This contribution points to general phenomenon of urban housing in late Soviet Central Asia (ca. 1960s-80s). The first image shows the floor plan of a tipovoi dom (literal translation: type house), a standardized design for a detached single-family house. Standardized designs were not only common for larger construction projects but also for so-called individual (individual’noye) houses. Soviet authorities introduced various regulations and legislation encouraging standardization in order to increase efficiency and reduce costs in planning and construction. Central institutes – so called CITPs with central office in Moscow and regional offices in the capitals of some republics were responsible for collecting and approving standardized projects. Ideally, planners on the local level all over the Soviet Union then only needed to choose from a catalogue of layouts for buildings of all kinds (ranging from schools to bus stops). While attempts to adjust the designs of individual houses to local conditions existed, they were mostly limited to the use of different building materials. There was, however, little variation in the floor plans. Typical designs both for apartments and individual houses featured two or three rooms and a kitchen and were often without a proper hallway.
Contrary to what is widely assumed, the construction of housing in urban areas of the Soviet Union was not entirely – in some cities not even predominantly – in the hands of the state. As an integral part of the reconstruction program after WWII, the government of the Soviet Union supported what was officially termed individual house construction (Individual’noye stroitel’stvo) and had created a legal basis for it in 1944 and 1948. The decrees provided the legal framework for families who planned to build a house on their own initiative (and expense). They regulated the terms and conditions for the allocation of plots and special housing loans. According to these regulations, a person could build, own, rent out and even sell a house under specific conditions: The permitted maximum size of the house was limited at 5 rooms or 60 sqm, and owners were not allowed to use the house for generating "income not generated by labor" or netrudovye dokhody, so the rent could not exceed the maximum rates set by the state. The plot always remained state property. These limitations were grounded in the distinction that Soviet legal scholars made between “private” and “personal” or “individual” ownership. While the former was thought of as a capitalist form of property, serving to gain capital and exploit people, individual property was thought of as merely for personal use, like clothing or furniture, a product of one's own labor, that is, "honest," "earned" property. Home ownership was thus reduced to its use and consumption properties and brought in line with socialist morality.
While individual house construction was a phenomenon that existed all over the Soviet Union, Central Asian stands out for its high share of privately-owned urban housing. With a share of 63,7% in 1960, and still of 40% in 1981, Uzbekistan was on top of a Union-wide statistics. Private housing also stands for a less known chapter of the mass-housing construction program initiated by Nikita Khrushchev in 1957 that actively supported individual housing up until 1962. In Central Asia and particularly in the oasis cities like Samarkand or Tashkent with their existing traditions of private urban architecture this program was met with a particular willingness of their citizens to take housing in their own hands instead of waiting for the state to provide for it. The expansion of Samarkand following the start of the mass housing campaign in 1957, for example, was as much a result of private as of state building.
As elsewhere in the Soviet Union, self-help construction in Central Asia was characterized by a high degree of informality. Officially any family that could prove constrained living conditions could apply for a plot, yet the number of those willing to build constantly exceeded the capacities of the city. Additionally, allocation regulation prioritized those evicted in the course of ongoing redevelopment projects in central and historical parts. The growing need for new building land could be satisfied only by transfering collective farmland to the municipality. These regulations led to conflicts between various actors of urban planning and territorial administrations, thereby giving rise to various informal practices like blat and even land-grabbing and strongly contributing to the urban structure of the cities.
And yet, the privately built houses of Samarkand or Tashkent do not only tell us a story about informality in the Soviet Union and self-help construction as a pragmatic reaction to the shortage of state housing, but also a genuinely Central Asian story and in our case – that of Soviet Uzbekistan. To understand the specific signatures these practices of self-help building have left on the urban landscape, we need to engage with the site-specific framework conditions and the material, cultural and technical repertoires that people employed. In many oasis cities of Central Asia, for example, the abundance of adobe provided for a cheap and available construction material, in contrast to cities like Minsk, where construction of private houses was constrained by a shortage of wood. Private builders in Central Asia could furthermore draw on a rich, millennia-old tradition of vernacular architecture and know-how of local craftsmen to build adobe-brick houses tailored to the needs of extended multi-generational local families for whom the newly-build concrete apartments were either unavailable or too small. The self-help construction of private houses was mostly based on the local tradition of hashar – a local term for collective kinship- and community-based mutual help. It is also noteworthy that the idea of hashar itself underwent a transformation during the Soviet period and was incorporated also into the Soviet rhetoric of collective work. A closer look towards private housing in Soviet Central Asia thus offers insights into different aspects and forms of material and conceptional hybridity of the every-day life in this region. It also reveals the persistence of local technologies in the context of Soviet industrialization.
