Most Russians (74%) live in the cities. What are the urban homes like? Are these apartments or private houses? Do people prefer to live in the center or in the suburbs? Let’s explore.
Downtown vs Suburbs
Foreigners do not realize that the tourist photos they see of Moscow do not show what the majority of Muscovites see out of their windows every morning. Moscow’s historical center is cozy and beautiful, Moscow “sleeping districts” are rather dull. The city always needed more residential housing, so the approach to construction outside the city center was mostly functional. Buildings that could fit as many inhabitants as possible, standing close to each other plus a basic infrastructure such as a kindergarten, a school, a medical clinic, a couple of stores, a playground for kids and maybe a park (if you are lucky).
Moscow is a huge city (~14 Mln people) and traffic in the city is terrible. So, living closer to the center is convenient, since that way you lose less time for commuting. Living in the historical center is considered to be prestigious, but the poor quality of air, the traffic situation, exorbitant prices and the prevalence of commercial buildings make a lot of streets a questionable win. Still, there are several really nice streets where most people would like to live.
Close to the city center, mainly at the South-West of the city but also at some Northern districts, there are several nice residential areas, where you have those “Stalin buildings” (built during Stalin’s time) with thick brick walls and high ceilings, large apartments, nice views to the river and big parks nearby.
And, here and there are new residential buildings, which have indoor parking, gyms, private security and other benefits.
However, the majority of people in Moscow live in the sleeping districts, which look like the first photo.
How about living in the suburbs? Some people do indeed live at their dachas (and in that case these are more like country houses), but there is no such thing as suburbia in the “American way of thinking”. People do not move to suburbs when they start families and want to raise kids. People want to have an apartment in the city as the permanent home and dacha as a summer-house for weekends. And those people, who do live outside of the city, but work in the center are heavily penalized for the opportunity to have fresh air by sitting in traffic jams on their way to and from work for many hours every day.
So, 99% of Russians, living in the city do live in apartments. To have a private house within the city limits is super rare. There are just several townhouse communities in Moscow and all of them were established in the recent decade or two.
What is The Typical Apartment Like?
The way one describes apartments in Russia differs from the US way of describing apartments. We do not count bedrooms, we count rooms. So, we have one, two or three room apartments. In the rare case – 4 room apartments. The notion of a studio does not exist – there will typically be a separate kitchen and one room in a 1-room apartment. Usually one room will be the living/dining room, and one or two rooms will be bedrooms. Most standard apartments will have one bathroom, having a master bathroom and a guest bathroom is considered to be chic. Apartments lack dedicated storage spaces, so the balcony usually serves as a storage for everything – from winter tires to skis, strollers and other items. We will return to interiors in future posts, now lets finish with the building options.
There are several types of apartment buildings in Moscow. The least prestigious are 5 store buildings, built in the 50s-70s. Apartments there are super small – the goal of the government at that time was to get rid of “communal housing” (several families, sharing one apartment), so these were never meant to be permanent and still greatly improved the quality of life for young families. These apartment buildings are named “khruschevki” after Nikita Khruschev, who ruled the country at that time or “pyatietazhki” – five-storey buildings. Now, most of these buildings have been demolished and their former residents got apartments in the new modern buildings.
One level up from “pyatietazhka” is “devyatietazhka” – a nine-storey building, also made of large building blocks. Typical 9-story building of the 60s-80s will have about 300 1-3 room apartments and these apartments will be bigger than in the earlier version. However, they are still very small – a 3-room apartment could be around 60 square meters, which means that the biggest room is around 18 sq.m, the smallest 12 sq.m and the kitchen could be as small as 5-6 sq.m.
More modern residential housing may have up to 21 floors, but they are also built of panels (the house is assembled quickly, as from Lego blocks). Apartments in such houses are bigger and may have a better plan, but in general they are not that much different from the earlier versions. People strongly prefer to live in brick houses or houses built under the more modern technology, called “monolith” (when the skeleton of the house is filled with concrete.
Most people prefer either monolith houses or “Stalin buildings” as on the photo above. Solid, thick walls, big rooms, high ceilings – all these are the pluses of “Stalin buildings”, but there are also minuses. These buildings are quite old and a lot of them need serious renovation. New modern buildings are out of the reach of most people, but some of them are nice, have non-standard apartment plans, gyms in the building and indoor garages.
Rent or Own?
To have an apartment in Moscow is a dream of most of 146 Mln residents of Russia. Very few are lucky enough to have an apartment in ownership, many take super overpriced mortgage (15-20% interest rate!) to own a place once they pay back in 20-30 years. For the rest – it is a dream that may never come true.
Still, having an option to get a mortgage is a relatively new thing and even the exorbitant interest rates do not stop people from buying, since it is a way to get an apartment right away. Before people had to wait until they save enough money to buy the apartment and that was really difficult. There are two options if you want to buy – either buy a “second-hand” apartment and do whatever renovation it needs. Or buy an apartment in a new building. What is hugely different from the US – if you buy an apartment in the new building – be ready that the apartment will have only grey concrete walls. No floors, no paint on the walls, no electricity, no bathtub and of course – no kitchen. You buy and unfinished “cave” and let your own team of construction workers install all the wires, smooth the concrete walls, do the concrete floors and later do all the renovation – from floors to ceilings. So, whatever you paid for a square meter (be it $5k or $10K or more), add at least $1-2K for the construction work per each square meter.
Most people rent apartments and prices vary by the city and the district within the city. With the recent exchange rate fluctuations it is difficult to give exact prices, but in general a one room apartment in a sleeping district of Moscow will cost you around $700-900/month+utilities, depending on the district (several months ago the typical rent could have been $1500, but prices fell). For people, who own their apartments, communal charges, gas, electricity etc. will amount to $150-300 a month, which is really low compared to the US, but relatively high, compared to the average salaries and pensions.
Renting apartments is not a good business since there are no laws, that protect a landlord from tenants destroying the apartment and there are no fixed leases. Basically – your tenant may leave when he or she wants and the only thing they will lose is a one-month deposit for the flat (which may not cover the costs of renovation).
Does all that sound scary? It does! Next posts will explore such topics as typical apartment plans, renovation brigades (how to find and manage them), trends in interior design in the last 50 years, shopping for furniture in Moscow and other topics. Stay tuned! I will try to write the next post soon! Send me your questions via comments or site email!
© 2016 Tatiana Golubeva. All rights reserved.