Boris Altshuler: The Housing Problem as a Catalyst for Systemic Reform in the Russian Federation

posted 17 Jul 2017, 07:58 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 17 Jul 2017, 10:15 ]
20 June 2017

By Boris Altshuler, 
Chair of the board of Right of the Child, member of the Moscow Helsinki Group, member of the Joint Working Group of the Presidential Human Rights Council and the Ministry of Construction and Housing, member of the Public Chamber (III and IV convocations, 2010-2014) 

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group 

The ultimate goal of the protection of human rights is neither power nor reform. Rather, it is to aid specific individuals who have suffered a catastrophic violation of their rights and who find themselves in a critical situation. Recently we have received yet more appeals concerning the appalling housing conditions of families, this time in Moscow, Moscow Region and the Republic of Bashkortostan. Our inability to help in the usual way, along with the systematic inhumanity exhibited by state officials regarding situations to which no one should be indifferent, have prompted us to adopt a systemic approach in our efforts to tackle this problem. This is the subject of the following article.

Short summary: How little has changed over the past 250 years. The “dictatorship of the law” and the “direct line” Q & A session of the President of the Russian Federation forgotten when it comes to the inhumane living conditions of children, and the strange tolerance of the sabotage of the presidential “housing” orders. How does the criticism of the Accounting Chamber and the Federal Anti-Monopoly Service differ from that of Aleksei Navalny with regard to poverty, corruption and monopolisation, the “squandering of trillions of roubles of government funding,” and the cartels in which state institutions are taking part? The professional unsuitability of the “pseudo-market” advisers of the President. The gamut of housing problems that include the situation of orphaned children, renovation and Moscow waiting lists, law-enforcement agents under the thumb of corrupt officials. “It is perfectly possible to build the right amount of housing" (Vladimir Putin). The involvement of people waiting to be assigned housing, families with many children, and activists from Aleksei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation in the monitoring of the national priority project, “Housing construction without corruption or monopolies,” are essential to its success.

“History convincingly demonstrates that all dictatorships and authoritarian systems of government are transitory. Only democratic systems last. Despite all their failings, humanity has not come up with anything better. Strong state power in Russia is synonymous with a democratic, law-based, and competent federal state” (article by V. V. Putin, "Russia at the Turn of the Millennium," December 1999).

“...And you will die just as your last slave will die!” (G. R. Derzhavin, "To the Lords and Judges," 1780). 


My wife (the poet Larisa Miller) and I have been reading aloud, at her suggestion, Vladislav Khodasevich’s biography of Derzhavin, and we have been very surprised how little has changed in 250 years. Gavrila Romanovich Derzhavin, a devout and honest advocate of a strong state and an indefatigable opponent of embezzlement, abuse of powers and bribery, whose beliefs brought him into conflict with Catherine II, Paul I and Alexander I, was inspired as a young man by Catherine the Great’s famous “Instruction” of December 1766, based on the same “dictatorship of law” which Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, announced in February 2000.

It is a well-known fact that Catherine the Great quickly forgot her “Instruction” and its vitally important legal principles, and Putin’s words about the democratic separation of powers and the dictatorship of law as the basis for a stable system of state administration (see the epigraph above) sound just as hollow today.

In practice, all power nowadays is held by the officials of a single branch of government (the executive), which has steamrollered the legislative and judicial branches, and also brought to heel almost all media outlets and the entire system of law enforcement. This pitiful state of affairs is rounded off by the following problems which are a traditional feature of the Russian landscape: (1) the absence of any accountability on the part of officials towards the population; (2) the suppression by force of any protests by citizens bold enough to express dissent, and (3) the fact that problems can only ever be solved by appealing directly to the head of state. Nothing ever changes, and everything is as it always has been.

The annual Q&A with the President of the Russian Federation (the “Direct Line”, held on 15 June 2017) was the perfect demonstration of this situation – a small number of complaints voiced by individuals were resolved, but no significant changes to the system were announced. For example, no answer was provided to the following question, which is one that we believe could be asked by many parents:

“Our children are living in homes which are unfit for human habitation. As guarantor of the Constitution of the Russian Federation and hence the constitutional right to shelter, why are you so tolerant of the fact that over the past five years the Government of the Russian Federation (under First Deputy Prime Minister I. I. Shuvalov) and the heads of the regions (S. S. Sobyanin and others ‘from Moscow to the furthest borders’) have sabotaged the execution of Presidential Order No 600 of 7 May 2012 on the provision of affordable housing to low-income Russian citizens, and also obstructed implementation of the programme ‘Housing for Families’?”

The vast majority of the questions put to Putin concerned matters such as low pay and unacceptable poverty, the systemic causes of which are well known – corruption and monopolies, monopolies and corruption. Monopolies which are extremely profitable for government officials in spheres of the economy of fundamental importance for the population, and which ratchet up the cost of basic necessities (medication, food, housing) while at the same time driving small businesses and family farms, and such like, so important for our society, out of existence.

