In a centrally planned socialist economy like the one that existed in the Soviet Union, the government determined every detail of the national economy. This also meant that it determined the details of its workers’ personal lives, including where they lived, what jobs they took up, and where they could move. The Soviet Union had extensive restrictions on the freedom of movement that ranged from internal passports and residence restrictions to the forcible deportation and resettlement of entire peoples.
During tsarist times, Russia also used internal passports and the threat of exile to control its population. In response, Vladimir Lenin preached the right of movement, and when he came to power abolished the tsarist requirement for address registration. For a few years the Soviet regime experimented with different more or less liberal systems of freedom of movement.
But by the 1930s the pendulum was swinging back. Stalin’s industrialization and collectivization shunted millions of individuals across the country—from farmstead to collective, from countryside to factory—worrying the communists in charge, who wanted more control over their subjects. A decree of 1933 required all Soviet citizens in cities, near major cities, and near the Soviet Union’s western border to acquire a passport and official registration (propiska) to allow them to live there. Rural dwellers, on the other hand, were denied passports and could not leave their homes without special permission. Internal passports were just one of the many tools of control that Soviet state security used to enact Stalin’s murderous purges of the late 1930s. By 1953, all non-rural residents were required to have passports, and in 1969 rural dwellers were allowed them as well, so that by the 1970s, passports and propiska were the regime’s standard tool for controlling the movement of the citizenry. Disobeying these laws invited charges of “vagabondage.”
There were also whole areas where movement was restricted. Many people wanted to move to Moscow and Leningrad (St. Petersburg), the biggest and most prestigious cities in the Union, where the power elites lived and scarcity commodities were more widely available, and resorted to tactics like marriages of convenience to circumvent movement restrictions. Then there were whole “closed cities,” where sensitive nuclear or scientific research went on, that did not even appear on maps.
Housing itself was also a major preoccupation of the Soviet regime. The day after the October coup that brought him to power, Lenin ordered the confiscation of large urban houses and townhomes from the upper classes in order to house workers and peasants. However, after the revolution and civil war destroyed much of Russia’s housing stock, the Bolsheviks were unable to replace it. They allowed greater scope for individual initiative in house-building during the New Economic Program period of the 1920s. Thus ownership was mixed. Some was public, with rent that went directly into the state budget, some was private. At the end of the Soviet Union, about 22 percent of urban housing was privately owned, while in the countryside the figure was 85 percent.
Stalin’s industrialization push of the 1930s had dramatic and deleterious effects on the housing situation. Stalin asked citizens to make “serious sacrifices” for his plans. In housing, this meant that just as millions of people were moving to the cities, funding for housing was chopped in half. Overcrowding—with multiple families crammed in small apartments—was rampant. As the service and trade economy withered or was swallowed by the state, workers came to rely on their workplaces for food and housing. Strict laws of 1938-40 ensured that unsatisfactory or truant workers could be expelled from factory housing. By WWII, factory housing represented 20 percent of the country’s total.
All these problems were exacerbated by the immense destruction wrought by the war. After Stalin’s death, his successor Khrushchev sought to remedy the housing crisis by producing thousands of prefab apartment blocks. Khrushchev nearly doubled the housing stock and managed to house over 100 million people between 1956 and 1965. Nonetheless, the apartments were of low quality and on average smaller than the government’s own sanitary standards demanded. In 1971, 23 percent still lacked running water, 18 percent central heating, and 27 percent a toilet. Meanwhile, as in so many other areas of life, high-ranking elites got special perks: apartments and houses in desirable areas of the city.
Stifling rules and bureaucratic regulations were unfortunately not the sum of the Soviet Union’s restrictions on free movement. Some of its most horrifying acts involved snatching people—individual dissidents, social classes, entire ethnicities—and exiling and imprisoning them thousands of miles away from their homes. In the 1930s, NKVD squads deported all ethnic Koreans from the Russian Far East. During the Second World War, hundreds of thousands of Volga Germans, Karachai, Kalmyks, Chechens, Ingush, Crimean Tatars and others were deported to Central Asia or Siberia, often dropped off in areas with no housing whatsoever. From the 1930s to 1950s, millions passed through the GULAG prison camp system, which peaked at 2.5 million inmates in 1950. Even after Stalin’s death and the end of the era of mass slave labor, released prisoners were forced to live 101 kilometers outside the limits of major cities.
Soviet citizens got the worst of both worlds from their communist system. It was not actually able to provide them with abundant, high-quality housing. But it was fully able to exert totalitarian control over them, carefully track their location, restrict their movement, expel them from the locations they wanted to live, imprison them, or deport them to forbidding wastelands. So much for the “realm of freedom” promised by Marx.