Life in the kommunalky

Communal apartments, or Kommunalky. You can see most major Russian cities being encircled by those mastodons of Socialist-realist architecture. They look grand, imposing, intimidating even. But what’s life like in those? And I do mean *is*, not *was*. Because a huge chunk of the Russian people still live there. I’ve been to Moscow over a dozen times through the years, but I must admit this is the first time that I’ve come to know Russians so intimately.

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So, about the kommunalka. Visitor’s first impression: the staircase stinks! It literally reeks. I’ve thought Russians bake and boil and fry stuff at home only when they’re on holidays at the apartment complexes that they’ve bought along the sea coast of my country, but no. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. When you enter an actual Russian kommunalka, you get instantly hit by a thick wall of odors. All sorts of meals can be felt from a hundred yards. They mix with each other into some sort of omnipresent, omnipotent, all-enveloping, invisible (and often visible) mist of smells, among which, after taking the second breath, you can no longer distinguish the separate meals.

If you somehow manage to survive this initial shock and make it to the, let’s say 3rd floor of this shabby juggernaut of a building, you’d go through another shock. You’ll end up in Heaven! Or rather, a haven for voices and moods, and all sorts of opinions, and meals, and rumors, and stuff.

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Actually the typical communal home does encompass the entire floor (and it’s a huge floor, mind you). On both sides of the long corridor there are tiny rooms. Each is no more than 10 sq m. At the end of the corridor, there’s the bathroom and toilets. And one kitchen, shared by all 16-24 families. All women and men, children, elderly folk. They’re all in this together.

It’s a dark corridor. The plaster is coming off the walls, and you can’t recognize what color it might have been once. Most lights have gone dead way ago. There’s a ray of light at the end of the tunnel, though. It’s the kitchen window. There’s one. It’s the kitchen that these 16-24 families consider their HQ, the heart of the community, the very command center of the kommunalka. I meet a lady called Nastya who was born here, has always lived here, and has almost never left the area. She’s something like a chieftain here. That’s an interesting and long story really. While Russian men may appear manly and powerful in politics and sports, deep in the bowels of these homes of theirs, they’ve been ruled by their women ever since the two world wars, when women became the dominant power due to the shortage of men, and the fact that women were running the whole economy – and they’ve never relinquished that position since. Anyway; Nastya has some special privileges in this place. There’s a certain hierarchy, practically a matriarchate. Those who’ve lived in the kommunalka the longest have the most rights. They can choose which corner of the table they’ll sit on at dinner (or even have separate tables of their own). Or which side of the stove they’ll sit beside (that’s kind of important; Russian winters are quite tough).

There are 5 tables and 2 stoves in the kitchen. And 16 families. If you want to cook, you’ll have to wait for your turn. The single washing machine works non-stop, 24/7. There’s lots of pants and shirts and diapers to wash, after all. I wait in line for the toilet. In a minute, Pavlik, Nastya’s son, comes out, pink toilet paper in one hand, a round wooden board with a hole in it in the other. Yep, every family brings their own toilet board with them. Hygiene matters! You know, the line between privacy and community are kind of blurred in a place like this. At that point, another lady goes through the corridor (littered with personal stuff, btw – I thought Russians were weird for putting their shoes in front of their doors at our holiday complexes, despite having all that space inside, but now I understood where that habit comes from; they’re just not used to having space). The lady is wearing pink bunny slippers. They’re fluffy. She looks Asian. I start a conversation. Turns out she’s Uzbeki. Never learned her name, though. Almost half of the 16 families on that floor are Uzbeki or Turkmen, I later learned. Guest workers who are treated like cattle in Russia, but still make double the money they’d make back home. Or triple. Most seem cautious about making new contacts, at least initially. After some ice-breaking, they open up and tell me curious things.

Unlike them, Nastya is quite talkative. She knows everything that’s going on in their section of the kommunalka (there are about 20 sections, each with its own entrance, separate lift – it’s another society, another planet; you rarely meet many people from outside your own entrance). Nastya invites me to their family’s room (I wouldn’t even call it home, or apartment; it’s just one room). I’m welcomed by their cat, who looks at me from his personal armchair with suspicion. The cat’s armchair, all in scars, is a separate sovereign territory, I’m told. I dare not dispute this.

