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Communal Flats in Russia Shared Life

When I wrote about apartments of modern and Soviet time, I forgot to write about communal
or shared flats. These were the flats, shared by several families. It is very interesting to
investigate how families lived in such flats. That story may surprise you!
What is/was a Communal Flat?
An apartment that earlier belonged to one family, but after the Revolution of 1917 was either
taken from the owners (if they left the country) or more families were moved to that
apartment. The idea of Bolshevik government was that having many rooms for one family is
too much luxury. Modern families do not need living rooms, dining rooms, study rooms,
libraries etc. they just need a roof above their head, a room where they can sleep. 9 square
meters per person is more than enough. A lot of families were moving to Moscow after the
Revolution and there was not enough of available real estate, so newcomers were moved to
the existing flats.
And now please imagine. Your family has to share an apartment with one kitchen and one
bathroom with several other families. You may have 2 adults in the family, you may also have
kids and grandparents, living with you. In any case you personal private space is one
bedroom. The rest is a shared space. How do families work that out?
Day-to-day Life at Communal Flats

http://artnow.ru/ru/gallery/3/4838/picture/0/469946.html
Maria Pavlova, Old doors
Lets start with visitors. How do they buzz in? There were multiple door rings at the entrance or
a note, which specified how many time you need to buzz the ring if you came to see Ivanovs
or Petrovs family
Since you only have one room to entertain visitors and all your family also sleeps in that room
you will have a dining table in the center of the room and beds or sofas near the walls. If
several generations of the family lived in the same room using dividers could give at least
some sense of privacy. Dresser often work as dividers.
Sacred places in rooms were usually either the icon corner or a TV set. Other emotionally
charged items present in the room photos of family and relatives and decorative items.
Carpets were widely used to add coziness and carpets were both at the floor and at the wall
Lack of space usually meant that the dining table also served as a study table. One could see
newspapers, textbooks, medicine, reading glasses and other items there as well as a tea kettle
and cups. When guests arrived the table was cleared, but if the family was having a dinner
those items usually stayed there.
Shared space was usually used for coats, umbrellas and street shoes. People also stored bikes
or baby strollers there if there was enough space.

Communal flat, by Anton Grzhibovsky

Now, lets move to kitchen. Having several fridges was not typical. Refrigerators were a novelty
and were expensive. Some families did not have a fridge at all and stored food outside of
window or below the window sill in winter. Wealthy people had their own fridge in their
bedroom. If the fridge was in the kitchen and was shared it would be a dorm-like setup
you have your own shelf or leave notes, attached to your food
Now, the bathroom. In large families morning time logistics is hard enough. Imagine you have
a several families, who share the bathroom?! If the relationship is decent, people work out a
bathroom schedule and adhere to it, if not it is an issue. But some people like to take long
baths or showers and in addition to the inconvenience, they may spend more water or
electricity. That was also an issue to discuss.

Will go call, by Dmitry Annenkov


Most often you just had one landline and the phone was in the shared space a lobby or a
corridor. Your neighbors would always call you if they answered the call. But they will notice,
who called you and will overhear your conversation. And will not be happy if you talk for too
long when they are expecting an important call
Implications Of Living in a Communal Flat
In general communal living required a lot of skills:
Cooperation The best apartments were the ones where inhabitants managed to agree on dayto-day things, such as when to use the bathroom, when to cook and what are the other rules
of the house. Following the rules of the house was key, whatever the rules were. For example
in some apartments washing clothes was to be done in the bathroom, in some apartments
in the separate zone in the kitchen. Having social rules, such as who and when could visit, how
loud the visitors could be etc. also made a lot of sense.
Negotiation skills Rules are to be discussed. Usually in communal flats there was a set of rules,
which was developed for years if not decades. But things changed with new neighbors or new
circumstances. Re-negotiating the rules was important
Conflict management Conflicts happen even in families, among people, who love each other,
among relatives. Living in a shared space with strangers of course leads to conflicts. And if not
managed properly conflicts do escalate. Most typical stories include spitting in soup in a
communal kitchen. To make sure that does not happen people tried to be nice to each other.
For example if a neighbor asks you, what you are cooking invite her to try the dish or do a

small favor (such as lending some milk or flour or other staple food that she forgot to buy that
day). Small favors go long way.

Communal flat phone, not sure about the name of the artist
Privacy management As you imagine there is not much privacy in a communal flat. Your
neighbors actually have too much information about you they know when you leave to work,
when you return, they overhear your phone conversations since the phone is in a lobby, they
see all your visitors, they judge your habits (especially if you have any bad habits), they see
how you dress and they even know which soap you use and how your underwear looks like
(literally, since you hang it out for drying in the bathroom). So, even if you do not talk too
much about your life, they see your life. Usually the way to manage privacy was to maintain
privacy in your room and to limit conversations with neighbors to need to know
Influence Of Communal Living On Russian Mentality
I am sure that there were professional studies on that subject. I will try to find them and
update this post. And for now here are some of my guesses:

Communal flat corridor, http://fishki.net/1243310-kommunalnajakvartira.html?mode=tag:kommunalka