The most interesting part of the story, however, began after families had built the houses and moved in. After successfully applying for a plot at the local municipal authority, families were required to build according to a standard layout that was assigned to them (figure 1). Since the Soviet catalogues of standardized housing designs did not pay much attention to regional, climatic, or cultural differences, dwellers often took the necessary adjustments in their own hands, as figure 2 shows. Over the years many of the houses assumed the shape of traditional court-houses – a so-called hovli with living rooms surrounded around the inner courtyard. Extensions and small buildings that were gradually built alongside the perimeter of the plot provided additional housing space for different generations living together, including the families of married children. These extensions allowed especially for local Muslim extended families to adhere to an idea of housing that required separation of private and public realms as well as space for hospitality. This transformation can be interpreted as a response to the Soviet paradigm standardization and uniformity.
Much has been written on how Soviet architecture and urban planning – often violently – molded the practices of Central Asian urbanites and merged them with new social practices and urban forms. The self-help construction of adobe brick houses and transformation of type houses, however, shows how – in a very literal sense – the inhabitants had their active share in molding Central Asian Soviet cityscapes. In cities like Samarkand, we can still observe the unexpected heritage of the mass housing campaign. There, the Central Asian vernacular architecture that Soviet planners had long hoped to banish from the urban landscape did not only prove to be resilient in the historical city center. Because the mass housing campaign led to a boom in self-help construction, the key characteristics of this architecture also came to be reproduced in the new suburban neighborhoods that emerged on a large scale on the city’s periphery.
van der Straeten, Jonas, and Mariya Petrova. “Mud Bricks in a Concrete State: Building, Maintaining and Improving One's Own House in Soviet Samarkand, 1957-1991.” In Histories of Technology's Persistence: Repair, Reuse, and Disposal. Edited by Stefan Krebs and Heike Weber, 93–120. Bielefeld: transcript, 2021 (in print).
Petrova, Mariya. "Nah Am Boden": Privater Hausbau Zwischen Wohnungsnot Und Landkonflikt Im Sowjetischen Samarkand Der 1950er Und 60er Jahre. De Gruyter, 2020.
Stronski, Paul. Tashkent. Forging a Soviet City, 1930-1966. Pitt series in Russian and East European studies. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010.
Marteau D’Autry, Christilla. ““Vyjdem Vse, Kak Odin! ‘Allons-Y Tous Comme Un Seul Homme!’: Ethnographie D’un Hashar National Dans Un Quartier De Samarkand, Ouzbékistan.” Cahiers d’Asie centrale, 19–20 (2011): 279–301.
Smith, Mark B. Property of Communists: The Urban Housing Program from Stalin to Khrushchev. DeKalb: Northern Ill. Univ. Press, 2010.
Andrusz, Gregory D. Housing and Urban Development in the USSR. 1. publ. London et. al.: Macmillan [et. al.], 1984.
Jonas van der Straeten works as postdoctoral researcher at the Technical Darmstadt in the project “A Global History of Technology, 1850 – 2000” which is funded by the European Research Council. His current research focuses on the temporality of technology, especially in the region of Central Asia. Recent publications: van der Straeten, Jonas: “Borderlands of Modernity. Explorations into the History of Technology in Central Asia, 1850-2000”, in: Technology & Culture 60 (2019), p. 659-687; van der Straeten, Jonas/Hasenöhrl, Ute: “Connecting the Empire: New Research Perspectives on Infrastructures and the Environment in the (Post)Colonial World,” in: NTM Journal of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine 24 (2016), p. 355–91.
Mariya Petrova is a doctoral researcher at the Leibniz Institute for Regional Geography in Leipzig, Germany, working on public transportation infrastructures and policies in post-Soviet Uzbekistan. Prior to this, she conducted research on the history building and housing in Soviet Samarkand, Uzbekistan, as member of the project "A Global History of Technology, 1850 - 2000" at the Technical University of Darmstadt. Recent publications: Nah am Boden. Privater Hausbau zwischen Wohnungsnot und Landkonflikt im Samarkand der 50er- und 60er-Jahre, Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter. 2021 (open access).