Thursday, October 3, 2013

Communal Living

One of the facets of Soviet life that both fascinates and horrifies me was their experiment with communal living.  After the Russian Revolution, Lenin conceived of the communal apartment as part of the “new collective vision of the future.”  Acting as a sort of Soviet Robin Hood, he took apartments from the rich and forced them upon the poor.  I still remember the years I shared a room with my younger sister with bitterness, so it baffles me that Lenin remains unscathed in the Soviet annals after this ill-advised move.

In an earlier post, I described my apartment as “Russian,” shying away from the adjective “Soviet” for fear of promoting antiquated stereotypes.  However, my apartment was clearly designed for communal living and there is no way around that.  During the Soviet era, my bedroom would have housed an entire family, Olga’s room would have housed another, and both families would have shared the bathroom, telephone line, hallway, and kitchen.  Apartments were owned by the state--it was impossible to buy them--and they were divvied up based on a government-mandated number of square meters per person.  Stealing wasn't uncommon, so many people would lock up their food or keep their toiletries somewhere other than the bathroom.  After inadvertently sharing a toothbrush with my grandmother's dentures this summer, I can empathize. 

 Russian bedroom for one today, Soviet home for many back in the day

While I find it challenging to see many positives in this arrangement, I've been told it did encourage camaraderie.  My Russian teacher even alluded to a lot more “free love” in the communal living days.  When asked if this meant the Soviets were a bunch of free-loving hippies, Dariya answered in the negative.  “Nyet. Categorically, NYET.”  The Soviets were many things, but they were not a bunch of flower children hopped up on hash and rainbows. 

To better demonstrate her point, my teacher had us watch a Soviet satire about three couples who are all having affairs with each other, a fact that comes to light around the table of a communal apartment. In the end, husbands, wives, and lovers are swapped, but one man and one woman remain single.  Why?  Because Zina chose a private bathroom over both her husband and her lover. Having once spent an entire summer with my family in a tent-trailer (essentially Soviet housing on wheels), I can say with confidence I would have made the same choice. 


  1. Just read something on NPR (how hoity toity of me!) about this same subject:

    1. That's so funny because I just started reading this book a few days ago!

    2. Damn, I was coming here to recommend the same book. But I read about it in People, because I am uneducated.