History of Urbanization and City Functional Types in Russia and the U.S.S.R.

As in the rest of Europe, many cities in European Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova are old. Although none approach Rome or Marseilles in age (2,600+ years), some are over 1,000 years old, with an unmistakably medieval core (a fortified kremlin) and a more recent periphery. The oldest cities, however, are in Georgia (Tbilisi, Batumi), Armenia (Yerevan), Uzbekistan (Samarkand, Bukhara), and other parts of Central Asia; these cities date back 1,500–3,000 years. The Greeks built fortified colonies along the Black Sea coast at Korsun (“Chersonesos”) and Kerch in the Crimea, and at Sukhumi and Batumi in Georgia. These cities are over 2,000 years old, but only a few ruins of the original settlements remain. A few of these were consumed by the sea as a result of land subsidence or sea level rise (e.g., parts of the famous archeological site Olvia, east of Odessa). On the other hand, in much of Siberia, the Russian Pacific, and Kazakhstan, cities are recent phenomena. The traditional inhabitants of those lands lived a nomadic lifestyle until the early 20th century and did not create large permanent settlements. The Soviet Union moved millions of people around and created hundreds of new settlements over this eastern frontier.

Some of the oldest Russian cities (Staraya Ladoga, Novgorod, Pskov, Murom, Kiev, and Chernigov) are at least 1,200 years old. They were built before Rus was Christianized under Vladimir the Great in 988 A.D. The second period in which many cities were built was toward the end of the Tatar–Mongol Yoke (1350–1450). Dozens of Russian cities date from that period, including parts of the Moscow Kremlin, which was mainly built under Ivan III in the late 1400s. A few famous monasteries grew in that period, giving rise to new cities around them—Sergiev Posad, Borovsk, and Zvenigorod around Moscow. Some cities of the old Asian khanates (Bukhara, Samarkand, Khivy) were renovated during that period as well.

The third peak in city building coincided with the modernizing reforms of Peter I and Catherine II in the 18th century. St. Petersburg and the surrounding cities in the northwest were then built and greatly expanded, as well as some cities of the Urals and Siberia (Yekaterinburg, Chelyabinsk, Tomsk, Irkutsk, Yakutsk). The earliest Siberian cities were established as forts in 1600s, but did not grow much until industrialization began two centuries later.

The fourth period included late-19th-century industrialization, when city factories grew rapidly in the developing industrial zones around Moscow and Tula, along the middle Volga, and in the Urals. By 1917, 17% of the country lived in cities. The fifth (Soviet) period brought about massive reconstruction of the old urban cores. Entire neighborhoods with dozens of churches, mansions, cemeteries, and markets were razed to give way to new monuments, plazas, government buildings, and tree-lined avenues suitable for mass transit. Perhaps the most infamous incident involved demolition (in 1931) of the largest church in Russia, Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow; the original plan was to replace it with a skyscraper called the Palace of Soviets, which was intended to be taller than the Empire State Building. World War II intervened, however, in the end only a large open swimming pool was built in its foundation. The cathedral was eventually reconstructed in the 1990s. During World War II, entire factories were dismantled and moved away from the European front lines to the Volga region and the Urals, giving birth to new cities there. After the war, city construction shifted farther into the Arctic, eastern Siberia, and Central Asia as new deposits of metal ores and fossil fuels had to be exploited there. Table 11.2 provides some examples of various types of cities, based on their historical function and period of construction (arranged from oldest to newest). For each type, an analogous Western city is provided.

unctional Types of Russian/Other FSU Cities

The Soviet Union planned urban development not only at the level of individual cities, but for the entire country. If the economy demanded, new cities could be created in the middle of nowhere. At the same time, population flows into the largest, most desirable cities could be controlled through a system of mandatory residence permits (propiska). This system had certain advantages over a market-driven, locally controlled model of urban development, because the resources had to be mobilized quickly and to achieve certain uniformity with respect to living standards. At the same time, the system was insensitive to the local variations in cultures and led to increasingly homogenous urban designs, with the same basic apartment buildings mass-produced for the whole country. For example, sanitary norms set in 1922 dictated the size of the minimal livable space at 9 m2 (about 100 ft2) per person. This remained unchanged over the entire Soviet period and without respect to local needs (e.g., in regions with more severe climates). As illustrated in Bater (1996), the actual space available toward the end of the U.S.S.R. ranged from 13 m2 in Estonia to 7 m2 in Turkmenistan, with 10 m2 being the national average. In practice, not only the central planners or the local governments, but primarily the various Soviet ministries determined the actual city layouts, apartment configurations, and materials used in construction. Some of the best-designed cities were the ones built by the wealthier industries (e.g., mining, oil/gas, and nuclear energy).