Communal Living in Russia: From Books
From Fiction: P. Romanov. Three Pairs of Silk Stockings
  Summary
  Panteleimon Romanov. Three Pairs of Silk Stockings. A Novel of the Life of the Educated Class Under the Soviet. 1931. Translated by Leonide Zarine. Edited by Stephen Graham. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. 1931. Chapters IV and XIII.
  Translation of the Russian Transcript
  IV

The enormous house in which Hyppolit Kisliakof lived struck one by its imposing facade. On every one of its five floors were pretty balconies, with ornaments and bronze banisters resembling baskets of flowers. The whole house glistened from the outside with the freshness of the new pink paint, along the pavements were urns for cigarette ends, and in the evenings it glistened with lights from windows of its five stories.

The huge entrance hall, with its plate glass windows, was cluttered up with a large number of children's perambulators. In this hall there was a blackboard with the names of the tenants, and near it a fly-marked sheet of paper on which was written:

'Citizens, preserve your strength and use the lift.'

On the lift itself was a similar piece of paper, with the same amount of fly spots, on which was written:

'The lift is not working.'

When it had been started, after being overhauled, it was broken again by tenants who, returning from a gay party, decided to see whether it could carry more weight than was mentioned in the instructions. For this reason all the tenants now had to go up on foot, and in the evenings, if the electric lamps which lit the staircase happened to have been stolen, they had to grope their way, stumbling and frightening each other in the darkness. These lamps, in spite of the fact that they were protected by iron nets and placed at an impossible height, were, nevertheless, continually stolen. The management of the house had for a long time past decided to dispense with them, and the tenants themselves would not buy them.

On each door was a card bearing a list of tenants, and against the family name of each occupant stood a number, showing how many times to ring.

The bells usually went through four stages in their existence. First, there appeared near the door new wooden lacquered rosettes with a white button in the centre. Then the rosettes with the buttons disappeared and there remained only two copper plates on a round wooden base. Then the wooden base disappeared and just the ends of the wire stuck out. Now the bells were rung by connecting the two ends together, and when these two ends went everyone had to bang desperately on the door with their fists. In this case the number of knocks was always being muddled, causing continuous quarrelling in the flats.

Kisliakof approached the entrance hall from the street with the intention of running quickly up the stairs to the third floor (among other things the doctor, it must be said, had advised him to take things quietly), and after dining to take a rest after his labours. But on approaching the door he spat with annoyance. The main entrance was locked and on the inside of the glass of the door was pasted a strip of paper on which was written clumsily: 'The main staircase is closed for the washing of the stairs. Entrance at the back.'

Although the staircase was only washed once a week it seemed to Kisliakof that it was done every day. He went across the yard to the back staircase.

The yard of this house was enclosed on all four sides by tall buildings, so that if one wanted to see the sky from the yard one had to thrust one's head back as though looking up at a tower.

The first thing in the yard which caught the eye was drying linen, which hung on ropes tied in every direction, and the incredible numbers of children and dogs. Nearly all the children were of proletarian extraction (of the same order were the perambulators in the main hall), and the dogs, in most cases, were of the bourgeois type, flighty fox terriers running round the yard in circles, proud bulldogs, Alsatians running about nervously like wolves. There were also some white long-haired Spitzens, looking like fluffy balls of cotton wool, invariably wearing blue ribbons,and there were some mongrels.

The house was inhabited in part by people of the educated class and partly by proletarians. The latter had a preponderance of children and the people of the educated class—dogs.

During the hours when the dogs were taken out for a walk the yard was transformed into a pandemonium; the dogs, being set at liberty, rushed about as though they were mad. The unsuspecting visitor putting his nose in at the yard gate would close it hurriedly, seeing all at once five or six bounding dogs, and the owners in a chorus of voices would shout to him to come in as the dogs would not bite.

If the visitor timorously entered the yard another band of dogs of all manner of breeds would immediately rush at him. Some wagged their tails, others sniffed at his coat, others threw up their heads and barked. The owners continued to urge that the dogs would not touch him and only barked to greet him, not in an angry way, but to invite him to stroke them.

