There is a phenomenon in the history of Soviet Russian which is quite difficult to explain to a foreigner, and that is the communal apartment, or kommunalka, as it is commonly referred to in Russian…
You can’t live like this but you can’t live otherwise all the same —and this is a perfect description of the Soviet situation in general.
By the way, for Soviet experience and charming old architecture, try our Moscow bus tour.
History of Kommunalka
Communal apartments came into being after the 1917 October revolution, when Bolsheviks cancelled private property, declaring that all the riches should belong to the people. Housing shortage was one of the biggest problems of the newly-born socialist state to which Bolsheviks found the most obvious solution, that is to expropriate “excesses” from the rich and to divide them between the representatives of the new ruling class, the proletariat. The Soviet government started a wave of what it called “uplotnenie”, a term that can be roughly translated into English as densification. In practical terms, that meant that big expensive apartments previously owned by well-off individuals or families would be “densified” with those in need. A special decree set a housing norm of 8 square meters per person, and former owners were forced to move to one of the rooms or even a corner of their apartment freeing the remaining space to workers. Thus, by April 1919 around 36 000 workers and their family members moved into rooms in communal apartments in the then Petrograd (during WWI on a wave of patriotic feelings Petersburg changed its German ending “burg” to traditional Russian “grad”, meaning “city”).
So communal apartments brought together completely different people from various walks of life and different backgrounds. A university professor would share space with a cook, former servant or a revolutionary soldier. Many of outstanding Russian writers, artists and intellectuals, who, for this or that reason, did not emigrate from Russia after the revolution, spent years in kommunalkas. Among them was poetess Anna Akhmatova, writers Mikhail Bulgakov, Korney Chukovsky and Yury Tynyanov.
The kitchen and the corridor were the centre of life in the communal apartment. Walking through the corridor people would easily learn what was going on at the neighbours’. While the kitchen was not only a functional space intended for cooking and washing dishes but also a kind of Ancient Greek agora, a meeting place where decisions concerning all inhabitants of the apartment would be made. Of course, quarrels were inevitable as everyone had their own views about how things in the communal space should be organized.
“Comrade Akhmatova, it’s your turn to clean the corridor”
This is how Korney Chukovsky described communal apartments in February of 1923: “Moscow is crammed; apartments are filled with a specific smell from the large amount of human bodies congested there. And in every apartment every single minute you can hear the sound of toilet flush, the water closet works without any pause. On the entrance door there are signs saying: ‘One bell ring for such-and-such, two bell rings for such-and-such, three bell rings for such-and-such, etc.’”
Later on, in 1954, in her diary, Chukovsky’s daughter Lydia would write down her dialogue with Anna Akhmatova: “I asked Anna Andreevna if she had seen her room and how it was. ‘Yes, I went to see it with Alesha. It’s on the fourth floor, the elevator doesn’t work every day… There are two beds standing so closely together that only a rope walker can pass through. There are eight more rooms in the apartment. The neighbours will be knocking on my door with the words ‘Comrade Akhmatova, it’s your turn to clean the corridor.’”
The previous years, from the mid-1920s till 1952, Anna Akhmatova had spent in a room in the Fountain House (Fontanny Dom) at 53 Liteiny prospekt in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg. In 1989, on Akhamatova’s 100th anniversary, it opened as a museum where you can now feel the authentic atmosphere of that communal apartment through various artifacts, the poetess’ personal belongings and recordings of her voice.
Not far from the Fountain House you will find another famous address, 24/27 Liteiny prospekt, where before forced emigration to the United States lived Akhmatova’s younger friend and would-be Nobel laureate Iosif Brodsky, the man who changed the face of Russian poetry in the 20th century. In his well-known essay Room and a Half he describes the life in the communal apartment number 28 where he grew up:
“Our room and a half was part of a huge enfilade, one third of a block in length, on the northern side of a six-story building that faced three streets and a square at the same time. The building was one of those tremendous cakes in so-called Moorish style that in northern Europe marked the turn of the century. Erected in 1903, the year of my father’s birth, it was the architectural sensation of the St. Petersburg of that period, and Akhmatova once told me that her parents took her in a carriage to see this wonder. On its western side, facing one of the most famous avenues of Russian literature, Liteiny Prospekt, Alexander Blok had an apartment at one time. As for our enfilade, it was occupied by the couple that dominated the pre-revolutionary Russian literary scene as well as the intellectual climate of Russian emigration in Paris later on, in the twenties and the thirties: by Dmitry Merezhkovsky and Zinaida Gippius. And it was from our room and a half’s balcony that the larva-like Zinka shouted abuse to the revolutionary sailors.
