Urbanization According to Plan

26 September 2012, 16:51

Modern Ukraine is an industrial country with a predominately urban population. To a large extent, its cities developed upon a material and demographic base that was established during the era of rapid soviet urbanization.

In the UN’s 2007 demographic report, Ukraine was listed 24th out of the 25 most urbanized countries in the world. The growing number of cities with rising populations is a global trend. According to the 2010 report by the World Health Organization (WHO), the total share of urban population worldwide was 50% in that year. Modern humanity is more urban than it has ever been in its entire history. This is the result of the demographic boom of the late 20th century and advancements in science and technology. In 1900, urban populations comprised only 14% of the total global population. This share grew to 29% by 1950, 38% by 1970 and 46% by 1990.   

Ukrainian cities grew even more rapidly, adding half a million people annually in the 1960s. Censuses of the late 20th century showed a permanent increase in Ukraine’s urban population, mostly due to migration from villages, which contributed 47.8% of growth in 1959-1970 and 51.6% in 1970-1979. As a result, the Ukrainian SSR became an urban country in 1965 when the urban population exceeded 50% of the total. By 1994, the rural population was half the size of the urban population.


The massive migration from villages to cities was sparked by a slew of factors, such as the impact of World War II, the natural trend toward urbanization with people moving to towns and cities, the policy of enlarging small villages and collective farms, the elimination of hamlets, the declaration of small villages as unpromising, the flooding of territories with man-made lakes, labour mobilization campaigns, the fact that rural populations had no passports and the socio-cultural environment developed slower in villages than it did in cities, and the crisis of the collective farm economy.

Soviet urbanization was nominal, reflected in statistics only, yet never shedding its rural traces. Facilitated by rural resources, urban development brought forth a pseudo-urban culture, the marginalization of migrants and a low-quality social infrastructure.

Rapid urbanization was caused by the great demand for labour in the industries of the Ukrainian SSR. Villagers were an important resource for new factories and plants. With the soviet practice of residency registration for those who lived in cities and the lack of passports among the rural population (this gradually changed from 1953-1981), the workforce was ‘purged’ from agriculture in favour of industry through labour mobilization, organized labour camps, Komsomol and other civil campaigns.

In the 1960s, the government focused more on the population’s social needs in Ukraine. It implemented pension reform, changed the system of education and began to pay salaries to collective farm workers in cash, not in kind. Nikita Khrushchev’s key social project was housing reform. Intense residential construction in the Ukrainian SSR spurred rapid urban growth.

Urban development policy of that time was based on the landmark decision to expand housing construction made at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party in February 1956 and the respective decree by the Ukrainian SSR’s Council of Ministers issued in summer 1957. These acts triggered a series of important decisions that brought residential real estate to a new level in the Ukrainian SSR. The key focus was intense construction of civilian housing. To cut the cost of a single square metre by 1/3, standardized projects and general city plans were introduced; industrial construction was launched; campaigns against “architectural excessiveness” including adornment of facades, elevators, high ceilings, steep roofs and so on, were declared. Cities were being filled with newly-built residential districts. To complete the planned amount of work on time and cut construction costs, the authorities had to launch massive production of building materials essentially from scratch. A short-term need for apartments facilitated innovation in construction, yet the results were often of poor quality.

In terms of interior design, soviet architects used the “economy of squares” concept offered by Lazar Cherikover in the 1930s-1940s. He claimed that a human needed 90cm to iron laundry and 85cm to put on shoes. A 75-80cm wide toilet room was considered large enough for a person to stand with bent elbows, while 110cm would suffice to take off clothes and put them in a closet, so that was the width of the corridor.

Made to fit this universal standard, buildings and cities lost their architectural face. Functional efficiency and a pragmatic approach to civil and residential housing became top priorities. A new wave of the war with religion further facilitated the drastic change of urban space as the authorities revived the campaign to wipe out any remaining religious structures.


