Moscow residents are rallying against the mass demolition of Soviet apartment blocks

The Moscow protests in May. Image: Getty.

In mid-May, thousands rallied in the Russian capital protesting the anticipated demolition of some 4,500 or more Soviet-era low-rise apartment blocks.

The so-called “Khrushchovki” are named after Communist party leader Nikita Khrushchev who led the Soviet Union in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Several of the buildings are in a somewhat dilapidated state.

A 3.5trn rouble (£47.5bn) project is set to replace the Khrushchovki and others with new high-rise blocks. A draft law is currently being mulled in the Russian State Duma and will undergo a second reading in July.

Residents retain a strong fondness for them, and several have expressed concerns that they will be deprived of their housing. A Facebook group with the name “Muscovites against demolition (against the law on renovation)” has more than 25,000 members. While police said attendance stood at roughly 8,000, other sources said more than 20,000 materialised. 

“People who live in these blocks bought the apartments in order to live in quiet, leafy low-rises,” Alexei Matveyev, a 36-year-old bank clerk from a north Moscow neighbourhood, told AP on 14 May, the day of the protests. “We are happy in our house. We don’t want to live in tower blocks.”

While the bill offers current residents an apartment of the same size, there are no provisions to ensure that it will be in the same area or be worth the same amount.

City Hall says the buildings are dilapidated, and a survey conducted by state-run pollster VTsIOM said that 80 per cent of building residents are in favour of the blocks being removed. Nonetheless, authorities say if residents vote against demolitions they will not go ahead.

However, handfuls of people have pointed out that voting on the city government website has previously been rigged.

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin views has promised to address such concerns. “We will be attentive to all meaningful statements voiced at rallies over Moscow’s housing renovation program,” he wrote on VKontakte, the Russian version of Facebook.

On 19 May, opposition leader Alexei Navalny announced plans to take the Mayor’s office to court. He said during a livestream on his video channel that “voting is actively falsified” and urged authorities to “primarily consider the statements from tenants of wrecked and dilapidated houses and to ‘leave alone’ those houses that are ‘in investment-attractive areas’.”

It is not just Moscow’s Khrushchovki such battles: key landmarks of Moscow’s cultural heritage have faced destruction for several years.

Architectural preservation activist group, Arkhnadzor has highlighted the fact that several buildings of importance have been demolished since the beginning of April alone. These include an 1840s farmstead and the first house of novelist Vasily Aksenov.

Avant garde and constructivist landmarks have also been suffering. While constructivist estates Dubrovka and Usachevka will be left alone, a group of former workers’ buildings on Pogodinskaya Ulitsa in the south west of the city were torn down in 2015, and Taganskaya telephone station in April 2016. This was despite a petition to Moscow’s mayor signed by some 30,000 people, according to the World Monuments Fund.

The fate of the area surrounding Le Corbusier and Nikolai Kolli’s Tsentrosoyuz building has similarly been called into question. In February reports surfaced of plans to construct a high-rise building next door – leading one commentator to declare that “the circumstances do not inspire optimism.”


Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image:

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.