What it means to live in kommunalka
You will get a distinct idea on our Moscow and St Petersburg tours.
After the Revolution, in accordance with the policy of “densing up” the bourgeoisie, the enfilade was cut up into pieces, with one family per room. Walls were erected between the rooms—at first of plywood. Subsequently, over the years, boards, brick, and stucco would promote these partitions to the status of architectural norm <…>
Of course, we all shared one toilet, one bathroom, and one kitchen. But the kitchen was fairly spacious, the toilet very decent and cozy. As for the bathroom, Russian hygienic habits are such that eleven people would seldom overlap when either taking a bath or doing their basic laundry. The latter hung in the two corridors that connected the rooms to the kitchen, and one knew the underwear of one’s neighbours by heart.
For all the despicable aspects of this mode of existence, a communal apartment has perhaps its redeeming side as well<…> It’s often you in whom your neighbour confides his or her grief, and it is he or she who calls for an ambulance should you have an angina attack or something worse. It is he or she who one day may find you dead in a chair, if you live alone, or vice versa.”
Kommunalkas of famous people in Moscow
Brodsky’s apartment has not been made into a public museum and is now closed for visitors, although this spring, on the poet’s 75th anniversary it opened its doors just for one day having attracted hundreds of the poet’s admirers who queued up for hours only to have a quick look at the place. For now, the fans of Iosif Brodsky have to be content with a commemorative plaque on the house to which they come with a book of his verses or essays in an attempt to feel the Petersburg of Brodsky’s.
While fans of Mikhail Bulgakov, the renowned author of The Master and Margarita, one of the most enigmatic novels in the Russian literature, won’t miss a chance to visit another former communal apartment, now turned into the writer’s museum. Located at 10 Bolshaya Sadovaya street in Moscow, it is this apartment number 50 that made into the novel as an “evil flat”, while Bulgakov’s neighbours served as prototypes of several characters of the book. And it is the satirical descriptions of Moscow’s mode of life of the 1930s that make the novel an intricate, sometimes allegorical and sometimes quite realistic, encyclopedia of the time.
Side streets in the vicinity of Moscow’s Old Arbat street were also full of communal apartments in the Soviet times. Now most of them are private property but a few still remain. Some former communal flats have been transformed into hostels — you won’t probably find the authentic atmosphere in there but at least you can reconstruct it in your imagination.
Separate apartment for each family
It was not until the mid-1950s that the Soviet government took steps to tackle the notorious “housing problem” that, according to Woland, one of the main characters of The Master and Margarita, “ruined Moscow citizens”. Communal apartments were declared ideologically outdated, and a special programme under the slogan “a separate apartment for each family” was launched by Nikita Khrushchev, who became head of state after Stalin’s death in 1953. Massive construction of brick dwelling houses did resolve the country’s housing shortage to a large degree, even though those apartments, nicknamed khrushchevki, were about 30 square meters and not that comfortable from today’s point of view. Still, it was a breakthrough at the time, bearing in mind that they were built by the state and allocated to the people for free. Later on, in the 1970-1980s more new dwelling houses would be built across the country and khrushchevki would be snuffed at as too small and primitive.
Communal apartments would live on all through the Soviet history, with generations growing up in a very specific world where private space was reduced to a minimum. Even today there remains a significant amount of communal apartments in St. Petersburg.
As Soviet underground artist Ilya Kabakov said, “The communal apartment is a good metaphor of Soviet life: you can’t live in it you nor can you live otherwise as it’s almost impossible to move out of the kommunalka. This combination — you can’t live like this but you can’t live otherwise all the same — is a perfect description of the Soviet situation in general.”
Kabakov was the first to uncover the Soviet mode of life and, specifically, that of communal apartments, to the Western public. Based on his personal experience, in the 1980s he created a series of what he called “total installations”, which would plunge the observer into the atmosphere of the Soviet communal apartment. These installations were not a pure reproduction of the world he had long lived in but an artistic and philosophical attempt to find a way out. That’s why they are full of humorous juxtapositions, paradoxes and bitter irony. One of his total installations titled Red Wagon is now part of the permanent exhibition in the General Staff building, which is a part of the Hermitage museum in St Petersburg. Don’t miss a chance to see and explore it from inside on private tours St Petersburg Russia to grasp the very spirit of kommunalka and Soviet mentality.
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