The Curious Case of the kommunalka (Taylor Lain)

The Soviet era was a time of massive change for Russia. This was especially true for the nation’s economy, which, primarily through the efforts of Vladimir I. Lenin and Joseph Stalin, transformed itself into what was essentially a defective manufacturing machine (Gerschenkron, 146). Under the New Economic Policy (NEP), some agricultural land and many businesses, notably those involved in banking, military industry, heavy industry, transportation, and foreign commerce, were nationalized and the kommunalki began to appear in places like Moscow and St. Petersburg to support the ever-increasing influx of people into the cities. Government-monopolized businesses also built their own dormitory-style communal living spaces to provide their workers with sources of housing (Colgate University). While these spaces allowed the Soviet government to subsidize the living costs of residents to almost nominal fees and went a long way to ease the financial burden of living for its citizens, the quick and shoddy construction of these buildings caused the living conditions within them to be cramped, pitiful, and extremely unclean (Colgate University). Families were not given nearly enough space to carry out their daily routines. For example, in the film Bed and Sofa (Tret’ia Meshchanska) Nikolai washed himself in the salon using water from a samovar and a bucket, as he lacked an actual bathroom. Flies, trash, and human waste in common areas were constant problems (Rubenshtein). This was especially true for those separate apartments in the khrushchoby (“Khrushchev slums”) built during the mid-1950s and 1960s under

Khrushchev (Boym 125, Colgate University).collectivized under the government. While some farming and certain “light” industries in consumer goods and services, textiles, chemicals, and the like remained partially privatized under the NEP, Stalin’s multiple subsequent Five-Year Plans eventually placed all of these under “the people’s” control (Curtis). New factories, which required enormous amounts of supplies and manpower to function, sprang up all over Russia. However, because of the nation’s past reliance on farming and the tenuous economic stability that serfdom provided in small towns and rural villages, much of the population lived in the countryside (Gerschenkron, 154-155). With more and more job opportunities popping up in the manufacturing plants of major cities, the nation underwent a tremendous demographic shift to urban areas. Unfortunately, at the time urban immigration could not be accommodated by city residences. The government began to place tight restrictions on and divide up what were originally one-family dwellings into multiple family accommodations (Starecheski, 174). These new and dramatically undersized government-owned communal apartments were known as kommunalki.

On top of the poor living conditions in which urban Soviet citizens found themselves, many residents had to cope with the many regulations and restrictions on Soviet residency. In order to even be eligible for housing, it was necessary to register with the local city government and obtain a residency permit, otherwise known as a propiska (Colgate University). These propiski, which Russian citizens were given along with their birth certificates and which would change along with their passports, began originally as a way for the government to track places of residence. Eventually, they became a way for citizens to be permitted or denied housing, and they also determined from where one would receive daycare and schooling services for children, rations, and the like (Colgate University). Once the permits were obtained, housing clerks who worked for district housing bureaus, regional housing administrations, or communal management departments in major cities would allot specific amounts of space to individuals based on their professions, medical conditions, stipulations outlined by the federal and local governments, and oftentimes their own whims. These allotments ranged from about five to nine square meters of free space (Colgate University). It was rare for a family to receive more than its given space to live—this occurred typically only with high-ranking intellectuals who aided the Soviet government, or apparatchiks (Boym, 129)—and there existed many restrictions regarding the consolidation or separation of space in communal apartments (Brodsky). For instance, stipulations outlined that families could not erect walls within their own apartments because it gave them more rooms than they were assigned, despite the fact that the amount of space they “owned” would not change (Brodsky).

It was difficult, if not impossible, to move or better one’s living conditions. One could move within their own city fairly easily, so long as residency permits were altered accordingly, but one could not receive permission to live outside of their city without proof that he had already been given a job in that new area; and jobs in other cities would typically not be assigned without a propiska from that new city (Colgate University). As such, the primary means of bettering one’s circumstances was through establishing new connections (often through influence via marriage or favors, known as blat), achieving some higher office in a white collar profession, or volunteering for extremely hard labor in some undesirable position and being granted dormitory housing by a state-run business (Colgate University).

In general, Soviet leaders used kommunalki and the housing system, in conjunction with a strengthening of the nation’s passport system, as tactics to control the USSR’s urban population (Boym, 129; Harris, 584). The fact that housing was subsidized influenced many Soviet citizens to regard the government as a protective provider, making them more willing to obey its multitude of inane housing regulations without question and simply try to work the system as much as possible to better their individual circumstances (Colgate University). And this likely prevented many people from questioning other actions taken by the government during this time. This not-so-subtle and yet disguised governmental control exercised a considerable amount of influence over the cultural development of Russia during the Communist period (Harris 584).  In a manner of speaking, the aim of the Soviet regime during this time was to force upon the population a utopian ideology through a dramatic redefinition of the conceptualization of space. This began with Lenin’s original plan to distribute spatial area to each person and family based on a geometric definition of equality rather than an idea of the necessity of private space; so long as each person received their allotted area, nothing about the area mattered—its design, its location, and whether or not the room was isolated from the surroundings were irrelevant (Boym, 124-125). As more and more people were crammed into irregularly arranged plots within kommunalki, their lives suddenly became public, and they suffered from the lack of privacy that came with living in such close quarters with so many other families (Boym, 125; Rubenshtein). While at best a single person could live with around ten other occupants of different social classes, as Joseph Brodsky did during his early years, it was not uncommon for groups of twenty-five to one hundred people to live in the same kommunalka. People knew their neighbors much more intimately than they desired. For instance, Lev Rubenshtein, in his essay “Communal Pulp Fiction,” could recount for his readers minute details about his neighbors’ sexual practices, drinking habits, hopes and dreams, occupations (or lack thereof), and interpersonal relations. It was extremely difficult to have guests over, especially when they could be kicked out by one’s neighbors after eleven at night. Some people would occasionally walk into the rooms of their neighbors unannounced, while others would lie in the hallways, causing their neighbors to trip over them (Rubenshtein).