On the back staircase the visitor, as with steam in a hot bath, was immediately enveloped in smoke and the frying smells from the kitchen. In the corner of each landing, opposite the door opening on the kitchen, stood boxes and pails filled with all sorts of kitchen refuse—cucumber parings, egg shells, water melon rind, — some could not contain all this litter and pieces were scattered round them on the floor and even on the steps, where the children, when playing, kicked the water melon rind from one to another.

Here also were dirty bedraggled cats.

The lodging in which Hyppolit Kisliakof lived contained ten families—twenty-seven people.

The long corridor with doors on both sides was completely filled with trunks, baskets and cupboards.

The quantity of articles made the corridor quite dark, and the tenants who went from the lavatory or kitchen to their own rooms were always bumping their foreheads or bruising their knees, cursing those who had put all this rubbish there, in spite of the fact that their own things occupied no little space and that it was not at all certain whether they bumped against their own or someone else's belongings. The flat, in contradiction to the exterior, produced the impression of a furniture shop or depository where, after an auction, everything had been thrown in a heap.

Near the main door was the telephone and the wall all round it was covered with telephone numbers and drawings of women's faces. The clothes rack was empty, as the tenants were all afraid to hang their clothes there in case they should be stolen.

In a small corridor near the kitchen was the lavatory, which was always in use, occupied in the morning, occupied during the day, occupied at night.

'Who the devil is sitting there?' one would say in despair, tired of running backward and forward from his room to the lavatory. This could be explained to a certain extent by the fact that combined with the lavatory was the bath.

The occupants of the flat were of such different composition as though at the time of a flood they had rushed here, bringing with them in their haste whatever they could lay their hands on. Actually, there were two-thirds people of the educated class and one-third of the proletariat. Among the latter were two locksmiths with their families and a group of plasterers, who left a white trail from their doors to the lavatory.

Just near the telephone at the entrance was the room of Pechonkina, a woman of the lower middle class. Through the door, which she nearly always left open, could be seen an iron bedstead, covered with a patchwork quilt and a heap of feather cushions, a commode,with a plaster cat and an enlarged photograph of her husband, spotted by flies. This woman thrust her head out at every knock and always knew who visited whom.

Next to her lived the Kisliakofs and next to them a young married couple of the name of Zvenigorodsky, very cultured people, who were regarded in the flat as an exemplary couple. Both were tall and well-built. He was an architect and always went about in a hat and carried his overcoat over his arm, she wore a close-fitting little hat, thrust well down over her ears, and a close-fitting blue costume. They were called the inseparables and always went out together, distinguishing themselves with extraordinary correctness and politeness.

Next to them was the room of the couple Diakonov, the former owners of the whole flat. The husband was a tall, silent and resigned man, who did the shopping and prepared the coffee in the kitchen. His wife, a tall, well-developed woman, never rose early, and began her day with noisy talk. She screamed at everybody, at those who remained a long time in the lavatory, at those who made mistakes in the number of knocks. She was annoyed with all of them because they were living in her flat. She was always fighting and going to law with the lower middle class woman about a dark storage cupboard which the latter had appropriated and would not give up. They had a son about fifteen years old (the only offspring of the educated class in the whole flat) and they did not know what to do with him, as no one would employ him. He was of a definitely criminal type, would not take advice, was not afraid of punishment and even threatened to cut the throats of his parents.

Further along lived an old professor with his wife. He was short and baldheaded, and always went about with slackened trousers. He made himself a nuisance by shaking his trousers every morning outside his door, which was opposite the room of the Kisliakofs. This annoyed Elena Victorovna more than anything. The wife of the professor had two small pug-nosed Japs, with long, hanging ears. They were very inoffensive and timid, and very quietly made dirt in every corner.

On the opposite side of the corridor lived a statistician, a tall man, who left the bath each morning with such dishevelled hair that all the large dogs barked at him and the small Japs rushed with all speed to their room.

The last two rooms, numbered 9 and 10, were occupied by some good-looking lady, who went along to the bath each morning in a lilac shawl, and another lady, a pensioner, who lived in fear that her pension would be taken away from her. In her view it could be taken away for two reasons: either because after examination they might find her capable of working, or because they might see that she had good furniture in her room. For this reason the whole day long she was never without a cigarette in her mouth, smoking in order to weaken her heart, and she kept her room in an impossible state, having given the best of her furniture to the wife of the professor. The floor of her room was absolutely coated with dirt, because she was afraid to polish it, and she was always untidy, trudging about in slippers and in a torn morning gown with rolled up sleeves. For going to draw her pension she wore a special costume: a very old costume and a black kerchief. In ordinary circumstances she wore a mantle, certainly not new, but with a silk lining, and a hat.

