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.”

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”