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Khrushchovka apartments: the French dream that became a Soviet reality

A panorama of identical five-floor buildings built after WWII is typical for any post-Soviet city. Photo:
Khrushchovka apartments: the French dream that became a Soviet reality
Article by: Vira Melnychuk
Translated by: Olha Rudakevych
The apartment complexes known as Khrushchovkas, built in the mid-fifties when Khrushchev was in power, are one of the most common types of construction from the Soviet era and can be spotted in any post-Soviet town. The fact that they were originally designed to last 20-25 years is frequently ignored by the residents of the apartments.

The Ukrainian outlet Ukrainska Pravda delved into the history of their design and its special features, and the most current renovation trends for this type of housing.

When Nikita Khrushchev, the ruler of the USSR in the 1950’s visited France, he had no idea that the visit would trigger the largest social construction era in the USSR. But that’s exactly what happened.

According to one version of the story, the French gladly showed off their new block residences in which post World War II immigrants were settled.

The French Havre at the end of WWII. Photo: open sources
The renovated center of Havre. Photo: open sources

France, like other countries that had been devastated by the war, had to resolve the housing problem as quickly as possible for those who were left homeless. One of the most successful examples of fast and cost-effective construction was the Havre buildings, designed by Auguste Perret.

It is interesting to note that the Havre center, restored after the war, became a UNESCO World Heritage site, while for some reason the Soviet Khrushchovkas did not. But let us return to the history of this significant phenomenon.

The idea itself is not new. Americans were already building small frame houses for settlers back in the 18th century. The construction was light and quick.

In Europe, “prefabricated” houses appeared at the end of the nineteenth century, and by the 1920’s Germany was aggressively utilizing this method of construction. The pragmatic Germans had developed an entire system of building blocks for prefabricated residential buildings – the plattenbau – like pieces of a full-size architectural “lego.”

 Exterior of the German plattenbau. Photo:
Interior of the German plattenbau. Photo: DDR Museum
Renovated modular houses from GDR times in Mitte, the central historical region of Berlin. Photo:

After World War II, when the housing crisis in Europe reached a critical stage, the Old World began building entire housing complexes using similar blocks.

It was then that the USSR combined the plattenbau model with American conveyor construction, and a new construction era began.

It was the Khrushchovkas that put the USSR in first place in construction simply because nobody had ever completed such a large-scale project for erecting large housing complexes. Given the quality of the Khrushchovkas, though, this was probably for the better.

We can understand Khrushchev’s rationale. The problem was twofold: in cities destroyed by the war, people survived by living in barracks or by living packed together in communal apartments. The flow of peasants seeking a better life in the city increased substantially. By that time the Soviet authorities, who had previously refused to issue internal passports to the peasants, were no longer objecting.

There was a demand for working hands to restore the urban infrastructure and large-scale industrial projects. There were plans to urbanize the northern and eastern territories of the USSR where in the middle of the twentieth century the “green sea of the taiga” still lay undisturbed and the land lay desolate and untouched by human hands.

The construction of a Khrushchovka. Photo: open sources

Khrushchev was not the first to build “panel houses” in the USSR. Construction of similar housing complexes began in Stalin’s day. And even earlier in Europe. But the Soviet architects of the pre-war period disliked Le Corbusier’s houses. For those who grew up in Stalin’s empire, it was difficult to accept such simplicity in forms.

After the war, however, views changed. And resolving the housing crisis gave Khrushchev the opportunity to exploit the situation with an extensive PR campaign to benefit his personal popularity – Khrushchev was feeling inferior to his predecessor.

Mass construction of communal apartments fit the Soviet ideology perfectly. An environment for a new, Soviet person would be designed. Unadorned forms, wide walls with lots of windows providing lots of light, concrete and other modern building materials were all part of the new look for the new urban landscape which was designed to include everything one might need.

The construction took little time – two weeks, ideally, if the construction crews worked in three shifts. Add the interior work and details, and the building could be finished in two months. The cost of such housing decreased by at least 10 percent.

“Replacement parts” for the panel houses were made in the factories, so each building had to be assembled as a unique model. Old photos show panels being taken from blocks of already built rooms. It was a cheap and convenient way to work.

Entire “turnkey” cities could be built this way in the tundra and in other remote regions. It was also perfect for building the new towns that were sprouting around manufacturing plants or nuclear power stations.

Aside from the obvious disadvantages, these housing complexes had clear advantages, too: they provided a civilized home for thousands of residents who lived in primitive barracks or in the pre-war houses where a bathtub was an unheard of luxury.

The construction of a Khrushchovka. Photo from open sources

“I remember the days when three-four families lived in one apartment with no central heating and no private bathroom,” says Yuri Khudiakov, correspondent and member of the Ukrainian Academy of Architecture. “The situation had to be addressed. It was immediately decided to eliminate any and all excesses in architecture [known as the 1955 Ruling of the Council of Ministers of the USSR – ed]. Providing decent, practical housing was the goal, housing that would guarantee basic comfort.”

The Khrushchovkas were a winning formula. During Khrushchev’s reign close to 55 million people acquired a Khrushchovka. Almost 13,000 housing units were built.

High ceilings fell under the rubric of “superfluous:” the high ceilings of the Stalin era had to be left behind. Elevators and garbage chutes were “excessive,” as well. There were lots of jokes about the private bathrooms: “Comrade Khrushchev gave us a toilet and a bathtub but forgot to join the floor and the ceiling.”

At first the newly-created Khrushchovkas were glorified in newspapers and in the opera. Dimitri Shostakovich dedicated his piece “Moskva, Cheromushky” to the modern housing complexes.

