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Urbanism and Disurbanism in the Soviet Union

The intention of this article is to present the evolution of the Soviet attitude towards the city and urbanism, here broadly understood as the “urban way of life”. Particular emphasis will fall on the interwar period, which is generally seen as the most creative epoch for Soviet architects and planners

By Michael Gentile 


The (former) Soviet Union experienced a very fast process of urbanisation during the course of this century. According to Soviet census material, in 1926, only 18% of the population of the USSR was registered as urban, whereas this figure touched 66% in 1990, and even exceeding 80% in some of the more industrialised regions. Furthermore, particularly at an initial stage, the population growth of the largest cities tended to be particularly pronounced. Moscow jumped from somewhat over two million inhabitants in 1926 to over four and a half million in 1939. Similar tendencies were evident in Leningrad and many of the larger cities in the Ukraine. As a result, the need for careful planning of the spatial expansion of inherited capitalist cities and of the outlay of new towns became apparent already during the 1920s. At first it was of an ideological matter, a question of creating an environment suitable and necessary to the new way of life. Later on, after the death of Stalin, the focus shifted away from mainly ideological lines of argumentation towards the solution of immediate problems, such as the never ending increase in the housing shortage or the inadequate distribution of labour in urban space. In many respects, this meant a discourse shift from optimal urban form to optimal city size, even though the two items of debate always remained relatively intermeshed. The new doctrine arising from the debate on the optimal city size had considerable effects on planning, both at the micro and at the macro level. One of the major appearances on the planner’s agenda was the question of devising an efficient strategy for curbing flows of rural-to-urban migrants and for diverting these to small or medium-sized cities. At the same time, planners were faced with an ever increasing labour shortage in cities, mostly caused by the fact that factories operating in a socialist economic system generally increased their output by proportionally increasing the labour input rather than by increasing labour productivity through investment in fixed capital, for instance new machinery. The labour shortage was exacerbated by the chronic housing shortage, and an important but overly multifaceted task of large-scale planning was that of attracting workers to cities designated as foci of industrial development and providing them with appropriate urban housing, a seemingly impossible enterprise given the low priority status attached to the non-productive housing sector.

Matching theory and practice

One of the greatest difficulties facing Soviet planners was the interpretation of the Marxian guidelines. This was particularly true for urban development. Lewis and Sternheimer identify the problem in the occurrence of pro- and anti-urban thrusts in Marxist theory. On the one hand, it calls for the abolition of the distinction between town and country, with all the implications this entails (anti-urban); on the other, it states that industrialisation is a progressive trend in world development and that only an urban setting could host it. Cities would be the guarantors of social and economic progress and political revolution (pro-urban). At this point, planners engaged themselves in a lively debate, some siding for the so-called disurbanist view, and others for the urbanist one. Needless to say, the distinction is not purely dichotomous, but it does help to understand the philosophy of urban form that prevailed during the interwar period in the USSR.


The essence of disurbanism is the idea that cities are symbols of the capitalist exploitation of labour. A very important personality in this respect is Milyutin, and it is worth discussing his theoretical standpoints more in depth. As he stated in Sotsgorod,

… existing cities were created in the interest of the ruling class, the enemies of the proletariat.

Given the exploitative nature of cities inherited from capitalism and the poor living conditions in rural areas, as the above quote indirectly implies, the following conclusion by Engels (in The Housing Question) is supported:

The elimination of the difference between the city and the country is no more nor less utopian than the elimination of the difference between the capitalist and the worker…Only as uniform a distribution of the population as possible over the whole country, only an integral connection between industrial and agricultural production together with the thereby necessary extension of the means of communication – presupposing the abolition of the capitalist mode of production – would be able to tear the rural population out of the isolation and stupor in which it has vegetated for millennia.

For Milyutin, what Engels said is obvious and can be summed up as follows:

We will have to settle the problem of the new redistribution of humanity after we have eliminated that senseless (for us) centralisation of industrial production which gives birth to the modern city… the city and the town stretch out their hands to one another: thus will these arguments be solved.

Taking the above proposition as a point of departure, Milyutin developed a project which can be said to be a landmark in the philosophy and practice of spatial planning, both within and beyond the Soviet context – the linear city. It is thoroughly discussed in his 1930 book Sotsgorod, or “The Socialist City”. His major concern is to create a rational and economical city which acts as an interface between the rural and the urban, and which works as a cost-efficient unified whole, a “functional-assembly-line system”. In particular, transportation costs, both in time and money, are to be minimised.

