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.