In cities, huge residential districts were erected wherever there were vacant lots. This typical soviet practice was in stark contrast to the West, where getting a plot of land for construction was difficult. Residential districts replaced settlements around plants and factories. Moscow’s Cheriomushki built in 1956 was the first residential district of this kind in the Soviet Union. Kyiv’s first new residential district was Pershotravnevyi (May 1st), constructed from 1957-1963.

A decree of the Ukrainian SSR’s Council of Ministers passed in May 1958 launched the epoch of standard khrushchevka apartments. One of the project’s founders was Vitaliy Lagutenko, Head of the Moscow Architecture and Planning Department, and grandfather of Ilia Lagutenko, leader of the popular Russian band Mumiy Troll. One version of the story claims that the K-7 project was borrowed from a similar French project that included five-story buildings with no elevators, low ceilings, small apartments, shared bathrooms and poor sound and thermal insulation.

The new buildings were literally produced in chunks at factories and the ready-made panels were moved to the construction site and pieced together over short periods of time. Obviously, the Communist leaders viewed khrushchevkas as temporary housing that would last 20-25 years until Communism was firmly established in 1980. The buildings of the “first period of industrial construction” were built both in the Soviet Union and other socialist countries, therefore they were the most widespread elements of the “expanding victorious socialism”. According to official data, more housing was built in Ukraine from 1956-1964 than over the previous 38 years of Communist rule. The authorities failed to completely eliminate the shortage of housing, but made the problem much less acute. The relocation of over one third of the urban population of the Ukrainian SSR out of collapsing communal houses and into their own apartments became a revolution in the social sphere.


The construction of cheap standardized housing in the Soviet Union was not unique. Weimar Germany was the pioneer of standard industrial construction based on the Bauhaus concept in the 1920s, followed by post-WWII France, Israel and the USA. After the Second World War, industrial construction and the rejection of neoclassicism were universal trends. First and foremost, this was caused by the need to quickly rebuild the war-ravaged infrastructure. The Soviet Union was unique in its strict compliance with standards whereby identical buildings were constructed everywhere, from the capital to the villages.

Soviet architects borrowed some points from the concept of the “international style”. Its forebears included Swiss architect Charles Le Corbusier. He viewed urban construction as a tool of social transformation and a block of apartments as the key city object. His main goal was to improve urban comfort through widespread transportation networks and park zones, made possible by higher buildings and greater population density in residential districts. Later, Le Corbusier’s ideas for “radiant cities” were tested during the construction of Brazil’s new capital, Brasilia, from 1957-1960.

With the launch of the 1955-1957 housing reform in the Soviet Union, creative architectural processes came to a halt. Although initially innovative, the ideas of 1920s-1930s modernism were implemented as mere caricatures in the 1960s-1980s for the sake of cheap and standardized construction.

The Communist Party was trying to keep as much control as possible over urban development, so it passed the relevant decisions. The programme approved at the Party’s 22nd Congress in 1961 fixed the roadmap for the construction of Communist society. Thus, social infrastructure disparities between cities and villages had to be wiped out. Officials were given the task of halting excessive concentration of the population in big cities while facilitating the development of smaller cities and towns, and the gradual transformation of collective farm villages and hamlets into bigger ‘town-like’ settlements. One important issue for soviet demographers was that of an “optimal city size”. Research by the Urban Development Institute under the Academy for Construction and Architecture of the Ukrainian SSR held in the 1950s found that a population ranging from 20,000 to 300,000 meets the optimal standard. In reality, however, the existing settlement practice was preferred. It entailed economic and demographic domination of the Soviet Union’s southwestern and southern economic zones.