The linear city, as the name suggests, is an elongated peri-urban formation consisting of a series of functionally specialised parallel sectors, the rigorously planned disposition of which, according to Milyutin, is never to be altered. Generally, the city should run parallel to a river and should be built so that the dominant wind blows from the residential areas to the industrial strip. The sectors are: 1) a purely segregated zone for railroad lines, 2) a zone of production and communal enterprises, with related scientific, technical and educational institutions (note Engels’ statement, quoted by Milyutin, that “education and labour will be united”), 3) a green belt or buffer zone with major highway, 4) a residential zone, including a band of social institutions, a band of residential buildings and a “children’s band”, 5) a park zone, and 6) an agricultural zone with gardens and sovkhozy. Figure 1 shows Milyutin’s famous project for the (then) new city of Magnitogorsk.


Milyutin's scheme for the development of Magnitogorsk

Figure 1: Milyutin’s scheme for the development of Magnitogorsk. Source: Milyutin (1974), p.70

However, Milyutin’s ideas for the linear city went beyond the purely locational aspects in planning. In the same book, Sotsgorod, he put great effort in describing the environment that would have prompted the fastest and most efficient transition from the previous (capitalist) way of life to the new Soviet one. Thus, he took architectural design issues into consideration, greatly affected by the ideas of Le Corbusier and, especially, Ginzburg, a Russian architect known for his modernist designing. In particular, he saw a new architectonic form based on rationality, functionalism and, especially, collectivism. The latter was the most important element in Milyutin’s social project, promoting the gradual downscaling of the family as an economic unit with the new Soviet habitat of the living cell, basically a mini-apartment from which all “superfluous” additions (such as kitchens) were to be relegated to centralised communal facilities, thus generating profits through economies of scale. In particular, much of the social functions of a housing unit were to be transferred from the private sphere to the collective one, through the creation of clubs, libraries, etc.[1]

What really is interesting in Milyutin’s ideas is the concept of putting the residential areas in between the industrial sector and the state farms. In this way, it was thought, factory workers would have been in continuous contact with sovkhoz farmers, not only by living in the same premises, but also by sharing common facilities such as dining halls and clubs.

Milyutin was not a pure disurbanist. He preferred being in between the two currents of urbanism and disurbanism, calling for a renewed urban lifestyle in which the city would have met the countryside by sharing housing and social institutions. On the one hand, he did not want to abolish the city in order to create a pure industrialised socialist countryside (as in Okhitovich’s disurbanist city concept, see figure 2), as the most radical disurbanists would have preferred, but he did want to limit the growth of existent cities at any cost, as he considered them a product of the contradictions of capital, and for this reason oppressive towards the proletariat. As to the limited supply of labour, he points out that a reorganisation of life such as the one proposed in Sotsgorod, with centralised cooking and laundry services, would have liberated women from “domestic slavery” and brought them into the “productive” work force. This would have limited the demand for immigrant labour and, thus, for housing. On the other hand, he absolutely did not want to create dense urban settlements in line with the urbanist approach, a point which he mostly substantiates by using an economic line of argumentation. Nonetheless, in my opinion, he is more of a disurbanist. He summarises his own stance eloquently in the following quote:

… most important is the tremendous problem of the elimination of the differences between town and country. This is why we must review the very meaning of the word “city.” The modern city is a product of a mercantile society and will die together with it, merging into the socialist industrialised countryside.

Okhitovich's disurbanist city concept
Figure 2: Okhitovich’s disurbanist city concept. Source: French, Antony (1995). Plans, Pragmatism and People. London: UCL Press, p. 36.

It is not easy to measure the effect of Milyutin’s ideas on later Soviet planning practices. What is evident is that some, not to say a large amount, of his preaching has left traces throughout the whole of the Soviet period. One example is found in the actual development of the city of Magnitogorsk, where linearity and a certain degree of zoning à la Milyutin is apparent. It is, in fact, zoning in general that has been widely adapted by Soviet planners, albeit assuming the form of the notorious mikrorayon after the Second World War. The simplicity and rationality that Milyutin was after have also been taken seriously after the “Stalinesque” era which will be discussed below.


The ideological point of departure of the urbanist approach is, as Lewis and Sternheimer point out, the “image of the city as a revolutionary centre”. A later reformulation is provided by Rukavishnikov’s statement (quoted in Gentile) that:

Cities, especially large ones and SSR capitals, have always been stimulators of social and ethnic processes, and under conditions of socialism, they become active centres of social and class gap-reductions, thus being protagonists in the consolidation of the nation.

Urbanism did not have much success in the early Soviet period until Stalin made his own interpretation of it. After Stalin, the city’s status as guarant for the desired social development was generally taken for granted. Urban development was founded on principles of high density, decentralisation of and equal access to facilities and services needed on an everyday basis, and urban growth restrictions. The latter principle does not seem to have anything to do with pro-urban policy. To this one may add the insatiable desire to define and regulate according to the principle of the optimal city size, which is seemingly value-neutral.

Whereas the kind of city proposed by Milyutin would have probably implied a more “Maoist” policy of economic development, with smaller scale industrial development spread throughout the territory, it did not seem to go hand in hand with Stalin’s policy of massive industrialisation.

