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Housing / Kommunalkas

Soviet experimentation in communal apartment living or kommunalka, was implemented as a tool of social policy from 1917 to the 1970s. Kommunalkas are a leftover from the Soviet era. The idea is something akin to a student flat share, but the makeup of these communal apartments is usually completely random. Throughout most of the Soviet period, urban housing was in critically short supply relative to the needs of the population.

Beginning in 1920, multiple Russian families — purposefully selected from different social classes — were relocated and crammed together into single apartments. The intent was not simply to level out class differences, but also to create spy networks within homes and extend the government’s surveillance and control over citizens. Possibly the most important social experiment undertaken by the Soviet regime, the Kommunalka arguably had as much as if not more of an effect on the experiences of inhabitants than external political realities.

In 1926, Walter Benjamin wrote a provocative and laconic sentence in his essay about Moscow: "The Bolsheviks have abolished private life." Private life in Soviet Russia, Benjamin felt, was to be eliminated along with private property. Anything private was denigrated as politically dangerous, literally de-prived of social utility and significance.

The intensive industrialization and urbanization of the USSR in the twentieth century put enormous pressure on existing housing stock, and the Soviet government did not begin to prioritize adequate housing until the late 1950s. At first very few house-communes were actually built, so the authorities resorted to the cheaper option of reconstructing and partitioning already existing "bourgeois quarters." This was the first compromise with the utopian idea of house-commune.

At the time of the Revolution in 1917, eighty percent of the population of Russia (and a higher percent in the rest of the USSR) lived in rural villages and towns. By the 1990s, nearly the same percentage was urban. This represents a dramatic shift from country to city, relative to other nations of the world. Poverty and privation drove people from the countryside, while Soviet official industrialization campaigns encouraged (and sometimes forced) movement to cities.

The nucleus of the new utopia, the "house commune" - reflected an ideal of "socialism in one building," to use the expression coined by Richard Stite. The house-commune, also known as the "new proletariat house," radically reconstructed the individualist bourgeois quarters; it de-familiarized them by replacing the familiar bourgeois family structure with "proletarian comradeship."

In the Soviet Union, housing in cities belonged to the government. It was distributed by municipal authorities or by government departments based on an established number of square meters per person. As a rule, tenants had no choice in the housing they were offered. Rent and payment for communal services like water and electricity did not form a significant part of a family's budget. They did not cover the real costs, and were subsidized by the government.

Families from different classes were forced to share housing, with one room to each family and the kitchen and bathroom shared by all. At times up to 80% of urban Soviets lived in kommunalka, which simultaneously addressed the housing crisis, mixed social classes, and created opportunities for State surveillance and informing at the most intimate scales.

The first thing that hits visitors is the smell. The stairwell stinks. The front door doesn't close properly. And there's a kiosk just around the corner. It sells beer. A lot of beer. One typical communal apartment occupies a whole floor. It's badly laid out. There's a corridor 12 meters long (40 feet) and 4 meters high with rooms measuring about 10 square meters (108 square feet) leading off it on both sides. At the end of the corridor is a bath. And a toilet. And a kitchen. For everyone. For 16 families - for all of the kommunalka's occupants: male and female, young and old. Five tables and two stoves for 16 families. If you want to cook, you get in line. The only washing machine is in use 24/7. . Meals are prepared in the communal kitchen, but they're eaten separately, in the rooms - in some cases on the floor, if there's nowhere to sit.

In Russia, a preoccupation with the everyday was frequently conceived as petit bourgeois (marked by the derogatory term "meshchanstvo"), inauthentic, unspiritual or counter-revolutionary: it was fought against by Westernizers and Slavophiles, romantics and modernists, aesthetic and political utopianists, Bolsheviks and monarchists alike. If the American dream is pursued in the individual family house, the Soviet dream can only be fulfilled in the communal house.

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Page last modified: 25-05-2017 13:53:37 ZULU