Communal flats, or ‘kommunalkas’, are still in abundance in St Petersburg but generally in need of serious renovation.
With high ceilings and large windows looking out onto a church, Natalya Zavyalova’s flat retains an air of gracious living. It’s a throwback to its pre-revolutionary past.
Once a single elegant dwelling, it has for nearly a century, however, been a communal flat or ‘kommunalka‘, providing a home to upwards of 10 people from different families.
Its long central corridor, cramped bathroom, and busy kitchen were long ago converted for communal use by the Soviets in an attempt to reduce class divisions.
The communal flats of Saint Petersburg
Like thousands of Saint Petersburg residents, Zavyalova, 34, a cashier at a supermarket, sleeps and lives in a room measuring 25 square meters with her 13-year-old daughter, Liza, in her communal flat in the heart of the city.
Altogether, the flat has five rooms and 10 inhabitants aged two to 80. These include a bus driver, a pensioner, an accountant, a shipyard worker, and a nurse.
In the kitchen, there are four gas ovens, four dinner tables, and four fridges. Each family takes turns to clean up with a rota hung in the hallway.
As in most communal flats, the bath and toilet are far from pristine, the walls are in need of a fresh coat of paint, and the shabby parquet floor retains little trace of its original elegance.
Living in close proximity, some neighbors quarreled over the years. Natalya says she has not spoken to one of the women for the last two years, even though they share the most intimate spaces.
“Most of the time we have fun, though. It’s a bit like gaining a new family,” she said. The residents often get together for parties and to celebrate national holidays.
A legacy from three centuries ago
Saint Petersburg, a city of five million residents, still has more than 100,000 communal flats. Most of them sit in the historic center of the city, built three centuries ago on the order of autocratic ruler Peter the Great.
Communal flats appeared in Russia in the years following the 1917 Revolution. Authorities at the time hurriedly shifted the urban proletariat into the flats of the former middle classes and aristocracy.
In a cruel comedown, the former owners would usually be squeezed into a single room of their property.
In the 1920s, humorist Mikhail Zoshchenko wrote biting sketches about residents in overcrowded flats forced to sleep in baths and brawling over-borrowed scrubbing brushes.
Zavyalova’s apartment is in a typical five-story 19th-century building in an area once frequented by Dostoevsky. It is in better condition than many, after a redecoration in the 1980s.
The Soviet authorities tried to meet the need for new housing amid rapid urbanization. They built imposing apartment blocks for the elite under Stalin and cramped pre-fabs under Khrushchev.
But the continuing existence of communal flats points to their failure, particularly in Saint Petersburg. Here, little modern housing was ever built in the low-rise historic center.
As late as the 1980s, almost 40% of apartments in the center of the city were communal.
After the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, the authorities gave each resident the one-off right to privatize their room and part of the communal space to become a homeowner.
Many of these communal flats were acquired, room by room, by wealthy Russians. In return, they provided the residents with small private flats in the suburbs.
The city still offers priority and subsidized prices to long-term communal flat residents who want to buy their rooms. It has announced the aim of getting rid of all its communal flats by 2020.
The family of Marina Romanova, 40, a biologist, is now the sole owner of a former communal flat where she once had a room.
“We had a good situation since we only had one neighbor,” said Romanova, who lives with her husband and child. She was also able to borrow around 2 million rubles from a civil servant in the city hall.
But the city is still the formal owner of thousands of vast flats of six to eight rooms. These have seen few repairs since 1917 and whose residents may be unable to agree on a sale deal.
Many residents of communal flats complain they could never raise the necessary sum to become sole owners or to buy a smaller place in the suburbs.
Lyudmila Alexandrova, 57, a former policewoman, said that she has no prospect of leaving the flat she shares with 11 others beside the Griboyedov canal, one of the city’s picturesque waterways.
“We have no hope of ever moving out of here,” she said starkly.
AFP / Expatica