Throughout nearly all of the Soviet period, urban housing was in critically short supply relative to the needs of the population. The intensive industrialization and urbanization of the USSR in the twentieth century put enormous pressure on existing housing stock, and the Soviet government did not begin to prioritize adequate housing until the late 1950s. At the time of the Revolution in 1917, eighty percent of the population of Russia (and a higher percent in the rest of the USSR) lived in rural villages and towns. By the 1990s, nearly the same percentage was urban. This represents a dramatic shift from country to city, relative to other nations of the world.
Poverty and privation drove people from the countryside, while Soviet official industrialization campaigns encouraged (and sometimes forced) their movement to cities. From the 1920s into the 1950s, a significant number of Soviet families lived in communal apartments, while many lived in worse conditions in barracks or "dormitories" (mass housing for workers). For many families, gaining a room in a communal apartment represented a step up in their housing, especially if they found themselves in the most desirable cities of Moscow or Leningrad. Like Iraida Yakovlevna from "A Room for Her Daughter," many people without housing, especially people from the rural areas, tried to get work as janitors so as to gain a room in the city.
In the Soviet Union, housing in cities belonged to the government. It was distributed by municipal authorities or by government departments based on an established number of square meters per person. As a rule, tenants had no choice in the housing they were offered. Rent and payment for communal services like water and electricity did not form a significant part of a family's budget. They did not cover the real costs, and were subsidized by the government.
People's access to housing was like their access to consumer goods in that it depended on their position in society and their place of work. Often, housing (the so-called "department housing") was provided by the workplace. Administrative control over housing and the movement of citizens was carried out by means of the residency permit.
In cities right up to the 1970s, most families lived in a single room in a communal apartment, where they suffered from overcrowding and had little hope of improving their situation. A comparative minority of people lived in "private" apartments or still lived in dormitories and barracks. Although as far back as the 1930s, a private apartment for each family was declared a goal of Soviet housing policy, large-scale construction was begun only at the end of the 1950s. Extensive construction of low-quality five-story concrete-block buildings, dubbed "Khrushchevki," (or "Khrushcheby," which rhymes with the Russian word "trushchoby, " meaning slums), mitigated the situation to some degree. (We've translated this word as "Khrushchev housing" when it comes up in clips.) Nevertheless, the declared goal was not met, even in the 1980s when high-rise projects with private apartments became the main form of city housing. At that time, some cities, including Leningrad, had almost a third of its citizens "on the housing list."
Beginning in the 1960s, people who could not count on joining the housing list because their present space exceeded the legal norm (i.e., they had more than five square meters per person) could contribute their personal funds to a cooperative construction project and receive what was called a "cooperative apartment." Only the better-off portion of the population could afford this, and here also the amount of living space a family already had could not exceed specific limits. The limit of nine square meters per person held up to the early 1980s, after which it began to increase. In calculating square meters, the government took into account not only a family's primary living space, but also, if they had one, the dacha.
For those who could join a cooperative, housing was comparatively affordable: the price of a square meter in a cooperative apartment was about equivalent to an average monthly salary. In contemporary St. Petersburg (2006), by contrast, the market value of a square meter in the cheapest new apartment is about ten times the average monthly salary.
Yet another way to improve one's living conditions, though not by a lot, was the "exchange": you could exchange your housing with other people. If, for example, a family with one large room in a communal apartment split in two (for example, after a divorce), those people could exchange their living space for two small rooms in different communal apartments. People who got one big room were said to be "moving in together" (Russian s"ezzhayutsya) and those who exchanged for two small rooms were said to be "moving away from each other" or "splitting" (Russian raz"ezzhayutsya).