The changing face of St Petersburg Part 14

  1. Leningrad under Khrushchev: The Thaw and the housing boom (1953-1964)

There are so many reasons to visit St Petersburg. Some people come in search of culture, others seek inspiration from its literary associations. For some, it’s the architecture that’s top of their list, while others simply come to experience a different way of life.

One thing that’s certainly not in short supply in St Petersburg is history. The city may only have been founded in 1703, but the last 300 or so years provide a fascinating insight into the changes which have shaped this incredible city.

Here, we look at Leningrad under Khrushchev: The Thaw and the housing boom (1953-1964)…

On 6 March 1953, Radio Moscow made an announcement that shook the country: ‘On 5 March, at 9.50 pm, after a grave illness, the Chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers and the Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin, died.’

Stalin had ruled the country for over 25 years – as long as many people could remember. An era had suddenly come to a close. What would take its place? It was a worrying time.

A behind-the-scenes struggle for power in the Kremlin raged on over three years. Eventually, on 24 February 1956, at a secret session immediately after the official closing of the Communist Party's Twentieth Congress, Nikita Khrushchev took the stand and railed against the former dictator, saying that whoever disagreed with Stalin had been unjustly annihilated.

For citizens brought up to praise the ‘genius’ of their great leader, Khrushchev's attack seemed so intense that some audience members were said to have experienced heart attacks, while others later committed suicide. Yet an ideological and social revolution had begun, known as The Thaw. Millions of innocent victims who’d been killed or imprisoned during the long years of Stalin's reign were officially rehabilitated. Those interred in forced labour camps had their cases reviewed; most were found not guilty and allowed to return home.

Censorship was relaxed, and some foreign movies, books, art, and music were permitted. Khrushchev also began an ideological change in the private sphere, with a shift away from the collective housing endorsed by Stalin, whose vision had been of a large, collective family under his paternal leadership.

Khrushchev's ideology placed a higher value on private life. In addition to greater emphasis on consumer goods, he promoted a massive construction campaign to eliminate persistent housing shortages. The focus was on quantity, not quality. Five- or six-story apartment buildings from prefabricated reinforced concrete were thrown up right across the Soviet Union. In Leningrad, about 1500 of these so-called Khrushchevki were built on the outskirts of the city's historic centre. Though cramped and unattractive, they allowed thousands of people to escape claustrophobic communal apartments. This was the first time that many families had enjoyed a private kitchen and bathroom.

It was a time of optimism after the horrors of the Second World War and the repressions under Stalin.