Living communally in Russia
July 18, 2009 9:58 PM   Subscribe

Kommunalka - communal apartments - were begun by the Bolsheviks in Russia at the end of the Russian Revolution to address overcrowding in cities - and also to punish the bourgeoisie who had previously lived in comfort. Kommunalka were an enduring social experiment, where multiple families were assigned by the state to live together in close quarters with no expectation of privacy. It was not uncommon for tenants to spy on each other. Though communism ended in Russia almost two decades ago, Kommunalka still exist today.
posted by contessa (18 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Kitchens and bathrooms were the sites of epic battles over property (saucepans, washbasins) and use of space that could end up with a brawl or a bloodbath.

I lived in a dorm like that once.
posted by pemberkins at 10:10 PM on July 18, 2009

Memorable scene in Dr Zhivago when a kommunalka takes over a apartment building.
posted by stbalbach at 12:01 AM on July 19, 2009

Thanks for the interesting set o' links, contessa!
posted by maxwelton at 12:03 AM on July 19, 2009

Standards of personal privacy are culturally contingent, as I've learned in Korea. I've come home to find the landlord working on something, totally unaware that maybe he should be moving along and coming back the next day while I'm at work.

But this -- this is truly insane. I'd have murdered someone or committed suicide.
posted by bardic at 12:13 AM on July 19, 2009

I lived in a dorm like that once.

Oh, the Army stories I could tell...
posted by Evilspork at 12:25 AM on July 19, 2009

They're not that bad if you take into account where people were most likely living before. You learn to adjust. You have to remember that living in a kommunalka in Moscow or Leningrad was like living with roommates in a hundred-square-foot LES apartment today. You bitch about it and it's annoying, but ultimately it's an incredible opportunity and there's no way in hell you would trade it for your old farmhouse outside of Orekhovo-Zuevo. (Especially since housing in the Soviet Union was effectively free--minimal or no rent, subsidized utilities, etc. I'm pretty sure I know a lot of people in New York who'd gladly move into a kommunalka for free rent.)

(The last link is just totally awful. It boggles the mind how he managed to cram so much bad travel writing into a few paragraphs.)
posted by nasreddin at 12:44 AM on July 19, 2009

I dunno, it might be tolerable when you're young - young adults tend to migrate to urban areas anyway, because of work opportunities and also because cities are exciting places to be young in. I assume the people you're referring to who would jump at the chance of free rent by living communally are all under 40?
posted by Ritchie at 1:25 AM on July 19, 2009

Memorable scene in Dr Zhivago when a kommunalka takes over a apartment building.

There's also a scene near the end of Ninotchka that shows her living in a communal apartment.
posted by marsha56 at 3:44 AM on July 19, 2009

This makes me feel gluttonous.
posted by debbie_ann at 4:41 AM on July 19, 2009

Nice site, thanks! (I have to admit your use of kommunalka as a plural grates on me; the plural is kommunalki.)

> I'd have murdered someone or committed suicide.

Don't be silly. You'd have grumbled and dealt with it, just like everyone else.
posted by languagehat at 6:34 AM on July 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

I assume the people you're referring to who would jump at the chance of free rent by living communally are all under 40?

What's the difference? Obviously in our society, people over 40 tend to have money for nicer things, but what if they didn't?

Of course, throwing kids into the mix would make things a lot more hectic.
posted by delmoi at 6:35 AM on July 19, 2009

If it were solely about money, the middle-aged would've crowded out the 20- and 30-year-olds in the inner cities a long time ago. This hasn't happened, so it seems there's more than one impulse at work.
posted by Ritchie at 7:14 AM on July 19, 2009

It's true that people have a seemingly infinite capacity to adjust to difficult circumstances. But do we really need to minimize what it was like to live in a tiny space with strangers who might be spying on you (and some reported their innocent neighbors to the KGB to get the empty room) and carry your own lightbulb and roll of toilet paper to the bathroom that you had to stand in line to use? It's not like choosing to share a cramped LES apartment with your two best friends.
posted by prefpara at 7:35 AM on July 19, 2009

In one of the links they say the standard was 8 square meters per adult, which is about 89 square feet. This is about the same kind of space poor people had in Montreal until the 1950s; although, obviously, Montrealers tended to live with their extended family instead of strangers.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 8:28 AM on July 19, 2009

Shared facilities usually became the sites of real battles, it was a real nightmare to share a lavatory, a bathroom and a kitchen with drunk neighbors who urinated not into the toilet sink, but near it, who stole your food from the stove and used others’ stuff without asking.

Sounds like an old roommate of mine, except without mention of dental indentations in the cheese. Perfect toothmarks!
posted by Graygorey at 8:26 PM on July 19, 2009

This is pretty much how my Sims live, since my children keep creating new characters and moving them into the household. There are never enough beds and people are always vomiting because of the moldy sushi on the counter.
posted by Biblio at 6:15 AM on July 20, 2009

Great post Contessa. Very interesting!
posted by fyrebelley at 11:08 AM on July 20, 2009

Neat! I wonder it was a common communist state design practice to have hallway walls painted with chalky looking paint, with half in white and half in blue/green. It seems to come up a lot in old pictures of government provided apartment blocks from China.
posted by dustyasymptotes at 8:56 PM on July 21, 2009

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