P. Martell’s “Legislation Concerning Residential Development in the Soviet Union” (1928)

Translated from the German by Eric Dluhosch.  From El Lissitzky, Russia:

An Architecture for World Revolution.  (MIT Press.  Cambridge, MA: 1970).

• • •

The Communist Revolution in Russia, probably the greatest social phenomenon of all time, also created the most unusual conditions in the area of residential development by the planned expropriation of private property buildings.  In the name of the Communist Revolution, Russian house owners and landholders lost all their property, which became instead the state property of the Communist Soviet Republic.  Thus, the Russian state assumed supreme ownership of all buildings, land, and real estate.  For practical administrative purposes, all urban real estate was placed under the jurisdiction of the city governments, which were left with the difficult task of making these old, handed-down properties usable by the community.  In addition to this, Russian city administrations had to solve another difficult and important problem, namely, the alleviation of prevalent housing shortages by new residential construction.  Up to now, new housing has encountered great difficulties, mainly because of shortages of materials, although it should be noted [160] that in a limited number of Russian cities some new residential construction has actually taken place.  However, the number of these buildings is so small that it has no real significance in the over-all context of new residential construction in Russia.  At present, the technical maintenance of old residential property in the Soviet Union has priority over new residential construction.  Due to acute shortage of materials, Russian city administrations are unable to maintain the enormous property holdings handed over to their care in good repair.  As a consequence, Russian city dwellings — with only very few exceptions — give the appearance of extensive and frightening decay and dilapidation.  In the north of Russia, where buildings are exposed to extreme climatic ravages because of the long and severe winters, decay is even more apparent than in the south.  Sewer systems and water-supply lines have been most severely affected, especially in northern cities.  There are usually no replacements available for the numerous pipes that have been burst and broken by frost, creating thoroughly disagreeable and unsanitary conditions.

The virtually unlimited expropriation of all private ownership in the Soviet Union was originally based on the general law, promulgating the Basic Rights of the Exploited Working Classes, dated January 13th, 1918.  To quote: ‘Private ownership of land property is to be abrogated; all land holdings are to be declared the property of the whole nation and handed over to the working classes without compensation on the basis of equitable land use.  All forests, mineral wealth, and water resources of national importance, all movable as well as immovable inventory, model farm holdings as well as specialized business establishments are to be declared national property.’  This expropriation was at first only applied to rural property.  The expropriation of urban property was carried out on the basis of numerous other laws.  A law of October 20th, 1917 prohibited all forms of land speculation.  At the same time, all legal procedures concerning the sale or mortgaging of city-owned real estate were declared null and void; offenses against these laws were punishable by heavy penalties.  In practice, expropriation became complete and universal, since both the municipalities and the local Soviets were granted virtually unlimited powers of disposal over all residential property.  Expropriation was placed in the hands of the so-called Commission for Residential Dwellings, which was given arbitrary power of control over all urban real estate.  There was, at that time, a predilection for electing former janitors to act as chairmen of these commissions.  A Central Commission for Residential Dwellings established in Moscow was granted final executive authority.


As far as expropriation is concerned, Russian Communism has lately willy-nilly recognized the need to reconstitute bourgeois concepts of law to a certain degree.  As a result, new real-estate laws have been developed having the following general features as far as urban property laws are concerned: To re-establish a basic legal order for Russian urban policies, the Soviet government has asked all cities to fix their exact municipal boundaries.  Such a separation between city and country was considered indispensable, since the law treated urban property somewhat differently from rural property.  Thus, the law of December 7th, 1925, made it obligatory for all cities to establish their exact municipal boundaries by January 1st, 1929.  The cities were rather tardy in responding to this request by the Soviet government — by the end of 1926 only 40 percent of all cities had fixed their municipal boundaries.  During the survey carried out for this purpose, a remarkable fact of general cultural significance came to light, namely, that numerous small Russian and Siberian towns did not have any maps or documents on which to base a survey.  In other cases, existing city maps were so outdated as to be practically useless.  For example, the city plan of the Siberian town of Kainsk, population 10,000, had been drawn up 100 years ago.

The Soviet law of April 13th, 1925, regulated urban land policy, insofar as city and municipal administrations were given exclusive jurisdction over the use and administration of all city land.  Thus, Russian city administrations have an almost unlimited and sovereign monopoly of power over laws and regulations concerning all land use within their boundaries.  This unrestricted power vested in the city government is limited by only one conception, namely, the use of city land by agencies of the central government operating on the national level, such as railroad stations, military installations, etc.  Whenever an agency of the central government is in need of a parcel of city property, a procedural format must first be agreed upon with the respective city administration, and the resulting transaction is subsequently submitted to the Commissariat of the Interior.  In each case, the final decision is confirmed in the form of a decree issued by the Council of People’s Commissars, which represents the supreme law of the Soviet Union.  In all other cases, permits for a dwelling or any other land use within the city limits can be obtained solely from the city administration.  Thus, the city represents the highest legal source for the granting of land-use privileges.

