On any other day, I would have passed by the spartan, crumbling building without a glance. On this day, however, Viking River Cruises had invited me to visit a Kommunalka, a communal living arrangement that is still practiced by a large percentage of residents in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Across the interior courtyard, a heavy metal door opened onto a gloomy corridor where we groped our way up granite steps chipped and worn from decades of use. At the top, a long, mustard-colored hallway was crammed with makeshift storage cupboards, footlockers, and discarded furniture. We walked single file to the end, which opened onto an L-shaped kitchen and two bathrooms that are shared by residents of the eight apartments on the second floor.
Kommunalkas were carved from aristocratic mansions seized by the State after the Revolution of 1917. Because they were never intended to house multiple families, common areas are rife with makeshift construction. Wiring for eight washing machines and eight stoves in the kitchen was loosely tacked to interior walls. In one of the bathrooms, a clawfoot tub with missing legs was shored up by stacked wood. Dilapidated wooden cabinets were covered with shelf paper in an attempt to create sanitary food prep surfaces for each of the eight apartments. Every inch of the common area screamed for a deep cleaning. Shocked, I followed our guide into the apartment of Irina, not knowing what to expect.
It was a bit like falling down the rabbit hole. Irina’s apartment was a spotless wonderland. A tall wooden credenza near the entry had been placed so as to carve out a small bedroom with twin beds, which Irina shares with her daughter and granddaughter. A long table had been set up in the great room that functioned as combination living/dining room. Tall windows were hung with floor-length drapes and sheers, while her walls were covered with tasteful wallpaper. Her flat-screen TV receives 140 cable channels, including world news programs, and she is free to surf the worldwide internet on a modern computer. Within her walls, everything, including a tall refrigerator, was shiny and modern.
Over tea and coffee cake, with the assistance of a translator, Irina told us about life in a Kommunalka. Communal living in the Soviet Union began early in the 20th century when the country entered the industrial era. Prior to the revolution, nearly 80% of Russians lived in the country; by the 1990’s, nearly 80% lived in urban areas, many through forced relocation programs. This shift in population caused a severe housing shortage. Lenin solved the problem by seizing private apartments from the bourgeois class and converting them to communal apartments, in some cases forcing up to 16 families to share a single floor of the prior mansions. When Khrushchev became premiere in 1953, he began turning over the apartments to residents, believing that granting them ownership would result in greater support for the communist system.
Aside from the fact that she now owns her apartment outright, Irina says her life is about the same now as it was under communism. “I was middle class then and I still consider myself to be middle class,” she says. “The biggest difference is that in years past, people cooked together, celebrated holidays together. Now everyone does their individual thing.”
The Kommunalka I visited, though clearly dilapidated, is considered prestigious by its residents, mostly for its prized location in the city center, but also for its high ceilings and rooms that are more spacious that the cookie-cutter apartment buildings that have sprouted in the suburbs. It does, however, have its challenges. Though Irina is responsible for maintenance within her own four walls, in theory the local government housing office is still responsible for the common areas and the exterior of the building. In reality, it can take months for repairs to be addressed and even then the complete cost may not be covered. Owners are often forced to share in the cost of major repairs, an extreme hardship given that greater than 75% of all Russians still earn less than $595 per month and 29% makes less than $315 a month (according to ForbesMagazine).
Keeping the common areas clean is the responsibility of the owners on each floor, and some inevitably feel they are doing more than their equitable share of the work. With only two bathrooms and one sink to serve eight apartments, residents must agree upon a schedule for bathing and cooking, thus quality of life in a Kommunalka is largely dependent upon how well the individual occupants get along and work together. Irina is one of the lucky ones. She has a good relationship with her neighbors and is comfortable with her living situation. Like so many other residents of St. Petersburg, Irina seems to have no desire to sell her kommunalka apartment and move to more modern housing.
Disclosure: I was a guest of Viking River Cruises during my Waterway of the Tsars cruise. However, the receipt and acceptance of complimentary items or services will never influence the content, topics, or posts in this blog. I write the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.