Behind The Iron Curtain:Communal Living

There are two kinds of people in the world – selfless dreamers and the rest of us. Selfless dreamers are busy dreaming up ways to make the world better, feed the starving, enrich the poor and keep the Earth at some temperature that they know to be perfect for all of us to live happily and comfortably. The rest of us are lazily pointing out why these dreams will never come true and why they shouldn’t, at the same time hoping that there is enough medication to keep selfless dreamers sedated or at least writing another unsellable book. Sometimes the dreamers manage to convince the weakest-minded among the rest of us to follow them and that’s when we end up participating in wild social experiments like the one in the USSR that lasted for over 70 years.

I am sure in 1917 the idea of communal living sounded great: rich people where enjoying palaces and nice apartments with heat and indoor plumbing, while the poor where huddling in shanties, dorms and dirty cramped tenements with no running water and freezing outhouses. People reasoned that they could use an upgrade, kick out or downsize the rich oppressors, move into their posh apartments and share the amenities with their working class brethren. Thus was born a “kommunalka” or a communal apartment where many families were crammed together in a formerly single-family apartment. I am not sure how many days it took the new kommunalka dwellers to realize their mistake, find the dreamers who promised to make their lives better and beat them senseless, but they and their families had over 70 years to regret that move and some are still facing their neighbors every morning in the line to use the restroom.

I guess it takes a generation to grow up without knowing any better to have a completely opposite reaction to something that would normally be considered abnormal. I’ve seen all kinds of living arrangements but I never thought that any of them were weird, no matter how ugly, overpopulated or cramped some of these places looked I always thought that was business as usual. I wrote about communal living before and originally planned to expand on the subject but I found a virtual museum with plans, photos and videos, with English captions and transcripts which thoroughly covers every aspect of life in a kommunalka. You wouldn’t find any of this in the glossy cheery photo albums that somehow made it into this country.

However, for your enjoyment I uploaded and tagged a video clip from the movie Russian Dolls in which the characters arrive at the typical apartment in St.Petersburg.

Another clip is from a recent Russian movie Stilyagi which also depicts a huge communal apartment, although it may be a dorm. I think in real life the happiness was dialed down a little (or a lot). Also notice neighbors always being in your business and a lot of times in your food (imagine your office fridge times 10).

Thin walls, whole families in the same room with kids and grandparents, often separated only by curtains, fights, hate, backstabbing, stealing, it wasn’t a communal dream that the dreamers promised. But at the same time there was love, care, lifelong friendships, memorable times and helping hands – some things cannot be killed by years of inhuman living conditions.

Here is another post on the subject.

  • I will be back to watch the videos; right now I’m listening to Kasey Chambers, John Prine, and Iris Dement on my new Bose system.

    I have questions which may have been answered in some of your previous posts, but I’m a relatively new reader: What brought you to this country? Is your mother still in Russia, or is she in the U.S.A.? Do you miss your homeland?

    This entry is probably my favorite one so far, and as I said, I will be back… after my road trip.

    I hope to see you and daughter next weekend.

  • Donna, I don’t have any close relatives left there, my Mom is here, others are in KC, elsewhere in the US and some are in Israel. I don’t miss the place, I miss the time if it makes any sense.
    Did I miss the post about your new Bose system?

  • I didn’t specifically mention the Bose system because, unfortunately, Cliff’s sister has a son who is a felon and has problems with sticky fingers. I just got it today. I LOVE IT!

    Anyhow, I would love to read more about your childhood in Russia. I’m interested in EVERYBODY’S childhood, in case you had not noticed.

  • I travel for JOOLS

    I like your first paragraph. We are right now embarking on our own wild, social experiments and if it keeps up, we may all end up living in communal apartments. (I’ll be the old lady lurking around…lol)

  • DLC

    These kinds of experiments are still very common on college campuses where they have a co-op system. Students pay a fee per semester then share the cooking, cleaning and decision making responsibilities. It’s popular among idealistic hippies and destructive punk rockers who don’t want rules. It’s a hilarious combination.

    My friends who lived in co-ops recall that they have never been so hungry in their entire lives. Co-op kitchens were routinely plundered under cover of night by drunken off-campus dwellers who needed tampons and 5 lb blocks of cheese.

  • It works OK when you are 20

  • midtown miscreant

    sounds alot like prison. Too many bodies, personalities and quirks for a confined space.