Full transcript of Dmitry Orlov’s talk (part of Long Now’s longer term thinking seminar series). This is much better than the Thriving in the Age of Collapse and Post-Soviet Lessons for a Post-American Century papers I’d read before.
Moving on to shelter. Again, let’s look at how the Russians managed to muddle through. In the Soviet Union, people did not own their place of residence. Everyone was assigned a place to live, which was recorded in a person’s internal passport. People could not be dislodged from their place of residence for as long as they drew oxygen. Since most people in Russia live in cities, the place of residence was usually an apartment, or a room in a communal apartment, with shared bathroom and kitchen. There was a permanent housing shortage, and so people often doubled up, with three generations living together. The apartments were often crowded, sometimes bordering on squalid. If people wanted to move, they had to find somebody else who wanted to move, who would want to exchange rooms or apartments with them. There were always long waiting lists for apartments, and children often grew up, got married, and had children before receiving a place of their own.
These all seem like negatives, but consider the flip side of all this: the high population density made this living arrangement quite affordable. With several generations living together, families were on hand to help each other. Grandparents provided day care, freeing up their children’s time to do other things. The apartment buildings were always built near public transportation, so they did not have to rely on private cars to get around. Apartment buildings are relatively cheap to heat, and municipal services easy to provide and maintain because of the short runs of pipe and cable. Perhaps most importantly, after the economy collapsed, people lost their savings, many people lost their jobs, even those that still had jobs often did not get paid for months, and when they were the value of their wages was destroyed by hyperinflation, but there were no foreclosures, no evictions, municipal services such as heat, water, and sometimes even hot water continued to be provided, and everyone had their families close by. Also, because it was so difficult to relocate, people generally stayed in one place for generations, and so they tended to know all the people around them. After the economic collapse, there was a large spike in the crime rate, which made it very helpful to be surrounded by people who weren’t strangers, and who could keep an eye on things. Lastly, in an interesting twist, the Soviet housing arrangement delivered an amazing final windfall: in the 1990s all of these apartments were privatized, and the people who lived in them suddenly became owners of some very valuable real estate, free and clear.
Or read Stewart Brand’s summary reprinted at Grinding.
Somewhat related: My round-up of commentary on Obama’s stimulus bill.