet remains.

Before it was done over, this large reception room in Luisa Mzhavia’s apartment used to contain two bedrooms -- an indication of the dimensions in Khrushchevkas.

Bedrooms with individual entrances do not exist in a standard Khrushchevka. Luisa Mzhavia came up with these after combining two separate two-room apartments.

The entranceway to Luisa Mzhavia’s enlarged apartment, like the rest of the house, now completely departs from the standard for Khrushchevkas.

The Krushchevka “opened a lifesaving possibility of transferring people out of over-filled communal apartments,” Russian architectural historian Nikolai Yerofeev told   

Eventually, they became permanent dwellings. After the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, residents put their own mark on them.

In Tbilisi and elsewhere, rooms were added or divided in half. Extra balconies, doors and windows appeared, seemingly overnight. Newspapers advertised apartments with “the potential to be enlarged.”   

In the early 2000s, Mzhavia’s family decided to buy the neighboring apartment in their Khrushchevka (pronounced “Khrushchovka”) and merge it with their own. Using an architect, “[w]e demolished almost everything except the two load-bearing walls,” Mzhavia recounts.

If Kaladze’s proposal to replace the Khrushchevkas ever materializes, she stresses that “they need to consider that we put much work into this apartment.”

The private development company m2, an active builder of high-rise apartment buildings, has proposed that it build new residences in the place of condemned Khrushchevkas, but City Hall says it has not yet approved the plan.

The company’s “consultations” with the government are ongoing, comments m2 spokesperson Davit Giorgadze.  “We are not sure what will come out of it.”

Some Khrushchevka owners interviewed for this story welcomed such initiatives.

On Tbilisi’s Nutsubidze Street, an m2 apartment building stands just a few meters from a Khrushchevka-style residence. m2 has proposed replacing condemned Khrushchevkas with more modern residences.

Musician Robi Kukhianidze, 52, has lived with his wife and child in a Khrushchevka on Tbilisi’s Vazha-Pshavela Avenue for the past eight years. “There’s a lot of coming and going. Always someone or other is coming over,” he says.

When first built in the late 1950s, Khrushchevka-style residences were estimated to be inhabitable for about 25 years, but their ongoing existence has prompted some to quadruple that estimate.

Fifty-one-year-old geologist Davit Kobakhdze has lived with his five children in a Khrushchevka on Tbilisi’s Aleksandre Kazbegi Street since 2004. The residence originally was intended for police employees, he says.

“This building is so old that I would not mind [giving it up], considering that it could be a great offer,” says Kobakhidze.  “One has to be a fool not to agree.”

 That said, most of his neighbors rejected a similar such offer several years ago, he adds.  

Multiply such refusals on a larger scale and it’s plain why tearing down Tbilisi’s Khrushchevkas would be a daunting task, cautions urban planner Nino Gventsadze, who oversees the Georgian economy ministry’s construction policy department.

“Imagine that there’re three families on each floor in an apartment complex, with four to five floors in total. These families [may] not give up their house for the same [kind of] space. First, so many people have to be transferred, then the business [the development company] must make money . . . it’s a bit of a complicated process to get going.”

Elsewhere in the post-Soviet sphere, Moscow’s own resettlement program for inhabitants of its city-owned Khrushchevkas illustrates that point.

For some, though, the difficulties of getting rid of Khrushchevkas are no reason to hang on to them. Art expert Tskhadadze, who charges that the residences “disfigured people’s existence,” insists that “it’s impossible for people to feel happy there.”

But Mzhavia says she understands the desire to stay put in a small building where the neighbors know each other. In the Soviet period, changing houses was not the norm.

“We grew up together. Some of us even became relatives; we became each other’s best men and bridesmaids.”

“If I had lived in a multi-storey building, it wouldn’t have been the same . . . “ she says.

The living room in Davit Kobakhidze’s Krushchevka barely has space for 11-year-old daughter Mariam’s dancing. A table and armoire had to be moved to accommodate her.

Built-in cupboards like these in Davit Kobakhidze’s apartment on Tbilisi’s Aleksandr Kazbegi Street are common in original Khrushchevkas.

Personal space in a Khrushchevka can be a challenge: In the bedroom of Davit Kobakhidze’s three young daughters, a cupboard divides the room in two.

Plans for a Khrushchevka from 1960 on Tbilisi’s then Comintern Street (Vaja-Pshavela Avenue) (Provided courtesy of the Georgian National Archives)

Sketches from 1957 for Khrushchevkas on Tbilisi’s Pavlov Avenue (today, Aleksandre Kazbegi Avenue) for silk-factory workers. Many of these buildings’ original facades have since changed. (Provided courtesy of the Georgian National Archives)

The 1959 plan for the basement of a Krushchevka for Tbilisi silk-factory workers. The building, which contained 60 apartments, was located in the Saburtalo district. (Provided courtesy of the Georgian National Archives)




Chai-khana Survay