Personal Space I always notice that Russian people stand too close to me, when we talk. I do
not mind that with close friends, but do not feel comfortable when strangers come so close or
stand in line right next to me (I spent most of my childhood abroad, that is why I have different
borders of personal space). I think that the communal living may be one of the reasons. You
get used to share your personal space with other people day-to-day, so it shrinks
Standing in lines Thankfully the only place where one still has to stand in line in Moscow is the
Russian Post Office. But in Soviet times people had to stand in lines daily, when they were
buying groceries, clothes or anything else. Figuring out a way to manage lines fairly was
quite like figuring out the schedule of using a bathroom in a communal flat. People, who lived
in communal flats, were trained to wait for a lot of things
Communication/Cooperation If you can live for decades with strangers in the same home, you
become really good in communication. You know how to trade favors, you know how to
negotiate, how to keep up relationships. That is definitely a good thing about communal living
Being judgemental I already wrote that it is typical for Russia. I know better what is good for
you and I will tell you about that right now is a very typical Russian behavior. I am not sure
whether the roots come from the communal living or it is just our personality trait. But it might
be a consequence of communal living. You see the life of several other families as an insider,
on a daily basis. You see the mistakes they make and privacy boundaries blur with time. You
tell your neighbor what you think first (in a direct, Russian way) Next time you find yourself
telling a stranger on the street, how she should dress her kids!
My Personal Experience

ommunal kitchen interior, Museum of a Political History of Russia


I never lived in a communal flat myself, but when my parents were young they lived in such
flat in the very center of Moscow. My mom has mixed feelings about that time on the one
hand they were young and happily married, on the other hand they had a neighbor, who had
dozens of cats in her room and liked to collect garbage on streets. When my parents managed
to buy their own flat, which was located further from the center they were so happy to move
out of the communal flat! It was a 3 room flat and they had furniture just for one room. So, my
mom was moving furniture back and forth until they got enough furniture to fill that
apartment. I find these stories super interesting as they are the stories of the life I never
experienced myself!
My grand-aunt lived in a communal flat, also steps from Kremlin and I have been to this flat
many times. There were 3 bedrooms, a shared kitchen and a shared bathroom. People, who
lived in that apartment knew each other for decades and they had good relationship balance,
so it was quite peaceful. But the landline phone was in the lobby, so overheard conversations
were always commented upon. For example I remember that her neighbors had a teenage boy
and some girl regularly called him and my grand-aunt disapproved of that (a girl should never
call a boy!)
How Did People Get Their Own Apartments in Soviet Time?
There were several ways:

Pyatietazhka 5-storey residential building typical for the 60s-70s


The most straightforward was to wait when the State will give you a new apartment. In Soviet
time, the minimum norm was 9 square meters per person. If a family of several people were
living in one room in a communal flat they were eligible for improving their living conditions.
Getting a separate flat involved red tape and a long wait lists, but eventually a lot of people got
new apartments free of charge. If you did not want to wait you could do the following:
do something important become a well-known singer, writer, artist etc. Soviet Union
recognized that and could give you an apartment for your talent
be very active in Communist party, lead people and get an apartment via your contribution to
the Party
sign up for cooperative condo house if you have money (that is what my parents did, they took
a loan from the relatives for that)
exchange two or three rooms in communal flats for one apartment. That required a lot of
business skills, but was doable
After the Perestroika (the 90-s) you could just buy an apartment if you had enough money or
could negotiate with multiple families and try to better living conditions for your family, but
also for other families, if they agree to move further from the center
There are still people living in communal flats in Russia, although that is rather an exception
now
I wonder which other countries had a practice of communal housing. I assume that should be
countries of former Eastern European block, but maybe this practice existed (or still exists)
elsewhere? Please share your experiences with me! And if you happen to have photos of
communal flats I and the readers of my blog would be thrilled to see them!
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Reply
Tom Wanderer - 2 months ago
Hi Tanya! Thank you for such amazing articles about Russian life, it does help me a lot because
Im currently an international student who studying in Moscow, I find everything which I eager
to know about life, culture, history in Russia. Please keep up your wonderful articles, totally
support your blog.

Reply
Tanya Golubeva - 2 months ago
Hi Tom! Thank you very much for your support and kind words! Please do not hesitate to send
me your questions about Russia. Questions from my readers are the fuel for this blog!Hope
you enjoy Moscow and already have friends here! All the best, Tanya

Reply
Michelle - 2 months ago
One of my best friends still lives in a Kommunalka in Moscow! They have been waiting for an
apartment for over 7 years, but all they got were typicall promises by the government. Her
neighbors are 2 families with teenage kids, so its usually quite noisy and the kitchen is almost
always filled with people. Its a real drawback that many families still have to wait.

Reply
Tanya Golubeva - 2 months ago
Dear Michelle, Thank you very much for sharing this story! I hope that your friends will get a
new apartment soon. Best regards, Tanya

Reply
Anonymous - 2 months ago
Brilliant article, I once saw a stage play in Moscow about life in communal flats, your writing
follows the theme very well.

Reply
Anonymous - 1 month ago
A great read!!! I am nosey about life everywhere, but here, in the boring US!!!! Thanks,learned
a lot!!!

Reply
abylkhatov - 1 month ago
H