Squatters in Moscow Seize the Day--and Apartments


On the parquet floors in the spacious rooms intended for the country's elite, the unkempt Timchenko children played with their puppy on a well-worn mattress. Baby carriages and cots with broken metal springs lined the hallway. Toddlers' clothes and towels were hung out to dry on a balcony of what should have been an unoccupied building.

The Timchenkos and six other families, all fed up with their own wretched living standards, seized this apartment and several others a week ago in a deluxe new building that was specially designed for the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, the top body of the nation's legislature.

"We don't want to create a scandal, we just want justice," said Mikhail Timchenko, 27, a computer programmer who moved into the previously unoccupied building with his wife, three small children and a 2-month-old puppy. "We gathered together only the people who were living in the very worst conditions. This is our last hope. We are convinced we can get nowhere through the official channels."

Most of the squatter families had been living with at least three children in one room in communal apartments and sharing a kitchen and bathroom with other families. They all belong to a new group called the Society of Families With Many Children of the Proletarsky District.

Housing, one of the most dismal aspects of the grim living standards here, is still distributed primarily by the government. Although Soviet law guarantees large families better conditions, the housing shortage in Moscow is so acute that officials have told most of the squatters they have no chance of being allotted new housing for at least five or 10 years. So a week ago, the seven families took their futures into their own hands by moving into the building--without giving notice to authorities. They broke through two doors and carried in mattresses, cots, blankets and a few days supply of food.

They chose apartments, removed existing locks and put in their own. Then, they posted signs that warned, "Eta kvartira zanyata "--"This apartment is taken."

Waiting for the authorities to strike back, the seven couples and nine of their 27 children huddled together in one large apartment on the third floor of the 14-story brick building.

The next evening, last Sunday, six official-looking black Volga sedans surrounded the building, but no one attempted to enter or communicate with the people inside. On Monday morning, local officials approached the squatters, asked them to remove a banner from the balcony proclaiming "People for Just Distribution of Apartments" and posted a policeman at the entrance.

But the officials voiced their moral support and did nothing to chase away the squatters.

Sergei V. Lobach, the first deputy chairman of the district executive committee, said officials feel their hands are tied.

"We could not forcibly remove them. There are women and children there, not bandits like we see in American cowboy movies," he said in an interview.

"Their demand to have better housing is just, but the means they are using are not just." he added.

Although there have been no promises to the squatters, Lobach said officials from the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet have indicated that they would turn over about half of the apartment space to the Moscow City Council. These apartments will be distributed to families with many children in the district, but there is no guarantee that all the squatters will get apartments, Lobach said.

Georgy K. Tal, a deputy from the local district council, has taken up the squatters' cause and pledged to protect them.

"They really need these apartments. They live in catastrophic conditions," he said.

Tal stressed that the apartments would not have ended up in the hands of the people who deserve them unless such drastic measures were taken.

"We sent a letter about this building to the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet in February demanding that a percentage of these apartments be allotted to people in our district. We never even got a response," Tal said. "It took all this noise to get the Presidium to respond. No one can fully support this act because it is unlawful, but it took tremendous courage."

The squatters' bold act, challenging the foremost authority of the land, is at least the fourth such move-in by large families in Moscow.

Most members of the Soviet working class are tired of silently enduring inhuman conditions while privileged members of their socialist society live in relative luxury. The fear that kept the people down for decades has been dissolved by the greater openness in society brought about by President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's reforms.

The occupation of these buildings, so much better designed and constructed than average Moscow apartment houses built with prefabricated slabs of concrete, has drawn public attention to the failure of Gorbachev's reforms to improve the difficult lives of his people.

In Moscow alone, 1.25 million people--about 14% of the capital's 9 million--are on waiting lists for better housing, according to Moscow News, and many of them have no hope of getting new apartments for 10 years. Nationwide, about 14 million people are on such waiting lists, and about 6 million of them live in dormitories or communal apartments like the squatters.

For the last six years, the Timchenkos have been living in one room of a communal apartment. Their single wardrobe holds everything from noodles to children's underwear. With five beds, a refrigerator and all the family's belongings, there is little floor space.

"There's no place for our children to play or even walk," said Marina Timchenko, who was standing in the cluttered room of her old home preparing packages to take to the new one in the occupied apartment building.

"As you can imagine, my wife and I have no intimate life at all," her husband added.

Two other families shared the apartment, so the six adults and seven children had to fight over one dank bathroom and a small kitchen. The bathroom smelled strongly of mildew, and its peeling ceiling dripped water that condensed from the constant washing of the bodies and clothes of so many people each day.

The neighbors fight over the use of the dark kitchen, which has only one stove, one tiny table and one stool.

Considering the conditions of their previous dwellings, the squatters are thrilled with their new home at 7 Larov Pereulok, even though it is was not completely ready for occupants. The lights have just started working, the water supply goes on and off and everyone is still crowded into a few rooms.

"But it's a palace to us," said a wide-eyed Timchenko, giving a tour of one of the new apartments.

The apartments have spacious entry rooms, balconies and hallways and a playground in the yard. They are equipped with parquet floors ready to be shellacked and modern bathroom fixtures. The larger apartments even have two toilets, a novelty in Soviet apartments.

"These kinds of apartments are only for people with blue blood," said Olga Samodumskaya, who organized the Society for Families With Many Children and led the takeover.

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