Communal flats, or ‘kommunalkas’, are still in abundance in St Petersburg but generally in need of serious renovation.
With its high ceilings and large windows looking out onto a church, Natalya Zavyalova’s flat retains an air of gracious living, 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 shared 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 many thousands of Saint Petersburg residents, Zavyalova, 34, a cashier at a supermarket, both sleeps and lives in a room measuring 25 square metres (260 square feet) with her 13-year-old daughter, Liza, in her communal flat in the heart of the city.
All together, the flat has five rooms and 10 inhabitants aged two to 80 — including 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 of the neighbours have quarrelled over the years and 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, with the residents often getting 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 in the historic centre 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, when the authorities 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, humourist 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-storey 19th century building in an area once frequented by Dostoevsky. It is in better condition than many, since it was redecorated in the 1980s.
The Soviet authorities tried to meet the need for new housing amid rapid urbanisation, building 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, where little modern housing was ever built in the low-rise historic centre.
As late as the 1980s, almost 40 percent of apartments in the centre of the city, then called Leningrad, remained communal.
After the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, the authorities gave each resident the one-off right to privatise his room and part of the communal space to become a home-owner.
Many of these communal flats have been acquired, room by room, by wealthy Russians, who in return provided the residents with small private flats in the suburbs.
The city still offers priority and subsidised 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 neighbour,” said Romanova, who lives with her husband and child, adding that she was also able to borrow around 2 million rubles (50,000 euros) 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, which have seen few repairs since 1917 and whose residents may be unable to agree on a sale deal.
And 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