Quite apart, with a separate entrance, lived a high Soviet official, Natanson. Every morning a motor car came for him and hooted for a long time under the window. He was treated by everyone with respect and consideration.

The dogs started the day. The moment the steps of the milkwoman were heard on the back staircase the Natanson's dogs began to bark and to scratch at the door with their paws. They were answered by the Japs, first from behind the closed door, then when they were let out and ran on their short legs into the corridor, turning right and left and yelping, with their heads thrust up.

In response to this someone would angrily bang a door which was not tightly closed and through which the noise of the barking had entered and awakened the occupant. In most cases it was the statistician and he would usually shout:

'They have made a kennel of the place. There is no peace here, either by day or by night!'

The lower middle class woman would go along to the kitchen in an old print dress, with slippers on her bare feet and her thin hair fastened with hairpins in a knot at the back.

For some reason her passing always coincided with the opening of the door of the professor's room and the shaking of his trousers in the corridor. There was generally an altercation between the two; the professor, in his night attire, hid himself in his room and only thrust the trousers out with his hands; for this reason he could not see who was passing.

Then one after another the doors began to open and the tenants to appear.

The tall, gloomy Diakonov would pass along with his coffee pot to the kitchen. The pensioner would sweep out from her door the cigarette ends which had accumulated during the night.

In the morning the occupants of the flat were particularly sensitive to the various inconveniences and to all the remarks of their neighbours: it was as though after floating in their dreams during the night to higher spheres they had awakened once again to find themselves in the sickening society of their neighbours.

Nearly every morning the dogs barked at the statistician when they saw his dishevelled hair as he emerged with a towel round his neck from the bathroom, and he, quite flushed, would shout to Madam Natanson:

'If your dogs bark at me I will lodge a complaint at the court!'

'But they will not bite you.'

'It would be worse for them if they did, the devil knows! These are not apartments but kennels. Why don't you take a cottage somewhere and embrace your dogs there!'

Then someone going along the corridor would suddenly slip and, glancing behind on the floor, would agitatedly begin to examine his boots and shout into the air:

'Clear away this dirt and these beastly Japs, or I will choke the life out of them.'

The Japs, if they were in the corridor taking part in the general awakening of life, immediately understood to whom this exclamation was directed and, lowering their ears, rushed into their own room. They were received like hurt children by the professor's wife, who would open the door on hearing the commotion in the corridor.

Life in the kitchen began at full swing. The milk brought by the milkwoman was put into various saucepans. The oil stoves were lit, and if the electricity bill had been delivered the atmosphere in the kitchen would immediately become thick, and one heard the yelping, clamorous voice of the chief gossip and scandalmonger.

In this overcrowded space the dogs and children got under everybody's feet. Sometimes there was a ring; if it was a long and imperative one then some of the tenants paled, especially the pensioner and Sophia Pavlovna. Sometimes the ring was short and timid, followed by two short ones. This was probably some early visitor moving about in the darkness of the staircase and not quite sure how many times to ring.

Inside the flat there would be arguments as to whether it was one ring or two, or the full three! Somebody would eventually answer the door, but if it appeared that the visitor had made a mistake he would shout:

'Are you blind? Can't you see? Three rings for the Diakonovs!'

'But I gave three rings.'

'The devil knows how many times you rang' — and, banging the door in the visitor's face — 'I wear out the soles of my boots, running to the door!'

There were only two things on which the occupants of the flat agreed. First—the books. As apparently there was no money for buying books they were lent about. These books (chiefly by foreign authors, they did not believe in their own) soon became bulging and soiled. The second thing which united them was the crockery, which also was freely lent by one to another when there were guests.

All other matters were in dispute. In a sense it was not a flat but a powder magazine. Not a day passed but there were little explosions, and the powder was always kept dry.

Pretexts for explosions presented themselves at every turn. First—the lavatory: from morning on there congregated near it a queue of citizens hurrying to their work, some showing signs of impatience, and the one in front had not the time to get in and lock the door before fists were banging on the door, reminding him that he was not in his own drawing-room.

