From villages to blocks
Let us start at the beginning. Why so many apartment blocks, why so suddenly?
As mentioned in the previous post, the main reason why the landscape of Balkan cities underwent such a drastic change during the socialist years is the rapid industrialization. To up their game and catch up with other European countries, especially the Western counterpart, Balkan states needed to change the percentage of the rural population. To illustrate the starting point, immediately after the Second World War, around 80% of the Bulgarian and Romanian population and around 66% of the Yugoslavian population lived in rural areas (see John Sillince’s book, Housing Policies in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union). The calculation is simple: industries in cities need workers, and future workers are found in the countryside…
The promotion of socialist values, the desire to challenge the capitalist West and prove the superiority of the socialist system through industrialization, were behind campaigns to urge people to migrate to the cities and contribute to the socialist dream. But the promises of a better life, salary, modern housing and commodities turned out to work all too well, as the urban population drastically increased in a short period of time, and continued so throughout the socialist years. As an example, in the 1960s, a little more than half of the Bulgarian population was now living in cities.
The housing problems were soon to follow: a crucial lack of apartments available, and a lack of space to build them in the cities. This brought a lot of frustration in the population and presumably had to do, among many other frustrations, with the fall of the regime. Families had to wait for years to get an apartment. In the meantime, they would settle in temporary structures on the outskirt of cities. To read more on this fascinating aspect of housing, see Brigitte Le Normand’s book, Designing Tito’s Capital: Urban Planning, Modernism, and Socialism in Belgrade.
On Romania’s side, dictator Ceausescu had his own way of dealing with the housing complications. His vision of a Romania with burgeoning industries and growing cities called for drastic measures: forcibly resettling villagers in cities, and destroying villages to expand cities. Numerous academic works study this traumatic phenomenon and collect testimonies from people who experienced it, which offers an important retrospective view. There is also this documentary that touches upon the subject: The Lost World of Communism. If you don’t have 1h to watch it, go directly at 44:30, where there is an interview with a couple whose house was destroyed. But if you do have the luxury of watching it all, it is extremely interesting to learn about the effects of Ceausescu’s actions in Romania, beyond the housing problems.
Archived newspaper articles from the 1980s show the situation in real-time. As I don’t have the opportunity of getting access to Romanian archives, the reports are from Western sources. They basically tell that some Romanian villages were destroyed and replaced by apartment blocks. The aspect of (lack of) money comes back as to why the process of building is so slow, and the excessive views of the regime are criticized. The destruction meant that people were forced to resettle in apartment blocks and to adapt to a new lifestyle that was not exactly an improvement. The living situation in Romania was becoming direr and direr up to the fall of Ceausescu, with shortages in food, restrictions on electricity, petrol and other commodities, despite the fact that on paper and regarding the foreign debt, it all looked good. There is also the fact that he was ordering the destruction of historical buildings inside the cities to replace them with massive modern blocks, threatening the preservation of traditions and heritage in rural and urban settings alike. It becomes obvious that at this point this was no longer an objective of industrialization and modernization, but more of a personal fantasy that, unfortunately, disrupted the life of countless citizens.
Many people moved to the cities because they hoped for better opportunities. But some of the new urban dwellers were resettled in apartment blocks after being given a short notice that their village was to be destroyed. This is a tragic aspect of the socialist housing that deserves to be known.