Urbanization processes in the Ukrainian SSR evolved according to several trends. The galloping growth of urban populations led to new forms of settlement: agglomerations. From 1957-1979, Ukraine’s major agglomerations emerged. Kyiv hit the one million mark in 1957, followed by Kharkiv in 1962 and Odesa in 1974. By 1976, Kyiv’s population measured over two million. The 1979 USSR Census revealed two more “millionaire” cities: Dnipropetrovsk and Donetsk. In big cities, so-called pendulum migration developed, whereby most people commuted from suburbs and residential districts to workplaces and schools in business or industrial zones in the morning and returned at night. Filling the cities with residential districts caused transportation problems, exhausted options for land development and aggravated criminal activity. These were essentially Eastern models of settlement culture whereby the focus was on the progress of huge cities. 

The soviet command-administrative system was an integral part of urban development. The number of cities increased greatly from 1956-1965 as a result of amendments to legislation that allowed executive committees of oblast councils, in addition to the Ukrainian SSR’s Verkhovna Rada, to grant city status to settlements. In 1946, Ukraine had 258 cities; by 1959, it had 331, 370 by 1965 and 385 by 1970.

In addition to the regulation of city status, government instructions affected the way cities developed. After the administrative territorial reforms of the 1920s-1930s and 1950s-1960s, a city or county centre that lost this status eventually faded. However, some settlements developed due to administrative orders. Uzhhorod, a town of 17,000 people after the war, evolved after it was granted the status of oblast centre and a university was opened there (one of only seven in Ukraine at that time).  

The population’s concentration in industrially advanced areas of the Ukrainian SSR, such as the Donbas, the Dnipro area and the Black Sea coast, was another significant element of soviet urbanization. Intense construction policies spurred the emergence of plant-cities. As a result, monofunctional cities, towns and worker villages mushroomed in the Donbas. Still, the employment of the entire population in just one industry and the dependence of a city or town on a major nearby plant carry the threat of socio-economic collapse.


Diaspora researchers provide interesting interpretations of the process of urbanization in Ukraine during the last two decades of soviet rule. They claim that the government controlled the movement of the population, and urban growth was an instrument of Russification (despite the formation of a Ukrainian ethnic majority) by which a different ethnic element was proactively settled in cities. Bohdan Kravchenko, Canadian political analyst and sociologist of Ukrainian origin, said that the Ukrainian SSR did not have equal status in the Soviet Union compared to other republics. Dmytro Solovey, member of the Ukrainian Free Academy of Sciences in the U.S., viewed this as “planned hampering of Ukraine’s industrial development and the increase of its urban population […] while all preferences were given to the Russian SSR”.

Canadian historian Orest Subtelny focused on the increasing number of urban citizens and the transformation of the mental portrait of Ukrainian society, referring to this as “the Great Transformation”. He also noted a shift in the ethnic structure of cities where “Ukrainian majorities finally emerged”. Thus, the share of Ukrainians in the population of Kyiv grew from 60.11% in 1959 to 72.45% in 1989.

The construction of a lot of cheap housing launched in the late 1950s fuelled urban population growth, satisfied industry’s labour needs and made the Ukrainian SSR more urbanized.  

Still, the soviet authorities failed to control the rapid growth of cities dictated by the demand for labour. The process unfolded unaccompanied by an increase in the amount of available housing, well-planned infrastructure development or support of culture at an acceptable scale. As a result, urban construction was often chaotic, creating new inconveniencies for residents. Other negative impacts of soviet planned urbanization included higher crime rates, demographic crises, socioeconomic problems in villages, the spread of alcohol and drug addiction and aggravated pollution.


Western Europehas relatively few multimillion-resident cities today. Germany has four; the UK, Spain and Italy have two each, while Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Poland, Serbia, Romania, Hungary, France, and the Czech Republic each have just one. Cities with over two million people include London, Berlin, Madrid, Rome and Paris. The USA, whose population totals 313 million, has only 9 megalopolises. Meanwhile, Russia, with a total population nearly half that of the US, has from 9 to 14 megalopolises, according to different estimates. The number of multimillion-resident cities in modern India ranges from 39 to 55. China has around 100. Australia’s five giants are home to nearly half of its population of 22-million.

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