Russian cities, especially the bigger ones, soon recognized that even with the best possible organization it was impossible to administer the [162] great multitude of all their buildings through one single central agency.  Even though some municipalities made an attempt to run all their properties from City Hall, most of the other cities preferred to forgo such a method.  These cities decided to place individual buildings in the care of and for the use of individual citizens, or public or private corporations.  In each case the caretakership was put under contract, which in turn gave the user certain litigable rights.

The Communist Soviet Union has recently introduced two kinds of land rent: the so-called base rent, and the differential or supplementary rent.  The Russian law of November 12th, 1925, provided the legal basis for rental duties concerning urban real estate and land used for transportation purposes.  The ‘basic rent’ represents a duty payment due to the state as the sole and supreme owner of all land.  It is levied on each house or property within the city limit and is uniform for all parts of the city.  One is struck by the use of the term ‘uniform’ in the provision, which ignores the position of property with respect to transportation, so that each house, regardless of its relative location, is assessed equally.  Obviously, such a system of rents in inequitable and unjust.  The level of the prime rent to be paid to the state is computed on the basis of the approximate average annual yield attained by the agricultural enterprises surrounding the city.  Consequently, there is no uniform basic rent, and each Russian Republic pays the national government a differently apportioned contribution.  Since the level of the basic rent is tied to the economic viability of the surrounding farms, it is obvious that compared to smaller cities the metropolitan areas have to pay a higher basic rent not only because of their larger over-all area but also because they provide a big market for the surrounding farm country, thus guaranteeing a higher agricultural turnover with correspondingly higher profits.  It is evident that such a system of assessment is built on extremely shaky foundations.

The other Russian Communist land rent is the so-called differential rent which in contrast to the national basic rent represents a supplementary rent payable to the city.  This supplementary rent which has to be paid to the city by the owner of a house or by the holder of property for its use is differentiated depending on the size and location of the property.  National property and municipal property used for direct city services are exempt from any rent.  For the establishment and the levying of due basic and differential rents, the Soviet Union has appointed special assessment commissions that are supposed to operate on a completely impartial basis.  A Central Assessment [163] Commission, acting as the highest authority for the whole Soviet Union, has been formed.  Since the Soviet Union consists of many individual republics — the Ukraine being but one example — each of these Republics has its own state assessment commission along with a number of subordinate regional assessment commissions.  A further organizational breakdown leads to the various district assessment commissions which deal with assessments of basic and differential rents of towns belonging to their own district.  Decisions made by the district assessment commisions may be applied to the regional assessment commission.  In practical terms, both of the land rents described above have not had any great impact on state income, since they have fallen far short of their estimated goals.  Against an estimated annual total income of 9 million gold rubles of revenues from basic rents alone, only 3 million gold rubles were actually collected.

The Soviet law of May 29th, 1924, made an attempt to establish a new rate scale for the basic rents, but it soon became apparent that these rates were too high, for in many cases the estimates were higher than the income received from the leases.  In the meantime the government has attempted by means of numerous decrees to create more economically tolerable conditions in the individual cities by lowering the rates.  To give an insight into the urban land policies of the Soviet Union we present several items from the report of the People’s Commissariat of the Interior.  The official census deals with 251 of the 539 cities of the Russian Soviet Socialist Republics.  In it, land within city limits is classified according to four categories: 1.  Land directly administered by central government agencies, comprising approximately 4.4 percent of the total urban land area.   2.  Land used for dwelling and construction, i.e., the actual residential areas of the cities, covering approximately 12.6 percent of the total area.  3.  Public land used for traffic, recreation and play areas, cemeteries, and garbage dumps.  This category also includes rivers and lakes.  These public open areas use up 12.4 percent of the total area of the city.  Since a great number of Russian cities are still without water and sewerage systems, these are often replaced by cesspools and garbage dumps.  Areas used for such purposes are very often quite large in certain cities, often as much as 2 percent of the total.  4.  The so-called ‘useful appurtenances,’ covering the remaining 70.6 percent of the total land area.  These include grazing lands, farm land, meadows, vegetable gardens, and fruit gradens.  It should be noted that in the first years after the Revolution the cities failed to engage in land cultivation altogether, resulting in extreme neglect and [164] deterioration of these areas.  Only lately has land cultivation been resumed, though on a very modest scale.  To some extent the high rents charged by the cities for the use of such land were responsible for this neglect.  In 1925, for example, the average rent for a hectare of vegetable garden was 62 marks, and for agricultural land, 14 marks.  Thus, large areas of urban open land lay fallow.