This shift in emphasis within macroeconomic planning led to a sudden death in the emerging modernist architectural concerns, such as design, construction and planning problems. Instead, the role of architecture was redirected towards a concern for political-ideological aspects. The built environment was to be the prime symbolic expression of the power of the Soviet, communist state. This way, city centres  (particularly in Moscow and Kiev) were transformed according to Stalin’s picture of Soviet power. As a result, wide avenues and spacious squares sided by large buildings, decorated with “Stalin baroque” details, came to dominate the Soviet cityscape, giving an overall severe neo-classical impression. Given that land has no formal value under socialism, planners were not very motivated to economise with space. In the meantime, the production of housing for the workers of the new great industrial enterprises lagged behind. The hardships faced by the most recently arrived and “urbanised” immigrants during the Stalin era are accurately described by David Hoffman.

One of the Stalin years’ major innovations was the implementation of the infamous internal passport and residence permit through the so-called propiska system. This, together with the restrictions imposed on the establishment of new industrial enterprises in the largest cities, was supposed to limit urban growth considerably.

After the Second World War, and particularly after Stalin’s death, urban planning was gradually given more attention by the authorities. The provision of housing and services was to be granted on a per capita basis, so as to assure the fulfilment of minimum standards. An important development in this respect was the creation and implementation of the microdistrict (mikrorayon). Even now, it still appears to be the most prominent feature of the (post-socialist city. A mikrorayon is a small housing area composed of five to eight minor housing complexes, each with a planned population of 1000 to 1500 inhabitants. Four to five mikrorayony, each with a population of 8000 to 12000 inhabitants, form a residential district (zhiloy rayon), with a population of 100000 to 300000 inhabitants. Several zhilye rayony form an urban district (gorodskaya zona), with up to one million inhabitants. Gorodskie zony only exist in the largest cities. The provision of services was based on a Christallerian hierarchical principles, with facilities needed on a day-to-day basis available within the mikrorayon, whereas more discontinuously demanded services were to be available within the zhiloy rayon or in the city centre.

Even though, as Szelényi says, a typical trait of socialist cities was their low level of urbanism, defined as less diversity, less economising with space and less marginality, it is apparent that the Soviet approach to urban planning has moved from a philosophy of disurbanism to one of moderate urbanism throughout most of this century. After socialism, the word moderate has fallen away, falsifying Milyutin’s statement that “skyscrapers are the peak – the last cry of capitalism”.


Caldenby, Claes and Walldén, Åsa (1979). Kollektivhus – Sovjet och Sverige omkring 1930. Stockholm: Statens råd för byggnadsforskning

Engels, Friedrich (1982). I Bostadsfrågan [The Housing Question]. Göteborg: Proletärkultur

Gentile (1999). Socialist Urbanisation and the Socio-Ecological Landscapes of (Post-) Socialist Cities. Arbetsrapporter 320. Uppsala: Kulturgeografiska institutionen, Uppsala Universitet

Goskomstat (1990). Demograficheskii ezhegodnik SSSR 1990. Moskva: Finansy i Statistika

Hoffmann, David, L. (1994). Peasant Metropolis – Social Identities in Moscow.  Ithaca: Cornell University Press

Lewis, Carol W. and Sternheimer, Stephen (1979). Soviet Urban management – With comparisons to the United States. New York: Praeger

Lewis, Robert A. (1987). Soviet Demographic Policy: How Comprehensive, How Effective? In Holzner, Lutz and Knapp, Jeane M. (1987). Soviet Geography Studies – In Our Time. Milwaukee: The University of Wisconsin

Milyutin, N.A. (1974). Sotsgorod – the problem of building socialist cities. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT press

Rossiiskaya Akademia Nauk (1992). Vsesoyuznaya Perepis’ Naseleniya 1939 goda – osnovnye itogi. Moskva: Nauka

Rukavishnikov, V.O. (1980). Naseleniye Goroda (Sotsial’nyi sostav, rasseleniye, otsenka gorodskoy sredy). Moskva: Statistika.  Quoted in Gentile (1999). Socialist Urbanisation and the Socio-Ecological Landscapes of (Post-) Socialist Cities. Arbetsrapporter 320. Uppsala: Kulturgeografiska institutionen, Uppsala Universitet

Szelényi, Ivan (1996). Cities under Socialism – and After. In Andrusz, gregory, Harloe, Michael and Szelényi, Ivan (1996). Cities After Socialism. London: Blackwell

Tsentral’noe statisticheskoye upravlenie (1972). Narodnoye Khozyaystvo SSSR 1922-1972. Yubileynyi statisticheskii ezhegodnik. Moskva: Statistika

[1] Note the similarities with the debate being held at the same time in Sweden, particularly with regard to the idea of collective housing. See for instance Caldenby, Claes and Walldén, Åsa (1979). Kollektivhus – Sovjet och Sverige omkring 1930. Stockholm: Statens råd för byggnadsforskning.