An important point that needs to be made is that it is not just Aleksei Navalny and his supporters among Russian citizens who have spoken out about the causes of this national tragedy and the widespread and catastrophic scale on which the problems are encountered.

According to Tatyana Golikova, head of the Accounting Chamber of the Russian Federation: “Every year trillions of roubles are wasted as a result of the inefficient use of government funds – several times more than the amount lost by the Treasury as a result of the fall in the price of oil or the future income from the sale of privatised state assets (around 1.5 trillion roubles over two years)” (Nezavisimaya gazeta, 19 April 2016 -

According to Igor Artemyev, director of the Federal Anti-Monopoly Service of the Russian Federation: “What we are currently facing is the wholesale cartelisation of the Russian economy… These cartels, based on long-standing agreements, represent a criminal offence. These are organised groups…” (1 March 2017 -

Thirdly and lastly, an article in report by Rossiskaya gazeta on a report by the Federal Anti-Monopoly Service (“Key to the Bank”, 6 June 2017) contained the following statement: “There are very few areas of the Russian economy from which cartel agreements are entirely absent, but the Federal Anti-Monopoly Service receives most complaints about the drug, medical equipment and construction industries... The report states that one of the features typical of anti-competitive agreements in Russia is the involvement of government authorities.”

Why are certain critics of the system targeted with trumped-up criminal charges, beaten (adults and children alike) with batons and dragged into prisoner transport vehicles, while others (T. A. Golikova, I. Yu. Artemyev and their ilk) get away with similar criticisms? Presumably because it is easy to ignore the reports published by the Accounting Chamber and the Federal Anti-Monopoly Service, while a large-scale public protest is harder to cover up.

What is truly breathtaking is that the country’s “economic generals” – including the President’s advisors, Aleksey Kudrin, Sergey Glazyev, Boris Titov, Anatoly Chubais, Vladimir Mau and so on – have said nothing about this major economic problem highlighted by the Federal Anti-Monopoly Service, namely the proliferation of anti-competitive agreements in which government authorities are implicated and which have devastating consequences for our country. As was the case back in the 1990s, this professional incompetence of these alleged fans of the free market is spawning a national tragedy, leaving people with nowhere to live, nothing to eat and no medicine to give their children…

I shall say something about the housing problem that, not for the first year, we have been forced to work on, in response to desperate cries for help.

1. Child orphans

“In 2015, there were 96,798 homeless orphans in this country. In 2016, this number rose to 109,000 … You can’t even imagine how many former orphanage residents with young children come to me personally, not knowing what to do for these children, not knowing where to live, where to go,” Anna Kuznetsova, Children’s Rights Ombudsman for the President of the Russian Federation, in an interview for International Children’s Day on June 1. (Rossiiskaya gazeta, 30 May 2017).

“In 2016 alone, President Putin twice issued instructions about the need to ensure housing for orphans. In February 2016, an official representative of the General Prosecutor’s Office of the Russian Federation called the situation regarding housing provision for child orphans catastrophic…” Aleksei Golovan, director of the NGO Participating in Fate, “The Day of Imaginary Defence of Children,” 1 June 2017 -

2. Moscow: Renovation and Those on Waiting Lists

- From the appeal to Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin: “Those on Moscow’s Waiting List,” 1 June 2017:

Dear Vladimir Vladimirovich,... In the summer of 2016, women from the movement ‘Those on Moscow’s Waiting List,’ whose living conditions were simply unendurable, went on an extended hunger-strike against the failure of the Department of Municipal Property to take any action: L .A. Martyanova - three families in one room in a communal apartment, 18 m2; E. I. Kalashnikova - two multi-child families in one room in a communal apartment, 19 m2; E. A. Guberova - four families in one apartment; N. A. Zvereva - six children, expecting a seventh, in a small apartment; L. D. Drozdova - five children, expecting a sixth, in a small apartment, and so on and so forth. However, the line for receiving public housing hasn’t moved at all. IT’S IMPOSSIBLE TO LIVE LIKE THIS! The demands of the hunger strikers were supported by the Presidential Human Rights Council, the Human Rights Ombudsman of the Russian Federation, and the Human Rights Ombudsman of Moscow. Our demands were reported to the Mayor of Moscow, but Sergei Sobyanin did not pay the necessary attention to our problem. Instead of solving the problems of those waiting in line for housing, whose living conditions are exceptionally difficult, he decided to renovate housing that is already suitable for living in.

- From the Presidium of the Presidential Human Rights Council’s expert evaluation of the bill on renovation, 8 June 2017. “The Council’s main objection to the bill on renovation of Moscow housing is linked to the proposed use of public funds for renovation… in the context of social obligations that have not been fulfilled by the city of Moscow for a long time owed to those waiting for housing and to the residents of homes unsuitable for habitation…”, -

Taking into consideration Moscow renovation and those waiting for housing, it’s helpful to recall the surprising powerlessness of law enforcement in the investigation of corrupt practices of Moscow bureaucrats. In the fall of 2016, “Those on Moscow’s Waiting List” circulated documents among the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Investigative Committee, and the Federal Security Service’s Moscow directorate, from which it appears that the deputy head of the Moscow City Property Department, I. A. Shcherbakov, with the personal permission of Mayor Sobyanin, in June 2016 acquired an apartment intended for a Muscovite, priced at 4.3 million roubles, and after a month and a half sold it for 21 million roubles (see these documents enclosed in a letter to V. V. Putin, given to him personally on 8 December 2016 - The fact is, nothing has happened in the past half a year. Mr. Shcherbakov holds the same post, while according to the Moscow city government’s official publications on renovation he is responsible for rehousing citizens whose homes have been demolished.

