1917 revo­lu­tion lives on in shared apart­ments

Fam­i­lies use com­mon kitchens, toi­lets. It’s not all bad.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Sabra Ayres :: re­port­ing from st. peters­burg, rus­sia

By the time Ma­rina Maslova was born in the six-room com­mu­nal apart­ment at 65 Bol­shoi Prospect, an en­tire gen­er­a­tion had lived there and come of age since the 1917 Bol­she­vik Revo­lu­tion.

Maslova still lives in the room where she was born 61 years ago, and she re­mem­bers the dozens of fam­i­lies that have walked down its twist­ing, dark hall­ways and lived in its crowded rooms dur­ing her life.

It was here that the guests at her wed­ding party in the 1970s moved the fur­ni­ture aside to make room to dance in the 345-square-foot room she shared with her new hus­band, her par­ents and her grand­mother.

And it was here, in a small room just off the kitchen, where a 16-year-old boy hanged him­self with his belt in the early 1960s af­ter his par­ents, with whom he shared the cup­board-size space, dis­ap­peared. Both the par­ents were deaf and mute, and the teenager, dis­traught about their con­stant drink­ing and ne­glect, took his own life out of de­spair, Maslova said.

“No one ever lived in that room af­ter that,” she said.

One hun­dred years af­ter the Rus­sian Revo­lu­tion, com­mu­nal apart­ments such as Maslova’s re­main one of the en­dur­ing sym­bols of how this el­e­gant city went from the Rus­sian Empire’s grand cap­i­tal to the heart of a com­mu­nist revo­lu­tion that would rat­tle Europe for the next 70 years.

With its palaces, streets of Ital­ian-de­signed build­ings and ro­man­tic canals, St. Peters­burg was Peter the Great’s show­case city, which he said would be Rus­sia’s “win­dow to the West.”

But when the Bol­she­viks over­threw the czar and es­tab­lished what would be­come the Soviet Union, they faced a hous­ing cri­sis. Ru­ral res­i­dents were f lock­ing to St. Peters­burg (re­named Len­ingrad), Moscow and other cities in search of eco­nomic pros­per­ity. Mean­while, the no­bil­ity and aris­toc­racy were forced to flee or were killed. The com­mu­nist gov­ern­ment took over their el­e­gant homes and apart­ments build­ings and re­set­tled dis­placed fam­i­lies with strangers in hun­dreds of thousands of apart­ments in St. Peters­burg’s his­tor­i­cal city cen­ter.

The shared apart­ments be­came known as com­mu­nal apart­ments, or kom­mu­nalka in Rus­sian.

In most cases, one fam­ily re­ceived one room in an apart­ment, which could be as small as three rooms and as large as 10. The fam­ily’s room served as a bed­room, din­ing room and liv­ing room.

In many cases, sev­eral gen­er­a­tions lived in one small room, as Maslova’s fam­ily did un­til 1988, when the woman in the room next to hers died, and the Soviet gov­ern­ment al­lot­ted the empty room to the ex­pand­ing Maslov clan.

“In that sense, the Soviet Union wasn’t that bad: They gave us apart­ments,” she said.

To­day, the St. Peters­burg city gov­ern­ment es­ti­mates that 250,000 peo­ple are liv­ing in 78,500 com­mu­nal apart­ments in the city of 4.5 mil­lion. That num­ber is down from about 117,000 com­mu­nal apart­ments in 2008, when the city first started a re­lo­ca­tion pro­gram for fam­i­lies liv­ing in the most run­down of kom­mu­nalka.

Com­mon space is shared and of­ten fought over, in­clud­ing the use of the toi­lets. Each fam­ily has its own toi­let paper roll and, in some apart­ments, its own toi­let seats, which hang on walls and are taken down when needed.

Apart­ment 16 did not get hot wa­ter un­til 1986. Un­til then, there was no bath­room for wash­ing up, just a kitchen sink, so res­i­dents went to the banya, the pub­lic sauna, down the street to bathe.

Shared kitchens can have as many as five stoves, and fam­i­lies ro­tate cook­ing and eat­ing times to avoid con­flict. Re­frig­er­a­tors and food sup­plies are kept in the fam­ily’s rooms.

The hall­ways are per­pet­u­ally dark as there are no com­mon lights. Elec­tri­cal wires tan­gled in bunches drape from the hall­way’s walls as they wind their way from room to room. Each fam­ily has its own elec­tric­ity me­ter, and a lamp over the door to their rooms. Some apart­ments even have wired sep­a­rate switches for the light over the toi­let so that one neigh­bor isn’t hav­ing to pay for an­other neigh­bor’s vis­its.

When Maslova’s build­ing was built in 1899, St. Peters­burg was full of sim­i­lar apart­ment blocks in which wealthy land­lords rented the var­i­ous-sized apart­ments to tem­po­rary and some­times longterm res­i­dents.

Maslova’s grand­mother re­ceived this apart­ment dur­ing the siege of Len­ingrad in World War II, when Nazi Ger­many’s troops sur­rounded the city for 900 days, de­priv­ing its res­i­dence of cru­cial sup­plies. Her grand­mother had been liv­ing in a wooden house, but when it was torn down to be used as fire­wood, she was given one of the larger rooms in the apart­ment for her and her daugh­ter.

At its peak, 17 peo­ple and six fam­i­lies lived in Apart­ment 16, Maslova said. To­day, there are only about six or seven peo­ple, depend­ing on who’s com­ing and stay­ing. Stu­dents rent the rooms so that they can live and study in the his­tor­i­cal cen­ter.

