British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once described Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”
Westerners trying to understand the Russian character might start by looking in the home. For many of those who grew up in the Soviet Union, home was the cramped confines of a communal apartment.
Valentina Baskina grew up in a large communal apartment in the center of Moscow in the 1930s. Her entire family lived, ate and slept in one room. They shared the apartment with three other families, plus an old woman who lived in an alcove off of the kitchen.
Privacy? It didn’t exist. There’s not even a word for it in the Russian language.
Baskina has fond memories of her childhood home.
“I don’t remember that we visited each other or made some communal food. No, each family lived their own life, but it was very peaceful.”
Baskina mostly remembers the hours she spent in the long, dark corridor with her friend, Irina, whose family lived in the room across the hall. They’d sit on top of a large dresser and play imaginary games. Baskina's mother worked as a truck driver, so she often had to leave her daughter at home by herself.
Baskina said every family had children, so children became “a communal responsibility.”
When Baskina got married, her husband moved in with them. They shared the room with her older brother, her two younger sisters, her mother and grandmother.
“It was not comfortable,” Baskina said. “But nevertheless we lived and enjoyed. And we didn’t feel it as a problem, because we couldn’t compare it.”
All of Baskina's friends lived in communal apartments, too, and some of the apartments were terrible.
She thinks hers was better than most.
“Maybe it was just luck,” she said. “I don’t know. Maybe it was just nature of my mother who was very friendly to everybody.”
That’s probably why everybody liked to go to Baskina’s flat.
“All friends of my older brother, all friends of mine in school and university, and friends of my younger sisters would sit around the table with some small food," Baskina said. "Only my grandmother was very serious.”
When friends rang their bell, Baskina’s grandmother would open the door and say: "We have nothing to eat!” Valentina rembered.
Her grandmother, “took life very seriously, very tragically. But not for us. We were young and had many friends,” Baskina said.
Baskina and her friends may not have realized it, but they were actually part of a massive and ambitious social experiment.
After the Revolution in 1917, the Bolsheviks seized the apartments of the upper classes, and filled them to the brim, one family per room. All of the tenants had to share the kitchen and bathroom. The housing authorities deliberately mixed people from different social classes.
The aim was to create a collective society. But it was also the Bolsheviks’ solution to the urban housing shortage. Communal apartments remained the most common form of housing in Soviet cities for several generations.
Russian poet and Nobel Prize winner Joseph Brodsky, who grew up in a communal apartment in Leningrad, wrote: “For all of the despicable aspects of this mode of existence, a communal apartment has its redeeming side as well. It bares life to its basics, it strips off any illusions about human nature.”
Baskina and her family were evacuated from Moscow during the World War II. While they were away, their neighbors across the hall, an elderly couple, paid their rent for three years.
“When the war was at the end, and we returned home, we got our rooms back,” Baskina said.
Even so, Baskina said her mother, who was widowed during the war, resented the couple, who were professors.
“She always found a pretext to be ungrateful, always felt they lived good and we lived bad," Baskina said. "She was always stressed by the differences in the levels of our lives.”
Baskina lived in this communal flat even after she and her husband had a daughter. They eventually moved into a private two-bedroom apartment in the late l960s. Her daughter cried every night for the first year; she missed the kommunalka.
But it wasn't for everyone.
Moscow architect Andrei Barbje grew up in a large apartment that had belonged to his great-grandfather before the revolution. He recalled his childhood while sipping coffee at a sidewalk cafe in Moscow.
“I remember my parents actively disliked living in the communal apartment, and my grandmother, who was little when our apartment was taken away, was always angry and resentful,” Barbje said.
But young Barbje didn’t mind it a bit.
He said everyone in his kommunalka did their best to get along, by following an elaborate system of rules.
“For instance, there was an unspoken order of people who went to wash in the morning, based on what time they had to get to work.”
The communal kitchen had four stoves, and each family used two burners. But if someone was having dinner guests, they could always ask to borrow one or two burners.
No one ate in the kitchen; they took the food back their room. They also kept refrigerators in their room.
Still, they all celebrated the holidays together. Barbje said there was a ritual.
“We’d visit each other’s rooms, and sit for half an hour or so,” Andrei said. “It was always customary when you visited to bring a small gift, so it was all very friendly.”
He said the one place where the system broke down was over the telephone, which was kept in the corridor.
“There was only one line for five families, and if someone liked to sit and chat and somebody else needed to make an urgent phone call, that’s when it got ugly,” he said.
His most vivid childhood memory is of an old German man who lived in the basement of their building. He was a former P.O.W. The man’s entire family was killed during the war, so he just stayed in Moscow. He played the organ at a Lutheran Church.
“He was very, very kind,” Andrei said, “and all the children, we just adored him. Even though he had a tiny salary, he’d buy old harmonicas and fix them. He gave them to us and taught us how to play. I still play the harmonica.”
Barbje’s family moved to a private apartment in l978, when he was 18. It was in a newly built high-rise on the outskirts of Moscow, with a small balcony and two bedrooms. They loved all the space, but they also felt isolated, because they didn’t live near anyone they knew.
When asked how growing up in a kommunalka shaped him, Barbje paused.
“Before I do something, I always think about whether this will bother someone else,” he said. “It’s about self control, and learning to take responsibility for your actions from a very young age, simply because you’re surrounded by so many people.”
Two well-dressed elderly women brushed past the table. As Barbje watched walked down the sidewalk, arm-in-arm, he pointed.
“I’ll bet they grew up in a kommunalka, too.”