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Russia: Life Is Bleak In St. Petersburg's Workers' Dormitories

St. Petersburg, 2 June 1997 (RFE/RL) - Alda, a 35-year-old, single mother with a nine-month-old baby, lives in St. Petersburg in a factory obshchzhitye -- a shabby, cramped dormitory for workers and their families.

She says that, like many people from across Russia, she came from her village 15 years ago to what then was Leningrad, hoping to find a better life in the city. As she describes her hopes in those early days: "I got a job at the Kirovsky Tractor Factory, and like everyone, I was promised that after some years living in the factory dormitory, we would be given our own apartment."

For some, that promise came true. But not for Alda.

"There are many like myself, who the factory and state just forgot," she says. Fifteen years later, she still ekes out life in the dormitory.

After years of ignoring the problem, St. Petersburg's city goverment just now is beginning to attend to it.

Most obshchzhitye were built soon after World War II by expanding factories and other enterprises as temporary housing for workers. The workers were granted temporary residency permits, which became permanent after three years on the job. They were promised apartments after several more years.

But, with the fall of Communism and an end to the command economy and free housing, Alda and many of her fellow workers remain trapped in obshchzhitye, victims of unfulfilled promises, with nowhere to go.

Aleksander Maksimov, Deputy Director of St. Petersburg's Department of Housing Policy, told our correspondent in a recent interview that the city is grappling with the situation.

"The problem of obshchzhitye and the people who live there is one of our most serious housing problems," he says.

A report published in 1994 by the Institute of Sociology in the Russian Academy of Sciences says that 23 percent of St. Petersburg's 4.8-million people live in communal flats. The Department of Housing Policy doesn't confirm that high figure, but concedes that seven percent, or 350,000 people, live in 975 workers' obshchzhitye.

Most Russians regard obshchzhitye as the bottom in urban housing, but not all of them are slums. About 360 such buildings are classified as kvartirnie, apartment houses, with equipment and space much like to standard apartments. The remaining 615 or so workers' obshchzhitye, however, are as bad as the popular imagination supposes. Inside, filth and neglect reign unchallenged in the corridors, kitchens and toilets because no one feels the responsibility to clean and maintain them.

"There are many families with kids here, but this is not a place you want to raise a child," says Alda's neighbor, Ira. "This building hasn't earned the right to be called home. But where else can we go?"

Many factory workers who remain in the obshchzhitye have been laid-off from their factory jobs. Some have made the adjustment to life in the free market, but others spend their days drunk or idle. Ira says the environment is vice-ridden and the children quickly imitate what they see. Soon, they start leaving home and end up involved with drugs and crime.

And, for some, it gets worse. "Nochlezka," St. Petersburg's leading charity helping the homeless, told our correspondent that about five percent of the city's estimated 60,000 homeless are former workers forced out of obshchzhitye, because their rooms could be rented out.

Ten years ago, obshchzhitye were somewhat livable. Privatization and the collapse of the city's industrial base brought them to their current squalor.

President Yeltsin issued a decree in January 1993 forbidding the privatization of an enterprise's obshchzhitye. This was to prevent corporate directors from selling the buildings and evicting the resident. But there was an unintended consequence. Housing official Maksimov says the decree placed obshchzhitye in legal limbo, because it made no provision for their transfer to local governments. So obshchzhitye are left without any owner with the incentive to maintain and manage the buildings.

With a city governor's decree of January 1997, St. Petersburg has begun taking workers' obshchzhitye into its jurisdiction. The process is scheduled to be completed by the end of 1998. But nobody knows where the city will get the money to operate them.

Developing favorable terms for private investors is one idea. But for now, Alda and Ira and their neighbors, as well as city officials, just have to wait and see.