When re­la­tions are good among the neigh­bors, as they are in Apart­ment 16, the shared liv­ing sit­u­a­tion is tol­er­a­ble. When they are bad, life is very hard, Maslova said.

In the 1950s, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in­tro­duced a mas­sive ur­ban hous­ing project that built hous­ing blocks across the Soviet Union. Tens of thousands of fam­i­lies liv­ing in com­mu­nal units were moved out into their own apart­ments, many of which were out­side the city cen­ter. In other cities, such as Moscow, this largely ended the kom­mu­nalka. But in St. Peters­burg, hun­dreds of thousands re­mained in the his­tor­i­cal build­ings in the heart of the city.

Af­ter the breakup of the Soviet Union, real es­tate com­pa­nies bought up huge swaths of com­mu­nal apart­ments in St. Peters­burg’s scenic cen­ter and turned them into lux­ury apart­ments or bou­tique ho­tels. Many kom­mu­nalka res­i­dents were ea­ger to leave their shared dwellings for their own apart­ments, even if it meant liv­ing in large block hous­ing out­side the cen­ter.

“In St. Peters­burg es­pe­cially, peo­ple who feel them­selves like real ‘Peter­bourge’ feel that they can only live in the cen­ter,” said Ilya Utekhin, an an­thro­pol­o­gist who did an ex­ten­sive re­search project on kom­mu­nalka in 2008 and who grew up in one him­self. “For this rea­son, many are will­ing to en­dure the poor con­di­tions sim­ply for the sake of re­main­ing in the cen­ter.”

Ev­geniy Kore­lin, 26, is an artist who bought one of the rooms in the apart­ment with his brother four years ago. They re­mod­eled the in­te­rior and cre­ated a mod­ern loft that lets in enough light for Kore­lin to work in his room. At 2 mil­lion rubles, or about $33,000, it was cheaper to buy a room in a com­mu­nal apart­ment than to buy a larger apart­ment out­side the cen­ter.

“It’s not ideal; I’d like more quiet,” he said. “But I get to live in the his­tor­i­cal cen­ter and ex­pe­ri­ence the city, so it’s worth it.”

The stair­case lead­ing to Lena Mikhaylovskaya’s kom­mu­nalka on Rim­skogo-Kor­sakova Prospect has sunk and be­come un­even as the old build­ing has set­tled with age.

Built in 1798, the three-story build­ing in the heart of St. Peters­burg is just blocks from the famed Mari­in­sky Theater and was once the home of a vice gover­nor of St. Peters­burg. In the 1860s, it was con­verted into a sem­i­nary dorm and a fourth floor was added.

When the revo­lu­tion came, the Bol­she­viks turned the sem­i­nary into eight com­mu­nal apart­ments, all of them con­tain­ing at least 10 rooms. In St. Peters­burg, the num­ber of door­bells at the front en­trance is a tell­tale sign that an apart­ment is a kom­mu­nalka. Mikhaylovskaya’s front door has five buzzers, not all of them func­tion­ing.

Mikhaylovskaya, her hus­band and teenage daugh­ter share one room in the 10-room apart­ment. These days, it’s mostly stu­dents who are rent­ing the rooms, so in­side it’s mostly quiet, she said. The old build­ing has thick walls that block most noise.

Apart­ments in this build­ing have been hard to sell be­cause of their size and the num­ber of re­pairs needed to the old build­ing’s crum­bling in­fra­struc­ture, Mikhaylovskaya said.

Af­ter years of liv­ing here as a young fam­ily, they’ve fi­nally saved enough money to buy their own place and will move out in two months.

“Shar­ing space with other peo­ple … it’s just not what I want to do any­more,” she said. Mikhaylovskaya grew up in a four-room kom­mu­nalka. Grow­ing up, it was so com­mon to live in a com­mu­nal apart­ment that Mikhaylovskaya had trou­ble think­ing of one of her class­mates who didn’t spent their child­hood in one.

For cou­ples such as Igor Zait­sev, 48, and Kse­nia Be­layeva, 40, the idea of sell­ing their two rooms on Nevsky Prospect, St. Peters­burg’s main drag, presents a dilemma. The cou­ple have shared their three-room kom­mu­nalka with Svet­lana Kosi­nova, 32, for 10 years. They have be­come fam­ily, even taken va­ca­tions to­gether, Zait­sev said, point­ing to a photo hang­ing on the kitchen wall of the three house­mates in Prague, Czech Re­pub­lic.

Sell­ing their rooms would mean giv­ing up a life they have grown ac­cus­tomed to and some peo­ple might even envy, he said.

“And when you go away for a few days, there’s al­ways some­one around you can ask to feed the cat,” Be­layeva said with a grin.

Vasiliy Kolotilov For The Times

MA­RINA MASLOVA, 61, of St. Peters­burg, Rus­sia, still lives in the room where she was born. For decades, sev­eral gen­er­a­tions lived to­gether here.

Pho­to­graphs by Vasiliy Kolotilov For The Times

LENA Mikhaylovskaya, her hus­band and daugh­ter, who have shared a room in a 10-room apart­ment in St. Peters­burg for years, have saved enough money to move out.

THE VIEW from the rooftop of a com­mu­nal apart­ment build­ing. “It’s not ideal; I’d like more quiet,” a res­i­dent of the build­ing says. “But I get to live in the his­tor­i­cal cen­ter and ex­pe­ri­ence the city.”

KSE­NIA Be­layeva, 40, and Igor Zait­sev, 48, in their kitchen. One other per­son lives in the com­mu­nal apart­ment, and the three have be­come close and even have taken va­ca­tions to­gether.

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