Latvian Capitalism

by | Apr 4, 2017

I was walking around near our building, we live in a building amongst some of the Khruhchoyovka, the Soviet-style apartment buildings in Riga, when I saw something that made me begin thinking about the nature of aging and living in a free market economy. To set the scene a little bit more, Riga is the capital of Latvia, a small country along the Baltic Sea that borders Lithuania, Belarus, Russia, and Estonia. Contrary to popular belief in the West, these types of buildings were much sought after in the former Soviet space. There was a lack of quality housing after WW2 left these countries devastated, and these apartments gave a chance at some type of home “ownership” for the largely Russian migrants who came to occupy them. The buildings were built no more than five stories high, as this was determined to be the highest a building could be without having an elevator. There are many of these types of buildings throughout the former Soviet Space.

These buildings are mixed use buildings, with barbers, dry cleaners, nail salons, tailors and shoe repair, and small corner markets often located inside them. Families would often live in these small, two or three room apartments, which was good for the Soviet space, something equivalent to living the American Dream in the Soviet Union, especially later when dachas were introduced. Dachas have been around since the tsars, but more recently, dachas are seasonal cabins or homes that were often built by Soviet citizens themselves in land granted to them by the state. Just like you had to wait in line for your apartment while they were building them, so you had to wait for your dacha land. Dachas came to be second homes away from the crowded cities, where teenagers would while away their summers, away from the crowded, two room apartments inhabited by their parents. These structures were seasonal in nature because permanently heating them was prohibited by the state, and often they didn’t have indoor plumbing beyond a sink.

Even so, these pseudo private structures were among the most successful innovations of the Soviet economy, because they allowed citizens to grow their own food on these plots of land, and have a degree of private ownership, even if it was the “look away” private ownership of the Soviet state. Soviet citizens supplemented their diets with food they grew at their dachas, and the hard work of gardening at the dacha was a great source of pride for average Soviets who were fortunate enough to have them. The gardens were wall to wall crops, and it was frequently canned for later use, a practice still seen in many Russians, although overall gardening at dachas seems to have waned.

The Khruhchoyovka are now filled with largely older citizens and young families, and many here in Latvia stand half empty. The City of Riga still owns most of the hundreds around the city, and co-opting them is out of the question, as most people here think the average occupant couldn’t handle the contractual arrangement of living in a co-opted building. Strangely, it produces a worst of both worlds, with individual units being owned by private owners, but the building being owned by the state. Naturally this leads to some of them being in pretty bad shape, and as buildings become uninhabitable, the city is forced to move occupants to another, more habitable building.

Another relic from the Soviet times is even more surprising to those in the West when they learn about it, and that’s centralized heating for the Khruhchoyvka. The heat produced for the apartments comes from a centralized heating facility where water is heated, and then the hot water is pumped all throughout the apartments. A city will have two or three of these plants, more if it’s a bigger city. Occupants have no ability to control either when it is turned on, or how hot it becomes. This fact is sometimes lost on Westerners in the great gas wars, which is sometimes cut off by Russia to the former Soviet states. In these times, the Khruhchoyvka are freezing precisely because they were designed without the ability to heat themselves, there is not alteration to the building that can be easily made to heat the buildings and the state owns them, so no one will take responsibility to do this, and none of the apartments have fireplaces.

As I was walking out amongst these buildings, I saw something striking. I had long thought and seen the babushkas of the Khruhchoyvka had a rough life, and doing simple things like going to get food from the market was difficult for the older and most physically disabled. The buildings themselves allowed them a degree of independence that they may not have in the West in their old age, because of how cheap they were now and because of their mixed use, they had access to some services. Food and getting it upstairs without an elevator remains a problem.

What I saw, was the market solution. Two men with a small van set up a table in the small courtyard, able to service maybe six buildings. They had eggs, some vegetables, bread, and milk in a big steel jug as well as other things. They had large sacks of potatoes and other staples. It looked like many items they had grown themselves, but I didn’t ask. The babushkas were lined up for them, buying up the food, and one of the men would carry the 10kg sacks of potatoes up the stairs to the apartments of the ladies. After a while, they drove on to the next block, staying for perhaps a couple hours or even less, but word would whip through the buildings and the babushkas would come running.

In the West, doing something like this would be violating many, many laws. Here, without the rules, men came and gave door to door service to the elderly ladies of these buildings, in a way it’s difficult to imagine that they would get otherwise. In the US, you have all sorts of problems among aging people getting services like these. The solution is always offered as more government, more centralization, and more rules. Wandering around the buildings of residential former Soviet Europe, it makes me wonder if back home anyone has learned the lesson the builders of these places didn’t.

About Phil Brown

Phil Brown currently lives in Riga, Latvia. He went to Miami University in Oxford, OH, where he studied Diplomacy and Foreign Affairs, and lived in Germany for four years. He offers editorial commentary about topics relating to liberty, specifically foreign policy and culture.

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