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Russia: City Anniversary Changes Little For Residents Of Petersburg's 'Kommunalki'

  • Jeremy Bransten

St. Petersburg may be Russia's most elegant city and its newly restored palaces are incontestable jewels of European architecture. But behind the fancy facades, hundreds of thousands of the city's residents live in conditions unimaginable in any major European city. RFE/RL reports on life in St. Petersburg's communal apartments.

St. Petersburg, 6 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Anyone familiar with Soviet-era literature will know the term "communal apartment," often referred to by its Russian-language diminutive, "kommunalka."

Writers such as Mikhail Bulgakov and Joseph Brodsky drew inspiration from life in the "kommunalka." Had Fedor Dostoevsky been alive in Soviet times, he would doubtless have set his stories in them as well.

The communal apartment dates back to 1917, when soon after seizing power, the Bolsheviks came up with an idea aimed at reducing the housing shortage and crushing the counterrevolutionary bourgeoisie. They killed two birds with one stone by nationalizing the luxuriously appointed apartment buildings in cities like St. Petersburg and opening them up to the proletariat.

Thus, the "kommunalka" was born. The formula was simple: each family, no matter how large, received a single room. For example, a former six-room apartment that once housed a single bourgeois family now became home for six separate families. Kitchen and bathroom facilities were shared.

The measure was supposed to be temporary. In many Soviet cities, the communal apartments were eventually phased out. But in St. Petersburg, war, followed by a new influx of labor from the countryside and a lack of infrastructure investment, meant many communal apartments have remained to this day.

No one knows exactly how many Petersburgers live in communal apartments today. But the best estimate is that 15 percent to 20 percent of the city's population, or just under a million people, call them home, making St. Petersburg the "kommunalka" capital of Russia.

Sixty-five-year-old Yurii Vdovin, a local human rights campaigner, is one of them. Vdovin took RFE/RL on a visit to his home. The apartment building has an impressive pedigree: originally built in the 1860s under the direction of a former Turkish officer who became an adviser to the tsar, the centrally located building at one time or another boasted many famous residents -- including, most recently, Joseph Brodsky himself.

Vdovin, who moved here with his wife in 1973, is fond of the area. But not of living in a communal apartment. "The only thing that is worse than living in a communal apartment is living in a prison, barracks, or a dormitory," he said. "But people who live in prisons, barracks, or dormitories are there temporarily [laughs]. We're here for good."

Hard as it is to believe, Vdovin is comparatively well-off. He and his wife share a spacious, high-ceilinged room that measures over 30 square meters. The large size of their room, however, meant the Vdovins never had a chance in Soviet times of getting on a waiting list for an individual apartment. Need was calculated according to square meters per person, and the Vdovins, although they lived in a single room and shared a kitchen and single bathtub with eight other families, were -- at least on paper -- considered "privileged."

Vdovin described his home. "This was once a large [single] apartment, with a series of rooms aligned in a row along this side -- with one part looking out onto Pestel Street, formerly known as Pantelimonovskaya, and the other onto Liteiny Prospect. They were beautiful rooms, with bay windows. And they were designed so you could walk from one room through to the other, as was the fashion in Russia at the time. This room we're in, it appears, was a sort of hall or sitting room and it was later broken up by these wooden partitions in Soviet times."

A few years after the birth of their son, a neighbor died and Yurii and his wife managed to acquire her small room, in another section of the apartment, to add to their own. Their grown-up son lives there to this day, with his wife and the Vdovin's grandson. They often cross paths, as do all the neighbors who occupy the other six rooms of the "kommunalka."

"The toilets and the kitchen are shared by everyone, which is why this is called a 'communal' apartment. We all have to use two toilets -- we have two toilets, which is a huge piece of luck in an apartment of this kind -- and one room with a bathtub. So, when you have to take a shower, you need to stand in line and wait. Sometimes you run out of time," Vdovin said.

At the other end of a long hallway is the kitchen: six gas-burning stoves, two sinks, and little tables line the walls. "This is the kitchen. Everyone prepares their meals here. There are two sinks for washing the dishes. Everyone's together. This is Natasha's and my son's spot. My wife and I live around this kitchen table and we use these two burners on the stove. The neighbors use the other two. We get along alright, so if we need to, we can use their burners too," he said.

Unfortunately, Vdovin said, compared to Soviet times, it is becoming harder and harder to get along with the neighbors. There is little feeling of community in this communal apartment and with the fear factor of communist times now gone, few people contribute to the common repair fund or lend a hand when a faucet or light bulb needs fixing.

The state-run management agency that is supposedly responsible for the upkeep of this increasingly decrepit building rarely sends repair workers when needed. When they do arrive, they are usually drunk, Vdovin said, who ends up doing most small repairs around the apartment himself.

Vdovin is bitter about the billions of rubles spent by the government to renovate palaces around the city ahead of St. Petersburg's 300th anniversary. While the Soviets paid lip service to the need to phase out communal apartments, Vdovin said the current Russian government prefers to ignore the problem.

"In any other country in the world, they would call this a catastrophic housing crisis," he said. "Here, in Soviet times, they were ashamed to publicize this, so they admitted only that there was a housing 'problem.' Now the authorities don't say anything. Now, as they were celebrating the city's 300th anniversary, at first they said they'd spent 40 billion rubles ($1.3 billion) on the jubilee. Now it's gone up to 60 billion rubles ($1.9 billion). It would be nice to know where all that money went."

One thing is for sure. Unless the Vdovins get some help from the city, they will never be able to move out of their communal apartment. The economics of their predicament speaks for itself. "The price for a renovated apartment in this area is $1,500 per square meter. But if I were to sell my room in this communal apartment, I would be lucky to get $500 per square meter. In addition, even though I have a share of the communal spaces in this apartment, no one counts that. If someone were to buy this room, they would pay me for the square meters in this room, but not for my share of the communal spaces. That's how things go. So the buyer would get 170 square meters of communal space for free [laughs], he could fix it up on the cheap. That's what we call 'Russkii bizness.'"

RFE/RL tried to contact both city and federal officials in St. Petersburg to inquire about what is being done to speed the end of the kommunalka era. No one had time to speak to us.