Russians close the door on communal living

Another Soviet experiment is biting the dust. The Moscow city council has started ­abolishing the despised ­beehive-like commu­nal apartment of the commu­nist era shared by many families.

They are being ­replaced by cheaply built one-bedroom flats.
Housing officials are realistic about the speed with which the 270 000 families living in the city’s 118 000 remaining kommunalkas can be rehoused, however, and their initial 10-year programme has ­already been extended.

“The time has come to move ­people into ­separate apartments,” said Mikhail Kulikov of the municipal housing department. “Life in a communal flat where people with differ­ent temperaments and life­styles are thrown together to share one ­toilet and one kitchen is no longer considered a normal existence.”

The kommunalka was conceived as a means of eradicating class ­divisions after the revolution. Large houses were subdivided for the ­proletariat, and a family was housed in each room. The planners hoped this would forge bonds between residents, and regarded the inno­vation as an ­experiment in socialist living. But the buildings began to feature in dissident Soviet literature as one of the greatest evils of the regime.

In his recent memoirs, President Vladi­mir Putin described the tensions of growing up in a St Petersburg communal flat, recalling the kitchen ­arguments between his parents and their neighbours, and the joys of chasing rats on filthy stairways. In Moscow, property developers have bought out many of the ­families housed in handsome pre-­revolutionary buildings near the centre. Most of the remaining communal flats are in less desirable buildings in less fashionable parts of town.

Anna Azimova’s home in a ­Stalinist-era block in the north of the city is an extreme example of the genre. There are 16 rooms and 14 families: 43 people sharing one kitchen and one shower. Each family has about 12m2 of space. To avoid queuing for the shower, Azimova, who is the deputy head of the local school, gets up at 4.30am. To escape the crush in the kitchen she prepares breakfast, lunch and supper for her family while her neighbours are sleeping. To exist in such close confines the residents have developed a set of ­unwritten rules that dictate who must take responsibility for everything from washing the floor to changing light bulbs.

Only the building’s three confirmed alcoholics neglect these duties, preferring to ­torment their neighbours by ­stealing food from the kitchen and inviting stray acquaintances from the ­nearby railway station for all-night ­vodka parties. To the eight children who cycle up and down the central corridor, the lifestyle has a definite appeal. Their parents see its positive side only rarely.

At New Year and Christmas they try to put aside their differences and pull pieces of furniture into the hall to make a long banqueting table. But this time they decided not to, because the ceiling was leaking too ­badly. “We’re meant to live as a big ­family, but it doesn’t work like that. The walls are so thin you can hear people talking quietly. When the ­alcoholics start drinking together the other 40 of us can’t sleep,” said Nata­sha Zamarakhina (25).

She moved in five years ago. Her husband has lived there all his life. “The gossiping is the most depres­sing­ thing,” she said. No one can do anything here without it being discussed by the 13 other families.” Zamarakhina has little hope that she will be rehoused soon. Faced with a long queue of people awaiting new homes, the council gives precedence to World War II veterans, Chernobyl victims and invalids.

The housing department is also committed to obliterating Moscow’s crumbling five-storey 1950s blocks of flats and has contracted developers to build much taller blocks to allow for the gradual resettlement of communal flat inhabitants.