Thursday, 23 July 2009
Photo: still from 2008 French documentary Kommunalka directed by Françoise Huguier
It is the 1950s. You are in Moscow. You are walking through a series of rooms, all joined on to one another. In the first, a couple of kids are sleeping; in the second, a group of women are having their morning wash. You enter the kitchen, where a pair of matronly women are standing face-to-face, cooking porridge on identical, shabby stoves, before arriving at the final room, where you are greeted by an elderly man dressed in a white vest and black boxer shorts, merrily playing an accordion, as a pair of adolescent boys perform their morning exercises in the background. The man grins at you before setting off through the apartment, breaking into song as he goes. He is joined by the other inhabitants of the flat, a motley crew made up of men and women of all ages, ethnicities and backgrounds, who follow behind him, parade-like, dancing and smiling in his wake. Welcome to the kommunalka, as romanticised in Todorovskyi’s hit 2008 film, Stilyagi.
The kommunalka, or communal apartment, is one of the iconic symbols of the Soviet era. Dreamt up and implemented during the early years of the Soviet Union, the kommunalka, a pre-revolutionary, bourgeois apartment converted for mass living, was the predominant form of housing for much of the twentieth century. Ask most Russians above a certain age, and they will recall their early years, spent packed in amongst their neighbours, a group of people with whom they had previously had no connection, but whose lives they became to know in the most intimate detail: their dreams, failures, cooking and even toilet habits. The kommunalka was both pragmatic and idealistic, serving the dual purpose of solving the drastic housing shortage caused by rapid industrialisation, whilst simultaneously fulfilling the Bolshevik dream of abolishing that horrible bourgeois habit: private property. It was also hoped that the experience would help construct the new Soviet Man – a tolerant, selfless comrade, who thought only of the collective.
In the 1960s, Khrushchev sought to replace the much-hated communal experiment with individual housing. Large grey apartment blocks (the ones most westerners think of when they picture even modern Russia) sprung up across the USSR. Nevertheless the kommunalka was not to be thwarted and it persisted right up to the present day, still existing today, albeit in a diminished form.
Statistics for 2008 show that, in Moscow alone, there are still 58,000 functioning communal flats. This is a dramatic decrease from 1997, where the same survey showed 148,000, nevertheless it is still 58,000 more than you would see in any other non-ex-Soviet country. Earlier this year, Vladimir Putin promised to rid Russia entirely of the communal curse by the year 2014, a promise he evoked again last week when he stated that it was time to stop “encouraging the communal flat”. His renewal of the promise was in response to proposals that those living in unsafe housing in the Samara region could be re-housed in communal apartments. Putin was adamant that the communal flat was not appropriate in modern day Russia – an idea echoed by many. “In my opinion communal flats serve to humiliate the individual by always forcing them to limit themselves. Any indiscretion can lead to a scandal, if not an all-out fight. Sadly there are still far too many communal flats”, raged Yuri Shevchuk, who lived for ten years in a communal apartment, where he was accused on a daily basis of washing in dangerous chemicals by a paranoid elderly neighbour.
On the other hand, the kommunalka still has its supporters. As the opening sketch of Tardokovskyi’s film suggests, for many the communal flat retains a rose-tinted aura. In such accounts, the daily degradation of human privacy is forgotten and replaced with nostalgic reminisces of the all-in-this-together-folks variety: “I spent my entire childhood in a communal flat and, despite the lack of space, I don’t consider my time there a negative period… We had very friendly neighbours. What’s more I think the experience of living in a communal flat teaches you a valuable lesson in tolerance towards one’s neighbours”, recalled Nikolai Bordyuzha, General Secretary of the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Many recollections and memoirs similarly recall the comradeship between inhabitants, describing how, on receiving individual apartments, alongside the huge sense of freedom, people missed their former neighbours, continuing to see them and socialise with them on a frequent basis.
Where does all this leave the modern kommunalka? Despite an article in the trendy Afisha newspaper, pronouncing the birth of the ‘modern kommunalka’ – a small-scale, bohemian commune inhabited by arty types – for the majority of those living in Soviet-style communal apartments, the experience remains an ideal. It is almost unanimously agreed that in modern Russia, there is no place for communal living. Unless, of course, it is a lifestyle choice.
I’ll leave you with the sketch from Stilyagi and a link to an academic project charting the existence of kommunalki in St Petersburg. You decide which is more realistic.