In spite of all this, certain planning policies are being gradually evolved by the Soviet cities.  Quite obviously, Russian city administrations show great interest in questions dealing with all aspects of new construction.  However, absolutely no means were available for new construction, since during the first years of the existence of the Soviet Republic, development on the whole became bogged down in the theoretical planning stage, a trend which in general tends to permeate much of political life in the USSR.  The city administration, acting as the sole representative of supreme state land ownership, is the only agency authorized to acquire land parcels for new construction, and at the same time also controls all new construction.  The widespread shortage of residential accommodations in Russian cities is the direct result of inadequate living conditions prevailing in rural areas, which in turn results in a part of the rural population leaving the villages in the hope of finding shelter and refuge in the cities.  Although leading officials in the top echelons of the Soviet government are fully conversant with the theories and ideas of modern city planning, this is not at all the case with many city administrations.  The government tries to correct this situation by sending out numerous circulars expounding the principles of modern city planning, but so far only modest success has been achieved.  In 1922, the People’s Commissariat of the Interior founded a central archive in Moscow with the dual purpose of collecting and classifying the plans of all Russian cities.  Both in Moscow and Leningrad museums were founded dealing exclusively with municipal and communal affairs.  An Academy of Communal Affairs was established in Leningrad in 1923 with a similar purpose.  There is no shortage of these architectural city-planning competitions.  Eventually, however, all these proposals pass into oblivion, since the means for their realization are lacking.  The general level of impoverishment in Russia at this time prevents any kind of high-level resolve in terms of practical implementation.

As in other matters, the Soviet Union had to make a decision concerning the creation of a new construction law.  The first revolutionary law dealing with this matter was issued on August 8th, 1921, but [165] soon after was superseded by the Construction Law of August 14th, 1922, which established certain fundamental concepts.  Although this law was later amended a number of times — as, for example, by the law of November 21st, 1927 — it nevertheless fixed procedures for building-law contracts.  On the basis of the latter, a developer may acquire from the city administration the right to use a specific empty or built-on property; in the case of wood construction, for 50 years.  In return, the developer assumes the obligation to actually erect a building on the lot.  In order to encourage private individuals to build, the Soviet building laws have gradually extended use rights on properties from an initial 40 years to a possible 65-year period.  After expiration of the use right, the building becomes the property of the city.  Insofar as construction of residential buildings with a minimum of 75 percent of the floor area devoted to dwellings is concerned, certain ameliorations are granted.  The 65-year use right represents a very long time span, and one cannot escape the impression that in this case we are really dealing with a quasi ‘property right,’ in spite of the fact that the teachings of Communism categorically deny and reject all notions of private property.

Special attention should further be paid to the fact that after the expiration of the 65-year use right, masonry structures do not automatically become the free property of the city, but appopriate compensation must be paid by the city to the holder of the use right.  This fact reveals a surprising recognition of the concept of the right to private property.  The law of December 21st, 1926, goes even further in the case of residential building cooperatives by granting them perpetual land-use rights.  Even previous building contracts of such cooperatives were retroactively granted the right of perpetual use.  In addition, explicit property rights have been granted to the Soviet Building Cooperatives, assuring them of full legal protection for all dwellings erected by them.  Thus, in spite of its frequent official rejection of the whole concept the Soviet government has clearly and unequivocally recognized the right to private property as far as this particular case is concerned.  Since Russia does [166] not possess enough of its own financial resources to embark upon expensive building activities, the Soviets have tried to attract foreign construction firms.  Except for a few exceptions, such firms have been reluctant to participate.  As far as Germany is concerned, only the firm Paul Kossel of Breme has declared its willingness to engage in major construction activities in Russia, late in 1926.  This work is being done in cooperation with the Russian Central Association of Residential Building Cooperatives and is founded by a newly formed stockholding company — the Russgerstroi.  Residential buildings made of concrete are the main concern of this company.

In conclusion it may be said that in Russia, too, residential construction has advanced somewhat during the last few years, even though progress has been rather modest.  Ultimately all residential building is really a question of capital, and this has quite naturally proven an especially difficult obstacle in impoverished Russia.

[From Wohnungswirtschaft, Vol. XXIII, Berlin 1928, pgs.  140-143]


~ by Ross Wolfe on October 20, 2010.

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