Here is an illustrative example of the subordination of the law-enforcement system to the officials of the executive branch of the government. And this happens everywhere! To read about how this archaic system of government, lacking in “checks and balances,” threatens the very existence of the Russian Federation, see recent statement by members of the Moscow Helsinki Group

3. The housing problem is easy to resolve in Moscow and other regions of Russia:

It is perfectly possible to build the right amount of housing…Not much needs to be done to achieve this. We need to make the taking of decisions on allocation of land less bureaucratic. Not just to give it out to friends and family, so to speak…” - V. V. Putin at a session of the State Council on housing policy, 17 May 2016.

Three years ago now our Joint Working Group of the Presidential Human Rights Council and the Ministry of Construction and Housing proposed a model for a regional programme allowing rapid construction, without government funding, of a sufficient amount of accessible housing in execution of Presidential Decree No. 600 of 7 May 2012. The proposals were supported by the Russian Union of Builders, thousands of whose members are ready as soon as possible to begin work and resolve this problem. But for three years the proposals have met fierce opposition from the very bureaucrats who only think of “family and friends,” in the president’s apt expression.

Conclusion: WHAT IS TO BE DONE? The priority national project “Housing construction without corruption and monopolies.”


1. As part of the priority national project, to implement construction programmes in the constituent regions of Russia to provide accessible housing for target social groups, enabling construction of housing of an economic class (in line with Article 46.5 of the Construction Code of the Russian Federation), while at the same time ensuring a reduction in prices per square metre by fair competition and favourable conditions for investors (guaranteeing returns and profitability for invested funds, free provision of land near to existing social, transport and other infrastructure, free connection to water, sewage and other utilities, with no bribes or kick-backs, and so forth).

2. For the purposes of preventing corruption and anti-competition agreements, in the course of implementing the regional programmes in line with the general proposal of the Federal Anti-Monopoly Service “to unite the efforts of all agencies of oversight and law enforcement.” (Rossiiskaya gazeta, 6 June 2017)

3. And most important, to organize effective public oversight of each stage of the implementation of the programme, each construction project, with the participation of associations of those on the housing waiting list, parents with many children, and so on, and also of activists from the Foundation Against Corruption led by Aleksei Navalny.

And, just possibly, implementation of the project “Housing Construction without Corruption and Monopolies” will serve as a model that will improve the quality of governance in Russia at federal, regional and local levels as a whole.

See also:

The journal Sel’skoe stroitel’stvo, № 1, 2017, pages 32-33.
“Rural Construction and stable development of the village: overcoming monopolies and cartels as an obvious necessary condition”

25 May 2017, Stroitel’naya orbita, “Renovation: the views of professional builders” (on the session of the Chamber of Trade and Industry of the Russian Federation, 5 May 2017)

24 April 2017. Stroitel’naya orbita.
V. Tishkov, “Failure of the programme for accessible housing. Why the state programme ‘Housing for the Russian Family’ is stalling”

3 February 2017 Novye izvestiya, “The more children, the worse life is”

9 January 2017. “Letter to the President of Russia: Request to declare an ‘official war’ against monopolies in sectors of the economy essential to families with children”

22 May 2016. “A. L. Kudrin and pensions. ‘Kill the elderly, and eat them’,” “it’s not a deficit of WORKERS that we have, but of vacancies!!!”

25 April 2016. Novaya gazeta, “Whoever ‘took aim’ at NGOs, took aim at Russia”

“Proposals of the Joint Working Group of the Presidential Human Rights Council and the Ministry of Construction and Housing, presented to the organizing committee of the session of the State Council of the Russian Federation on housing policy (Kremlin, 17 May 2016)”

17 September 2015. “Save our children from chronic malnutrition”

12 September 2012. “Recommendations of the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation: ‘Housing safety net’.”

5 June 2012 “Overcoming socially unacceptable poverty of families and the resulting chronic malnutrition of millions of children in Russia”

22 December 2011. “Recommendations of the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation on the outcomes of the hearings on ‘Problems of poverty and labour relations in the context of the family and childhood’.”

7 June 2011. “Poverty and inequality in the lives of children: nutrition, housing, leisure. On the urgent steps needed to resolve these problems”
Based on a discussion at a session of the Expert Group, № 9 “Strategy – 2020,” 31 May 2011

Thanks to Elizabeth Teague, Joanne Reynolds and Simon Cosgrove for assistance with this translation