The deficiencies in the rapidly-built housing units were quickly noticed, even by the first tenants. The living space was very modest. In the original one-room apartments the living space was a mere 16 square meters; a two-room unit was 22 square meters, and a three-room unit – 30 square meters.

Agitation poster from the times of the USSR
Postcard from the 1960s

According to the experts of the time, the space a person needed in front of a bathroom sink was half a meter, and to dry oneself with a bath towel, a little over a meter should suffice.

The kitchen was designed in such a way that everything one needed to cook a meal was within arm’s reach. For a family to eat together in the kitchen was impossible, though: family members had to take turns.

Speaking of the kitchen: we should mention “Khrushchev’s refrigerator.” This was a cabinet to store food in the winter months. The cabinet was installed in a wall under the kitchen window, and in reality it did not keep the food cold, but it did make the kitchen even colder than it was. If a jar of pickles stored in the cabinet leaked, the neighbors below knew that you had pickles in your cabinet.

A more striking peculiarity of the Khrushchovkas is the heating system, which was simply fitted inside the walls. Today’s architects claim that this kind of technology is advantageous when the pipes are put in correctly; the walls should be of good-quality reinforced concrete and the heating system should be high quality. The pipes heat the apartment to a cozy range and less energy is used to reach a comfortable temperature.

Another feature of the Khrushchovkas is the absence of an attic in some of the models. The top-floor apartment will immediately know when there is a leak in the roof. The floor plans of the Khrushchovkas are rather primitive, and there is no lobby.

A “Khrushchov refrigirator.” Photo from open sources

All those “architectural amenities” made life awkward and were the source of jokes for several generations. Despite all this, the Khrushchovkas had many advantages. First, they did not loom over people’s heads – most of them were not that tall. This was primarily due to cost efficiency – five floors was the maximum allowed without elevators.

Big wide yards surrounded the buildings. In those days, parking lots were not a priority.

An infrastructure around the apartment buildings was designed at the same time. Soviet-era rules were quite stringent: a kindergarten had to be within 200 meters of an apartment building; a school had to be within 500 meters.

The apartment buildings were situated in such a way that a street would not have to be crossed more than once by children going to school. Medical clinics and sports zones had to be close by.

Moving in to a Khrushchovka. Photo from open sources
The interior of a typical room in a Khrushchovka. Photo from open sources

The Khrushchovkas were meant to serve as temporary housing. But even today there are those who believe they can last another 150 years.

The plan was that these “spartan” apartments would serve for half a century, while the simpler ones would last 25 years. After that communism was supposed to take root and the people who had been promised a bright future would move into better quality housing. And then, after having done their job the Khrushchovkas would be demolished.

But it took communism forever to take root. And as for the Khrushchovkas, they are still standing, they are still waiting for the promised bright future, as are the tenants.

There is plenty of similar housing in Europe. Countries outside the Warsaw Pact had their own post-war problems with housing, though Khrushchev’s standards did not apply to European housing construction. Some architects still feel a sentimental attachment to them.

Professor Hans Van der Hayden is one. He is an expert in urban design, and attended the Tenth CANactions International Festival of Architecture this summer.

“I think that in one way or another all the western European countries have to deal with the post-war housing problem. There are many cities that were built in the brutalist style, and many apartment complexes that were built out of concrete slabs.

We often have discussions about how they should look in today’s urban landscape. They are still homes for many people; many people have lived their entire lives in them; they got married there, and brought up a family there.

I myself grew up in one of those buildings. Lots of people get sentimentally attached to them, but others see them as alien and awkward structures.

In Holland, which is my home, I am a proponent of re-urbanizing the buildings. Which means refurbishing them or possibly demolishing them and then building something more contemporary by reutilizing the salvaged parts.”

Khrushchovkas in Kyiv’s Nyvky district
Khrushchovkas in Kyiv

Fanny Costouru, a young architect from Greece, specializes in returning similar old urban buildings to life. She thinks Soviet architecture, especially what she saw in Kyiv, has its own charm.

“Looking at just the form of the building, I think it possesses a special charm. The buildings are outdated, though. Of course architecture isn’t just about forms. Urban housing such as your Khrushchovkas is my field of interest. I think the complexes have great potential, not just as bedroom neighborhoods.

Those buildings should be renovated; a neighborhood with cafes, restaurants, Laundromats, shops, and schools should be created around them – everything one needs in everyday life. The space around them should offer everything necessary, from jobs to recreation.”

For those who really miss living in a Khrushchovka, but don’t have the opportunity to live in one, you might be interested to know that a company in Slovakia is coming out with a line of furniture that resembles block architecture. And it is precisely the panel buildings of Eastern Europe that inspired the designers. A table designed by the company looks like a four-story building, almost like a Khrushchovka.

A typical city district with Khushchovkas

But what if you live in a Khrushchovka? You are stuck with a host of problems. Most of them have been discussed above. Insulating the buildings for better heat retention and soundproofing the walls would be a fine improvement.

Khrushchovkas do not retain heat well. More heat is required to keep them warm. Keeping in mind the costs of heating, the Khrushchovka becomes a luxury few can afford.

There is no panacea to the problems. Every country solves similar problems differently. Restoration and refurbishing is often cheaper than demolition and construction.

Yet countries everywhere have demonstrated that successful restoration and refurbishment of similar buildings can be done well.

A design of furniture inspired by modular houses. Photo:

Ukraine should develop a strategy of what to do with the buildings before the Khrushchovkas start to literally fall on people’s heads.

Editor’s note: take a look at how some post-socialist countries dealt with their legacy of Soviet houses:
Before and after: metamorphoses of Soviet architecture

Read also:


Translated by: Olha Rudakevych
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