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Sunday Times (UK), July 27, 2003

Russia's living nightmare: Communal dwellings in St Petersburg bring together the most unlikely housemates

By Joseph Dunn

Squalid communal houses should have gone out with the fall of communism.

But in St Petersburg, 300,000 families are still forced to live like this.

Communal living in the UK may bring to mind a temporary and impecunious stint in student digs, but in Russia, thousands of people spend their entire lives sharing a kitchen and bathroom with relative strangers. The apartments are known as kommunalki - President Putin grew up in one - and St Petersburg has more than any other city.

After the revolution in 1917, the Bolsheviks abolished private property. The grand houses in town centres across Russia were commandeered to accommodate the maximum number of people possible, with as many as 10 families in each house, one family to a room. Since the demise of the old Soviet system, Moscow and other cities have dismantled most of their kommunalki, selling the apartments to wealthy families who pay for the residents to resettle in the sprawling suburbs. But in St Petersburg, communal apartments linger on - a last vestige of the crumbled system.

Lack of investment in new construction has led to a severe shortage of accommodation in Russia's second city. According to the local housing committee, 300,000 families live in kommunalki.

The photographer Francoise Huguier spent six months in St Petersburg documenting the lives of the inhabitants of these overcrowded dwellings. 'They are the theatre of human dramas,' she says. 'Sociologists and psychologists are very interested in the life here because it encourages a form of paranoia, as well as leading to behavioural problems.' Huguier has witnessed drug-taking, prostitution and alcoholism, often occurring in the middle of ordinary family life.

Macha is in her early seventies and has lived in the same kommunalka since 1947. 'We might be only 100 metres from the Hermitage museum,' she says, 'but we live in an unhealthy apartment - the bathroom tiles date from the revolution.'

She brought her entire family up in one room, and recalls washing her children in the communal kitchen sink. Now her grandson, a biologist, lives with her too. But despite the disrepair and overcrowding, she would rather live here than in the suburbs, two hours away from the city centre.

The residents come from a variety of social backgrounds. Sharing the house with Macha, who used to work as a docker, is a university professor, a painter, a life model and a retired doctor. For the most part, they coexist in harmony, but quarrels can break out about excessive use of electricity or if someone cooks with rancid oil - the smell of which permeates all the rooms.

Strict rules govern the cleaning of the communal areas and use of the shower, and transgressions are punished immediately: if pots are not washed and left in the kitchen they are unceremoniously dumped outside the culprit's door. And if someone jumps the queue for the shower, the hot water is promptly turned off.

Not surprisingly, residents fiercely guard what privacy they have, and locks are fitted to the doors of their rooms. But, as in most family houses, the kitchen is the centre of communal life; the place where residents stop and pass the time of day beneath lines of drying laundry crisscrossing a once grand corniced ceiling


See also:

Housing and Utilities Reform

Sunday Times (UK), July 27, 2003

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