Class struggle in new Russia

Housing: In a communal apartment building in St. Petersburg, the capitalist present coexists uneasily with the socialist past.

July 01, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia - At the Tolstoy House, a luxury apartment building on the Fontanka Canal, the socialist system may be dead, but the class struggle lives.

A Communist-turned-entrepreneur who owns a sprawling $600,000 apartment uses Marxist jargon to complain about the messy "lumpen proletariat" among his low-income neighbors, who live in single rooms, sharing kitchens and baths in the building's communal apartments.

A working mother, whose family of four once squeezed into one room of a cramped communal flat, denounces what she calls the building's wealthy "New Russians" for parking their Mercedes-Benzes in the courtyard, where children used to play.

A grandmother squabbles with one of the three other families sharing her communal apartment as they clash over chores, water on the bathroom floor and use of the common phone.

"These are the kinds of perfectly senseless conflicts that are going on in my apartment," she sighs.

Communal apartments, called kommunalki, are typically tiny, one-room spaces that serve as home to an entire family and their possessions. The families share their kitchen, bath and toilet with anywhere from a half-dozen to 30 or more strangers.

Inspired by a post-revolution housing shortage in Russia, contempt for private property and a desire to attack the bourgeoisie by forcing them to share their apartments with workers, these cramped quarters also provided a convenient way to get people to keep an eye on one another.

They were the scene of epic squabbles and legendary discomfort. Millions of Russians lived in them. President Vladimir V. Putin grew up in one here. And they became a central symbol of the folly and failures of Soviet society and its ideals.

Stubborn survivors

Yet 10 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, kommunalki stubbornly survive in Russia's major cities, especially St. Petersburg, where about 700,000 of the city's 4.5 million residents still live in state-owned communal housing.

Built between 1910 and 1914 by a relative of the author of War and Peace, Tolstoy House - a complex of eight-story Style Moderne buildings - is one of St. Petersburg's most prestigious addresses. Its wealthy residents fled, were crowded aside or arrested after the Russian Revolution of 1917, and the new Soviet authorities doled out their apartments to workers a couple of hundred square feet at a time.

After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the government allowed tenants to claim ownership of their communal apartments and sell or trade them. During Russia's roaring economy in the mid-1990s, tycoons bought kommunalki in central St. Petersburg and converted them into huge apartments.

Then came the collapse of the ruble in 1998, and the pace of conversion slowed. Many ordinary Russians saw their savings and pensions wiped out. They found themselves stuck in their communal flats, where they still pay rent of about $13 a month for a single room. The result? In many buildings here, Russia's capitalist present coexists uneasily with its socialist past.

Yevgenia Petrova, a 45-year-old lighting specialist with St. Petersburg's Mussorgsky Theater, moved into one room of a five-family kommunalka in Tolstoy House with her husband in 1980, sharing the place with as many as 15 people.

Her two children were born there. For a while, her son slept between a cupboard and the wall. Her marriage collapsed.

"We divorced because it was impossible to live properly," she says.

Luckily for her, a neighbor died and Petrova was able to acquire a second room. Today, hers is one of four families, eight people altogether, who occupy the apartment.

As in many communal apartments, the public spaces in Petrova's - the halls, kitchen, bath and toilet - are dirty, dingy and dimly lit. But some of the battered doors hide tidy, refurbished rooms.

In a typical communal apartment, adults sleep on a fold-out couch, children sleep on cots, there's a small wardrobe for everyone's clothes, a bookcase, a folding table for meals and often a refrigerator. Hardly any space is left for a child to play.

Although she lives at one of St. Petersburg's most fashionable addresses, Petrova would like to move. One unemployed family in a nearby communal apartment tosses its garbage out the window, letting it rot on the roof of a neighboring garage. Then there are what she calls her snobbish neighbors, who fill her apartment with exhaust when they start their expensive foreign cars in the morning.

"They ignore the environment, and they ignore us."

Conflicts that snowball

Another family in the kommunalka, led by Maria Fedorenko, 78, is trying to buy out the other five residents and turn it into a private dwelling.

Fedorenko, who grew up in Siberia after her father was exiled by Josef Stalin, offered Petrova $8,000 for her two rooms. Petrova agreed, then reconsidered and is now demanding $14,000. Tensions rose.

"We quarrel," says Petrova. "We have a lot of small conflicts, which, like a snowball, grow and grow."

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