Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia published by the Ohio University (Swallow) Press in March 2016
For rent: Two-bedroom, second-floor khrushchevka in city center, close to Silkway City mall, market and bus routes. European-style kitchen and bathroom. Large balcony for storage.
This is not a real ad, of course, but it accurately describes an apartment I rented for a month in Almaty in 1999, on a leafy street called Vinogradov. The key words (apart from the location) are “European,” which denotes that the Soviet-era appliances and counter tops have been replaced and that the water pipes do not leak, and khrushchevka, which indicates where the apartment ranks in Soviet real-estate hierarchy.
The most solid (and now expensive) apartments are from the Stalin era, earning them the name stalinkas. They were built on site from bricks or blocks, and sometimes even boasted neoclassical details. After World War II, faced with a severe housing shortage, the Soviet government encouraged technologies to provide low-cost, easy-to-assemble housing. The prefabricated concrete panels of the khrushchevkas, named for the Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, were mass produced and shipped by truck. Elevators were considered too costly and time consuming to build so almost all khrushchevkas had five stories—the maximum height of a building without an elevator under Soviet health and safety standards.
The blocks of khrushchevkas that line the streets of many cities throughout the former Soviet Union may look drab on the outside, but I’ve rented or stayed in enough to know that they are usually warm and comfortable (if basic) inside. I’ll take a khrushchevka over the more shabbily constructed brezhnevka any day. But they do all look the same.
The one-size-fits-all architecture was satirized in the 1975 Soviet romantic comedy Irony of Fate. After a New Year’s Eve celebration in Moscow, Zhenya is supposed to go home to celebrate with his fiancée while his friend Pavlik flies home to Leningrad. But everyone is drunk, and Zhenya’s friends put him on the plane instead. He wakes up in Leningrad airport, believing he is still in Moscow. Still drunk, he stumbles into a taxi and gives the driver his street and apartment block address. He arrives at a block of khrushchevkas that looks exactly like his block in Moscow and staggers upstairs to the apartment with the same number. Not surprisingly, his key fits the lock. Inside, even the furniture is nearly identical to that in his apartment. Later, the real tenant, Nadya, arrives home to find a strange man sleeping in her bed. To make matters worse, Nadya’s fiancé arrives before Nadya can convince Zhenya to leave. Zhenya tries to return to Moscow, but because there are no flights he keeps on returning to Nadya’s apartment. They end up spending New Year’s Day together, their hostility softening into mutual affection. When Zhenya eventually leaves, Nadya decides to follow her heart and fly to Moscow. She has no trouble finding Zhenya because they have exactly the same address.
Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016) is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million and other online retailers, or from your local bookstore. Read excerpts at www.davidhmould.com (Travel Blogs and Articles) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/ or view readings and interviews on YouTube, http://bit.ly/davidhmould