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We sit around the tiny table. And then I ask the question that’s been on my mind all the time: why do you guys live in such a place, if there’s so little space and almost no comfort? Why not somewhere in the burbs, you could have a small house and yard there? It’s actually quite comfortable, and it’s very cheap, she responds. They pay a quarter of what folk would pay living in the center. Besides, it’s actually quite cosy. There are all those typically Russian carpets on the walls (and floor). Only problem is, the Uzbeks are increasing in numbers, and taking over, she says. The Uzbeks, Turkmen, Tajiks and Kyrgyz have become a feature of the big Russian cities for quite a while. You won’t see a cashier at a supermarket who isn’t Asian any more. Or a taxi driver. Or street cleaner.

One word: “pilaf”. That’s what the Uzbeki woman with the fluffy bunny slippers drops at me while passing beside Nastya’s open door. Sounds like an invitation. Seems like there’s a hospitality competition going on here, so I can’t refuse. I’ll be treated to the traditional Uzbeki meal with rice, lamb and carrots. Top taste, I must say. But if you thought the inhabitants of the kommunalka dine together, you were wrong. The meals they cook together in the kitchen are soon distributed to their respective recipients. Yeah – they eat in their rooms, where they sleep and raise their kids. Some families even eat on the floor, as they don’t have enough chairs. The hospitable Uzbeki family are no exception. I bend my knees and sit the Eastern way on their amazing carpet (stained, unfortunately), and I enjoy the pilaf.

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Soon I’m back with Nastya. There’ll be vodka and gurkins, I’m promised. Can’t miss the vodka. But first there’ll be coffee. “We live all in peace, together”, Nastya tells me later while we’re having coffee back in her single-room home. It’s Kitchen Philosophy lecture time, apparently. “There are parliamentary elections in a week, you say? Hmm, let me think. When was the last time I voted on those?” Her son Pavlik reminds her it must have been the year 2000. “So who are we voting for this time? There’s no real opposition with a program of their own, no one to promise us a better life. Cherish what you have, they tell us. And we do”. Pavlik, who seems more philosophically inclined, remarks that in a huge country like Russia, the only way to keep so much folk in line is to rule with an iron fist, govern with an imperial style so to speak. “There’s no way Russia could ever have democracy. No way. We’d plunge into chaos. We tried that for a while, and it didn’t work”, he concludes. He means Yeltsin’s time, obviously. “It was total chaos. And we don’t want chaos. We fear chaos. We’ve seen what chaos looks like, and we don’t want that. We prefer stability, no matter the cost”.

I quit my intentions to question their relationship with totalitarianism. It’s pointless. Russians obviously do like their oppressors the way they are, and they even love them. Because they bring stability. Period.

“Today’s Russia reminds me of the 70s”, Nastya says. “I was young then, but I remember”. Her prediction sounds ominous: “Everything will collapse eventually, everyone knows that. And there’ll be a revolution, and then we’ll all live a new life. But I won’t be around to see that. It won’t be too soon. So I’m not making any long-term plans for the future. No one is”. Pavlik adds, “We live here and now, for this moment. But that doesn’t stop us from being happy in our own way. Of course our country has many flaws. Who doesn’t? But we love what we have, and we’re happy with it”.

Comrade Putin has enjoyed a 70%+ landslide victory because of people like Nastya and Pavlik. Of those there are many. His future, and that of his clique and whoever he happens to hand-pick for his successor, is ensured because of people like them. But for how long? Given the current economic insecurity, Russia’s mid- to long-term future seems rather uncertain at this point. Despite the strict hierarchy, the total government control on all institutions, the media, and the economy. And despite the deeply inbred proneness of the Russian people to put up with whatever form of oppression they’re presented with. Whatever happens, the kommunalky will still be there, standing tall above the cityscape. It’s where people will keep finding their safe, cheap haven – or Heaven. Despite the strict hierarchy. Or maybe exactly because of it. It brings stability, doesn’t it?

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