Jul 192009

Best find of the month: “Communal Living in Russia: A Virtual Museum of Soviet Everyday Life.” I learned about it at English Russia.

There are video clips of Ilya, who no longer lives in a kommunalka, but who takes his two young children back to see where he once lived. The English voice-over is good in that it doesn’t completely obliterate the Russian speaking. Sometimes it follows the Russian, and sometimes precedes it. Very good for language learning. There are also bilingual, side-by-side transcripts in Russian and in English translation.

There is also a page with clips from feature films that show kommunalka life. Two of these films I’ve already seen: The Pokrovsky Gate and A Dog’s Heart. I thought Pokrovsky Gate was especially good in giving an idea of what kommunalka life might have been like. I don’t know how true to life the movie is, but it makes one think about what it would be like to live in such intimate association with other families, and what it would do to the intimacy of the life of the nuclear family. It was a film that sparked some of my interest in the topic. I suggested to the web contact that another good film to add would be Vor (Thief). There are no young children in The Pokrovsky Gate, but there is one in Vor.

I would not care to live in a kommunalka, but it’s not as simple as communal apartments bad, private residences good. I found it interesting that in the book, “The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia” (Orlando Figes, 2007) that not all people thought these apartments were a thing from which to escape. He quotes one old woman:

Life under Stalin was spiritually richer–we lived more peacefully and happily. Because we were all equally poor, we didn’t place much emphasis on material values but had a lot of fun–everything was open, everything was shared, between friends and families. People helped each other. We lived in each other’s rooms and celebrated holidays with everyone together on the street. Today every family lives only for itself.

That book, btw, would be a good one to add to the list of those on the web site. In the book there are diagrams showing how some of the apartments were laid out. There are lots of stories of how life was in them — mostly of how difficult it was. The woman quoted above is an exception to the general rule, though not the only exception.

A few other things I think about in connection with this topic:

  1. In his book “The Great Divorce,” C.S. Lewis portrayed hell (metaphorically) as a place where, when there are conflicts between neighbors, instead of reconciling, the people just move farther apart from each other. It’s a lonely place. If there is any doubt that Lewis’s portrayal is a parable we can note that when families are forced to live close together, that too can be hell.
  2. At The Spokesrider I blog about my visits to sites of old Indian villages in the U.S. I sometimes think about what it would be like to live in such a village, where when you wake up in the morning and get ready for the day, you’re in the midst of other families doing the same thing – men, women, and children. There would have been very little privacy. One can sometimes get a little bit of that on a camping outing, but what if that is the way you live all the time? It’s worth noting that European-American captives often came to prefer that life style by the time they had a chance to choose. I personally doubt it was the more communal life in close proximity that they preferred, though that may have been a part of it.
  3. My mother tells about how during WW-II, she and her father went out to North Dakota to help his brother out on his ranch-farm, while his son was away in the Pacific. Electricity had not yet reached that part of the U.S., and she says at night they’d all sit around the table by kerosene lantern light, talking, making music on a guitar or piano, and singing. There wasn’t good enough light for the people in the household to go their separate ways to separate rooms. It was a togetherness that was partly forced on them by technology, or lack thereof. I once described this to one of the leftier persons on a political e-mail list. He said it sounded to him like hell. But I think those who took part and are still alive have fond memories of the time.

By mentioning these things I’m not drawing any conclusions or making any grand summaries. I’m just trying to give an idea of why I find these communal apartments to be fascinating. I’m glad for the opportunity to learn about them safely, from a distance.


  • as for “kommunalki”, yet I highly recommend the film ‘Strannye vzroslye’/ Strange Adults
    (1974) about a little girl adopted by one couple (they live in the kommunalka-apartment, bu a girl taken from the orphanage). Very psychological movie…



    video (in Russian only)

  • Reticulator

    A clip from that film is on the kommunalka.colgate.edu web site. We watched it last night, and that made me think we ought to get the whole thing. Thanks for the link. If I can’t get it with subtitles, I’ll watch in Russian as best I can.

  • Natan Kumanov

    “We lived in each other’s rooms.” Note that this is or was impossible in North Korea. That is, possible, but the next place to live would be a camp in this case.