The Most Notorious Barracks

Mikhail Krug, «Paris» and the communal hell of a pre-revolutionary architectural monument in Tver.

The once powerful medieval state and model provincial town of the Russian Empire located to the northwest of Moscow, Tver is famous for its location at the confluence of the Volga and Tvertsa Rivers. You can see its legendary vistas on postcards sold all over Russia. But apart from these mass culture images, the city hides many architectural treasures; some of them are abandoned and even forgotten by the city administration, yet they are beloved by historians, travellers and bloggers. Strelka Magazine translated a story written by the «Zerkalo» («Mirror») project about the barracks of Morozovsky Town, located in the center of Tver, to uncover some of these treasures and the problems they face.

17 years ago chanson author and performer Mikhail Krug wrote Morozovsky Gorodok, in which he sang:

I’m passing by my childhood home,
With bitter sorrow in my glance,
In cluttered rooms, washed laundry hangs,
And the smell of DDT fills my lungs.

The place Krug sang about is Proletarka Dvor, also known as Morozovsky Town, Morozovsky Barracks or simply «Proletarka». This microdistrict located in the centre of Tver near the Volga waterfront is famous not only for the childhood home of Russia’s most venerated chanson singer but also for a recognised architectural monument. The Tverskaya Manufacture Association was founded in 1856, and a few years later bought out by Russian entrepreneur Savva Morozov. This happened when gigantic (by mid-19th century standards) multi-story (up to five stories high) brick buildings were built. In a few years, we will be celebrating 150 years since the completion of the construction of the first Morozovsky Town buildings.

The very colourful century-old buildings are beloved by local historians, travellers, bloggers and architecture enthusiasts alike: the rooftop brick water tower and observatory alone are enough to make the complex attention-worthy. The most popular question arising in any discussion related to the Morozovsky Barracks is dictated by the imposing appearance of its unique facade: how should this monumental artefact of pre-revolutionary Russia be restored?. Meanwhile, the interior of this time machine is inhabited not by proletarians from the black and white images of Prokudin-Gorsky’s chromo-photographs, but by our contemporaries. And the conditions they have to live in are nothing but horrifying.

We took a trip to Proletarka to glance behind the historical-architectural veil and discovered a typical barracks-type communal house, where the stories about yolk-based brickwork and unique architectural solutions suddenly lose all their relevance. The condition of building № 122, the residents of which we spoke with, is mediocre at best. It is in a worse state than the famous building № 70 (known as Paris), yet still much better than some of the neighbouring barracks. Like in any other communal house with a corridor-centered layout, a long hall with doors on both sides runs through each floor. At the entrance, rows of post boxes look like they arrived here from post-disaster Pripyat — actually, a lot of things here look like that. One of the doors is secured with a communal lock. Right behind the door is the so-called red corner, also known as the cultural hearth. Today it looks like this:

Unlike what some who have never been here might think, this snuffed out hearth does not mean that the building is a home only to misfits and desperate people who gave up on the conditions they live in and themselves. On the contrary, local residents try to at least keep up the cosmetic appearance and comfort standards of the building, to the extent that collapsing ceilings and rotten piping allow. In some cases, they manage to succeed. One of these cases is the communal space, which so many would consider decrepit by default, only because nobody technically owns it. Local resident Lyubov Yakovlevna, just like most of her neighbours, does not find the living conditions inside the building acceptable, and has repeatedly appealed to every city official within her reach. We will return to Proletarka’s residents’ struggle and the prospects for their future resettlement and the buildings’ restoration later. The main problem with her room is the window, where one of the glassless panels has been patched up with plywood. Even an ideal heating system would not be of any help in this situation, and the leaky radiators under the window are far from ideal. Some apartments, mostly on the first couple of floors, have plastic windows installed, but for most of the residents, plastic windows are a luxury as unaffordable as moving out to a private apartment. Turning on a heater or a teapot in Proletarka means taking a risk, as the old electrical wiring could fail at any time. The building has no fire alarm installed. The access to the emergency stairs is sealed shut, and local officials ignore all requests to have it opened. Everyone we managed to ask about electricity and water bills said that their 20-40 m2 rooms with the aforementioned «comforts» cost them 8,000 to 9,000 rubles per month. No wonder that some bills go straight past the post boxes. For elderly people like Lyubov Yakovlevna, every trip to the communal kitchen, bathroom or trash turns into a trial. In our conversation, she mentioned the recent arrest of the local Minister of Economic Development. The news said that he was suspected of accepting a $2 million bribe: approximately 130 million rubles. For Lyubov Yakovlevna this is an incredible amount, especially considering that one of the proposed projects for the reconstruction of the entire town was estimated at 300 million rubles. At the same time, this amount of money is hardly impressive compared to the cases of corruption in higher political echelons uncovered within the last few years. "I don’t think you will find anything like this elsewhere«, Lyubov Yakovlevna’s neighbour told us upon hearing that we were reporting on situations similar to Proletarka’s over the entire country. Unfortunately, she is wrong. When residents learned that we had come from Moscow, the first question they asked us was: «Is president Putin unaware of what is going on here? How can we reach him?» They see how the Russian government cares about slums is Syria and how it treats its own. Their main wish is to draw attention to their living conditions and to the fact that those in positions of power have been repeatedly throwing dust in their eyes for many years.

