How the Soviet Union tried to control the growth of large cities

Returning to my theme of socialist urbanization, here is a good overview of the Soviet system for controlling the expansion of large cities. The parallels with China are, at least to my eye, immediately obvious and striking. The passage is from Planning in the Soviet Union by Judith Pallot and Denis J.B. Shaw; it was published in 1981 which is why the USSR is referred to in the present tense:

Many Soviet writers claim that a socialist society’s ability to control the process of urbanization is a demonstration of its superiority to capitalism. Thus [geographer Boris Sergeevich] Khorev writes that the spontaneous and uncontrolled growth of cities in the West has produced such unfavorable consequences that “they militate in effect against the very system of large-scale capitalism.” By contrast, he believes, “only socialism has the possibility of using the best achievements of the modern urban form of settlement for the great masses of workers.”

Early efforts to control the rapid growth of the largest cities date from the 1930s, when rural-urban migration was threatening to produce total chaos for housing and services. Since then, with an increasing concern about regional development questions and the standard of living in cities, the policy has become more clearly defined and now embraces many more cities. The 25th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1976 once again stressed the need to restrain the growth of large cities as part of a policy of industrial decentralization.

Soviet controls over the expansion of cities have three major aspects. The first is the propiska system, controlling migration into cities. The internal passport system was introduced in 1932 and at the same time a policy was implemented to control the inflow of permanent migrants into Moscow and Leningrad [St. Petersburg]. These efforts were reinforced by the plans for the two cities, promulgated in 1935, which allowed for only modest population expansion. Since that time many large cities have been declared “closed” to voluntary residence. In order to take up permanent residence in one of these cities, therefore, a special permit or propiska is required. For those who residence is temporary, such as university students, there are temporary propiska. Except for those born in a closed city, the propiska is not easy to acquire.

China: hukou system. Check.

The second control to city expansion lies in the ownership and direction of industry and of other forms of economic activity by the Soviet state. In 1931 the government decreed that all new industrial expansion was to take place outside Moscow and Leningrad. These provisions were reinforced by the 1935 plans for the cities and by subsequent government action on decentralization, especially after 1938. In 1939 five more cities–Khar’kov, Kiev, Rostov, Gor’kiy and Sverdlovsk–were added to the restricted list, and by 1956 there were 48 cities in which there was to be no further new industrial construction or expansion by already-existing plant. …In the 1960s and 1970s a whole new generation of development plans was drawn up for major cities, affirming the restrictions on, or prohibition of new industrial developments. Many plans also specify that activities not basic to a city’s economy, and polluting industries, should be relocated to satellites.

China: forced relocation of industry. Check.

The third arm in city control is that over land use. Soviet legislation on land has a special category of “land under populated settlements” and the granting of the right to use urban land is vested in the executive committee of the city soviet subject tot eh guidance of higher authority. In principle, the, industrial ministries and enterprises are unable to acquire new land without the expressed consent of local and higher authority.  …

China: monopoly state ownership of urban land. Check.

The USSR’s three largest cities in 1959 subsequently grow more slowly than other cities with populations over 100,000…the 24 largest cities of 1959 (population 500,000+) had over 25 percent of the total urban population in 1959, but less than 23 percent in 1976. In spite of these favorable trends, Khorev and others believe that the largest Soviet cities are still growing much too quickly and such tendencies are exacerbating urban problems. It is certainly the case that many cities have exceeded the growth rates expected by the planners. In the case of Moscow, for example, the 1970 city plan stressed the necessity of containing the capital’s population within the 7 million mark. At that time, however, the city’s population already stood at 6.9 million, and had reached 7.8 million by 1978. Leningrad’s city plan, approved in 1966, envisaged a population of 3.4-3.5 million people by the latter half of the 1980s, or 4 million including the suburban settlements. This level had already been reached by 1970.

Historically, China’s policies to control the growth of the largest cities only succeeded in slowing population growth rather than halting it–and even that limited success has imposed great human and economic costs. But the most recent and most draconian iteration of these policies may actually be succeeding in capping population growth. Soviet urban planning policies often failed because they were internally contradictory and poorly administered. Is the Chinese administrative state now powerful enough to actually implement the sterile visions of socialist urbanization?



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