Origins of a topic or, how I moved from a communal to a separate apartment

I’m often asked how I chose the khrushchevka as a topic of study, first for my dissertation in Soviet history at the University of Chicago and now for my book. The answer is a mix of the personal and the academic. On the academic side of things, graduate students and scholars in the mid to late 1990s were just beginning to focus on the Khrushchev era in an effort to figure out what happened to Soviet life after Stalin, which had been the main focus of attention since the opening of the archives. Getting into the Khrushchev period, therefore, had the advantage of entering into a part of the Soviet past that most historians had not examined, especially with access to newly opened archives.

Figure I.1 -- Khrushchev-era apartment building

A Khrushcheva-era apartment building in St. Petersburg. I took this photo in October 2010.

On the personal side of things, I became interested in Soviet housing when I lived in St. Petersburg in 1995-1996, a year squeezed in between college and graduate school, where I taught English at School No. 157, just a few short steps from Smolny Cathedral and where Lenin and his fellow Bolsheviks set up shop during the October Revolution. About half way through the year, I moved from a home stay on the outskirts of town in a 1970s high rise apartment building to a communal apartment on Vasilievskii Island. Although I had lived in a dorm in college at UNC Chapel Hill, I’d never experienced anything quite like a Soviet-era communal apartment where families lived in individual rooms and shared the kitchen, bathroom, toilet, corridor, and main entrance. As a young, college grad desperate to improve his Russian and dive into Russian life, it was actually a great place to live. The apartment was a revolving door of colorful figures who stopped by to see my neighbors, share their stories, and tell a young American what life was really all about in Russia and, of course, everywhere else in the world. Since our apartment was located in an older part of town among pre-revolutionary buildings, living there also felt like I was living in a more authentic part of St. Petersburg. And the exotic nature of my communal apartment gave me a taste of the recently departed Soviet Union, a country which I had first known as a Cold War enemy growing up in the 1980s in Charlotte, North Carolina but never got to visit once I got interested in Soviet history in college (in fact, the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of my first semester in college).

Like many foreigners (and not a few Russians!), I got interested in the communal apartment or kommunalka precisely because its otherness and exotic nature gave us a window onto an alternative way of life that was receding into the past. This remains one of the main reasons why the communal apartment continues to attract attention today (see, for example, this story from NPR’s All Things Considered and this story from PRI’s The World) even though it constitutes a small proportion of Russia’s urban housing stock. Looking back now on the mid-1990s and life in St. Petersburg, I distinctly remember how frustrating it was to have missed the Soviet experience, about which I had learned so much in college, by just a few years and so I grasped onto whatever traces of it I could find. Americans like myself in mid-1990s Petersburg acted like amateur anthropologists and archaeologists, gathering up whatever items of Soviet kitsch–posters, pins, flags, pennants, and propaganda–we could get our hands on that most Russians just wanted to throw away like they did their Soviet past. We also constantly interrogated our poor Russian friends about what life had been like just a mere 5-10 years ago. The communal apartment was likewise the perfect point of access to the Soviet past and one that my Russian friends were more than happy to explain, even if the whole notion of an American living in a communal apartment seemed quite absurd to them.

Meanwhile, the mass housing and separate, single-family apartments that encircled the city and in which most residents of the city actually lived were of no interest to me at the time. I had just left one such apartment located across the Neva river from the Smolny Cathedral in a mass housing ensemble that screamed soul-crushing monotony, ordinariness, the drudgery of everyday life getting to and from the city center, and an atomized bourgeois lifestyle stuffed into family apartments. Despite their ubiquity, such apartments and the mass housing ensembles they came in didn’t seem to be part of the Soviet story or, at least, not a part of the Soviet story that I wanted to tell about the revolutionary origins of communal housing and the ideological underpinnings of this strange, recently socialist way of life. But as I write at the start of my book, the ordinariness of such housing deceptively masked the rather extraordinary role it played in reshaping Soviet life after Stalin. In other words, while it was hard for me to see it at the time that I lived in Petersburg in the mid-1990s, this housing was also a Soviet story that could help us better understand how the country as a whole made its own move out of Stalinism and into the Khrushchev era and beyond to a present when most urban Russians live in separate apartments.

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