These conditions created an entirely new community atmosphere and “social order” out of the kommunalka, which, as Rubenshtein explains, was like a town in and of itself. Citizens began to grudgingly (or perhaps unconsciously, as new generations were born into the

Soviet era) accept the Soviet collective mentality. Utopian terms such as “places of communal use” and “mutual responsibility” became commonplace among the people, who regarded them with simultaneous feelings of pride and disgust (Boym, 123-124). However, in many cases there was no sense of community loyalty; one’s neighbors could not necessarily be trusted, as many would be willing to act as snitches and report small housing offenses to the government for benefits or praise (Rubenshtein). And if this constant surveillance was not enough, there were always the regular check-ups made by the superintendents of each apartment building and the janitors, or dvorniki, installed by the Soviet Housing Committee to ensure that housing regulations were upheld (Boym, 129; Bed and Sofa).

Yet despite all of the complaints that people could make about the Soviet communal living system, it seems that some people in the modern post-Soviet age miss it. Before I traveled to Russia this summer on the St. Petersburg trip, all I could simply do was wonder how. One day, in conversation with my host mother, I asked her about kommunalki, assuming that she had lived in one at some point in her life. She told me that she had never actually lived in what she would define as a kommunalka, although she knew many people who did. But she explained that those filthy, jammed apartments were what many people called home. That, in her opinion, was what these people truly missed. Generations upon generations were born and raised in communal environments, and as they grow older and watch Russia attempt to take its place in the materialistic modern world, they look back to the past and long to return to the “traditional” family values and ties of their youth. A set of interviews by journalist Brigid McCarthy with two former Soviet citizens corroborated my host mother’s sentiments. One of the two interviewees, Valentina Baskina, described her childhood experience as one that was uncomfortable but tolerable because there was nothing to which she could compare it (McCarthy). She grew up around many friends in a place where children were a collective responsibility, and she cherished the memories of her old life (McCarthy). The other interviewee, Andrei Barbje, described his childhood as one he enjoyed and missed when his family finally moved into a larger apartment in 1978 (McCarthy). He learned to respect and consider the impact of his actions on others from the residents of his kommunalka, who, as he explained, established detailed sets of communal rules and spent holidays together to unify the many families in the apartment (McCarthy). Children of the Soviet period made the most out of what they were given: they could invite friends over to play; they

listened to stories about the former lives of elders living in their apartments, who were anything and everything from artisans to soldiers to intellectuals; and, with the inspiration of Soviet cartoons such as “A Communal Story” by Alexsei Shelmanov, they could daydream and make up adventures of their own with the meager resources they had. It made sense how older Russian generations, those former Soviet citizens, could have fond memories of these times, despite the conditions in which they lived.

As my conversations with local Russians revealed, and, oddly enough, through non-Soviet foreign films such as the French Les Poupées Russes, many people still live in kommunalki today. However, those who do, it seems, tend to be either older or unable to afford a single-family apartment of their own. While the living conditions within these apartments have improved considerably since the fall of the Soviet regime, there exists a stigma associated with the idea of communal living amongst younger, post-Soviet-born generations. For instance, when we asked our twenty two-year-old language instructor at Moscow State University whether or not she had or currently lived in a kommunalka, she responded with a harsh “no” and a look of disgust. It is difficult to explain such a negative attitude towards the kommunalki among the youth. Is it a simple response to the unhygienic and far-too-public environment of the communal apartment, or is it something more? Could it perhaps be revulsion towards aforementioned Soviet ideals and an acceptance of Western materialism and the idea of the necessity of private space as opposed to the public sphere?

With that said, one major question remains: how will the kommunalki and the institution of communal living develop in the future? Their time has already passed, their popularity peaked. They are diminishing in number, and at this point, modern-day Russia and its citizens are left with a choice: are they to eliminate them entirely and remove the anomalous blending of public and private space that so reminds them of the constant eye of communism? Or are they to preserve them as historical monuments, or even as viable future housing options? Right now, so soon after the fall of the Soviet regime, it is hard to say. Russia is still trying to stabilize itself and identify its place amongst the world’s powers, as well as adjust to and balance with their own traditional family values the materialistic culture of Western influences. Only time will tell at this point, but I personally hope they keep at least a few around, for they stand as a testament to human cooperation, perseverance, and tolerance of severe governmental encroachment on individual rights that should never be forgotten.

Works cited