29 Jul Communal Apartment
A communal apartment or kommunálka, in Russian, is a Soviet-unique phenomenon that emerged following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and lasted as a principal form of housing for about half a century; it still exists in central districts of some large Russian cities.
The mass migration from the countryside and small towns stimulated by poverty, forced collectivization, and rapid industrialization led to acute housing shortages in the cities. In response to it, Lenin came up with a solution: to commandeer private apartments for new tenants. Unless arrested or executed, the original tenant stayed in one of the rooms.
As a bonus to easing the crisis, communal living of different social groups dovetailed with the communist vision of universal equality and brotherhood. Government ownership of property also ensured that nobody was left behind: one room in many communal apartments was assigned to a prostitute for the purpose of reforming her character through the effort and example of her neighbors.
The requisition of living space known as uplotneniye, a Russian word for compression, guaranteed that every apartment democratically housed as many families as there were rooms; rarely did a family have more than one room.
The shortage began diminishing when Khrushchev introduced private apartments. The local authorities distributed them based on the housing waiting list. It consisted of households living in less space than the sanitary norm established for a given city, i.e. minimum number of square meters per person. In Kiev in the 1960s, for example, the norm was four square meters (forty square feet).
In theory, acceptance of an offer of new housing was voluntary. However, declining it would put a family on the bottom of the housing list. Considering that the list included, in the largest cities, more than half of the entire population and that the existing living conditions were unbearable, to begin with, it would not enter anybody’s mind to refuse the offer it took sometimes decades to get.
Population influx to cities was controlled by the strictly enforced propiska.
The room that a family occupied served as living room, bedroom, office, nursery, hospice. The Russian language does not have a word for privacy. If the number of people grew to the point of the sanitary norm (when a child brought in a spouse and then had a baby) the family could join the housing waiting list. The hallway, kitchen, and bathroom (for years, smaller buildings did not have indoor plumbing; tenants used outhouses more-or-less nearby) were shared and cared for by all the tenants.
In the common kitchen, each family had a small table and, when gas stoves replaced primus, a single burner that it could use and was responsible for cleaning, or not cleaning. Apartments with more neighbors than burners were furnished with additional stoves. If that resulted in an “extra” burner it was used on a first-come first-serve basis.
A family installed its own doorbell on the apartment front door, and its own light bulbs in the common areas connected to its own electric meter and light switches in its room. When all the neighbors used the kitchen it was illuminated like a banquet hall.
Food was not left unattended in the kitchen. When refrigerators appeared in the late 1950s, they were placed in the respective rooms.
Neighbors collected garbage in individual pails by each kitchen table and were responsible for taking it out. Until running hot water became available in some buildings in the 1970s, water for the laundry was warmed in pails on the stove and poured into a balya placed on two chairs in the middle of the kitchen. The dirty water was then emptied into the sink or into the bathroom tub, if there was one.
The trunks and boxes along the hallway walls sported no-nonsense locks. The hallway was also used for drying laundry. The clothesline was usually shared by all. Wet sheets and long underwear brushed people’s heads and covered faces which made it difficult to navigate the hallway.
At peak times, the tenants lined up for their turn in the bathroom. When toilet lids became the norm, everybody would hold one in their hands, some also held their children’s or elderly’s chamber pots to empty.
Toilet paper was always a sticky issue. Some apartments adopted the policy that the family on duty was to maintain the supply of cut-up newspapers on the bathroom nail; some went for separate nails holding a stack of newspaper squares that belonged to the family whose name was scratched on the wall over the nail. In the absence of rules, the need for toilet tissue was met by newspaper scraps in individuals’ hands or pockets.
When real toilet tissue appeared on the scene, the lucky owner of the precious roll brought it with him, or simply brought the requisite number of sheets to avoid envious comments.
More or less elaborate scheduling systems ensured that everybody contributed their fair share to the cleaning of the common areas. The rotation depended on the alphabetical order or order of rooms or the number picked out of a hat.
The duty duration was either the same for everybody, for example a week, or depended on the size of the family. Some factors complicated the decisions: a baby or a bedridden grandmother who caused more extensive usage of the facilities would make the duty longer.
There were always those who watched the adherence to the rules more than others. Tempers flared. But, for the most part, a chart on the kitchen door worked reliably. Residents had no choice but to endure.
Neighbors knew everything about each other, whether by observation, gossip, eavesdropping, or opening others’ mail. The climate of Stalin’s era encouraged, indeed expected, neighbors to inform on neighbors; any outlandish claim got the job done. After the victim was imprisoned and his family evicted, the denouncers gained their victim’s larger room, earned kudos as vigilant patriots, diverted attention from themselves, had the satisfaction of removing an annoying person, or all of the above.
Though the fear of persecution and encouragement to inform eased following Stalin’s death and condemnation, grudges did not fade away. An expectation of peace and love among random families sharing a kitchen and bathroom would be naïve.
Instances of peeing or spitting into each other’s teakettles, throwing cigarette butts into each other’s faces, stealing potatoes from a boiling pot were too commonplace to cause loss of sleep. Stories of fistfights produced nary a shrug. Even the rare neighbor-on-neighbor maiming and murder were accepted as inevitable cost of living communally.