Note says: "We are all civilised people here, so please take out your trash!"

Who else has to recognise the problem? It would be incorrect to presume that Proletarka’s communal horror is being deliberately concealed. Six years ago, Channel One Russia dedicated an entire talk show episode to the housing issues in the Town. In the broadcasted episode, the scolded government officials timidly hide behind laws and decrees, while the residents are advocated for by a Federation Council senator, the head of the housing policy and utility commission. At the end of the episode, all the participating figures reach an agreement to keep pressuring the officials and to find investors to resettle the residents and restore the building. By 2011 it already looked like victory was imminent: the Tver city administration published a document entitled Proletarka Dvor Development Concept 2011-2016. The concept aim at «improving living conditions of Proletarka Dvor residents», with the first goal being «resettling Proletarka Dvor residents and providing them with living conditions within sanitary and engineering standards.»

The document is strikingly straightforward and optimistic: «Cost of living and utility expenses at Proletarka Dvor exceeds analogous expenses for common-type apartments in other parts of Tver by several hundred percents.» «...a way to remove warehouse businesses from the territory of the complex has to be found. This would improve the local environment and boost the investment attractiveness of the microdistrict.» «Proletarka Dvor» is an architectural monument deserving of a stop on Russia’s Golden Ring tour." A plan with six implementation steps was created, with the fourth step involving the resettlement of building № 122 residents and conservation of the building until the restoration. This was scheduled to happen in 2014. The plans for resettlement hinged on a new apartment complex in Tver being commissioned. According to Tver citizens, although the construction was completed, the new apartments were granted to someone else. Something must have gone wrong: maybe a government-wide economic depression disrupted the plans! Could a serious initiative backed by regional and urban authorities really stumble and fail for no good reason? It appears it could. To find an explanation, take a look at the previous attempts to resolve the issue of Morozovsky Town. Here is what local newspaper Tverskaya Zhizn says: «Back in 2002 (exactly 10 years ago) state organisation, Tverrestavratsiya examined Proletarka Dvor. Here is an extract from their report: „Active deterioration of perimeter and framework is ongoing...“ The report proceeds to describe the individual conditions of every building. For example, in sections describing buildings № 47 and № 48, the report says: „Operation of the buildings in their current state is extremely dangerous. The electric switchboard and water distribution unit are located in a basement flooded with drainage water... Drainage system is non-functional... High risk of partial foundation destruction within 4-5 years.“ The rest of Proletarka’s buildings received similar reports. Tretrestavratsiya experts concluded: the operation of the buildings should be ceased immediately.

...By the way, in 2005 the Tver City Parliament approved a program for the renovation of Proletarka Dvor for 2005-2010. The program involved the construction of a new communal house, resettling the residents of Proletrarka and designing a renovation project for the microdistrict. The program was supposed to receive 436.7 million rubles in funding. To appreciate its „results“, a simple walk through the Barracks will suffice. Part of the allocated funds was indeed spent on the construction of a new communal house at 19/1 Stroiteley St, but the core issues remained unsolved...» The newspaper proceeds to put its hopes in a new program, which, as we already know, also failed, 15 years since Tverrestavratsiya had made its verdict. «Lately there appears to be some movement towards the eventual resolution of the problem. A concept for the development of Proletarka Dvor for 2011-2016 has been created. The concept suggests the full resettlement of the residents of building № 48 in 2011 and approval of the Proletarka Dvor 2012-2016 program.» During autumn of 2011, mayor Vladimir Babichev met with Proletarka residents and announced that the construction of a new 10-storey building had been scheduled to start soon. His official address is still documented of the Tver region government website: «I promise you that those who live in Morozovsky Barracks will become future residents of this new building. We will keep close track of the list of tenants so no con schemes can disrupt the resettlement.» Local newspapers have been regularly reporting on the prospects of Proletarka with varying degrees of positivity. But what can local newspapers do when even the all-powerful federal TV channel, the bloodhound tracking every single slip Russia’s adversaries happen to make, fails to provide a solution for saving its own Little Palestine. A hostage to the economy Behind the veil of the historical and architectural problem, it can be hard to discern another example of a post-soviet communal disaster. Seemingly run-down living conditions are a natural consequence of run-down buildings, and there is little surprise that 100-year old barracks fail to fulfil modern comfort requirements. However, these buildings happen to be a home to modern people who work, shop, watch TV and raise their children in the 21st century. And the question is not the condition of the house, but that of people and society. What has to happen so that people in one microdistrict of Tver can catch up on simple amenities long available to the rest of civilised world? Looking at these decrepit walls, the full collapse of the Town looks like the most probable end to the horror of Proletarka.

Text: Alexander Zamyatin
Translation: Philipp Kachalin Photos: Anna Goncharova

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