When the one who had made most noise disappeared inside and stayed there for some time, the others began to abuse him.

The bath got into such a condition that after one cursory glance few would care to use it. In any case they would not have had time to undress before one or two others would be banging on the door.

In addition the place was dark, and from the ceiling, above which was the lavatory of the next floor, water dripped continuously on the head, and collected on the floor in a pool which sometimes reached up to the skirting. For this reason there were always several bricks there, and each occupant stepped on them, trying to keep his balance as he forded the lavatory floor.

No one would go for a plumber on principle: 'Let those who made it dirty go!' The former owner of the flat only gloated over this state of affairs and said that with all these pigs in the place nothing else could be expected: they had seized somebody else's flat and did not know how to live in it like human beings.

The next point of misunderstanding was the kitchen, where from morning on, as in a busy factory, six oil stoves worked and buzzed at once. In the fumes one could only see the backs and bare elbows of the women-tenants in their morning dresses with slippers on their feet. Here they were for ever fussing over the use of pots or spilt refuse. When the former owner appeared on the scene the place became Sodom itself.

But the chief cause of misunderstanding was the dirt all over the building, and no one wanted to clean it up. No repairs were made in the places of general use.

Then not a day passed but one or other of the tenants lost something. Even the Primuses disappeared and then everyone said that the thief was the son of the former owner of the flat, but things continued to disappear even when he was out of the house.

So they all fixed up boxes for themselves in the kitchen. Saucepans and frying pans, everything was locked up after the food was prepared, or, alternatively, they were carried in a heap by the tenants to their rooms.

At last, as a precautionary measure against dirt and the disappearance of things, they arranged that each one in turn should act as a sort of supervisor.

V

As Hyppolit Kisliakof stopped on the landing, pressing his heart, he suddenly heard shrieks in the lodging. His first thought was that he was being deprived of his room, as in the midst of everything he could distinctly hear the cries of his wife, and as his room, owing to its size, was coveted by all the other tenants he was already accustomed to continuous attacks.

However, when he entered the trouble appeared much simpler. The professor's wife, a tall, thin, old-fashioned lady in pince-nez, had washed her Japs in the bath. She had been caught in the act of carrying them to her room, wrapped in a sheet.

'Washing your dogs where we wash our children! You dirty hussy!' the wife of the plasterer was shrieking.

'Go to blazes with your children!' shrieked the professor's wife, boiling with rage and pressing to her bosom the Japs, who, frightened to death, thrust their noses and frightened eyes out from the sheet.

[...]

XIII

Early in the morning Elena Victorovna began to prepare for her departure.

She took her gold trinkets for safe keeping to her neighbour Mme. Zvenigorodsky, with whom, despite the general quarrelling among the tenants, she was very friendly; they even shared each other's secrets. She took them to her, as she could not hope that her husband would lock the room up carefully. The whole day, however, proved to be very trying and her preparations were considerably hampered.

First, the electricity account was delivered and she had to collect the money. She hoped that she might get this over quickly and finish her packing, but it was the usual story: first one was not at home and the wife 'does not know' (What was there to know!), another was at home but the wife was not in and she had the money, a third had no money at the moment, had just had a stroke of bad luck and would be glad if she would pay the money in for him. In the kitchen the wives of the locksmiths began to scream that the charges were not fairly apportioned.

'How much light do you burn?' shrieked one, immediately on the offensive. 'When it comes to paying you are treated the same as we are.'

In truth, the locksmiths had only one small light, diffusing a dim yellow glow near the ceiling, and they went to bed at ten o'clock, and the plasterers had no light at all, but went to bed when they had finished their communal dish before it was dark; they had to get up before anyone else to go to their work.

'You have a lamp here, a lamp there, a lamp on your bottom!' shrieked the locksmith's wife, tearing the kerchief from her head and screwing it up in her hands.

'But all that is taken into account,' shouted Elena Victorovna, 'everyone has to pay for the number of lamps he burns.'

Here, though she regretted it later, she could not restrain herself from getting a thrust at the locksmith's wife:

'You think it is praiseworthy not to burn a lot of light, but you don't burn much because you are ignorant people and you have no spiritual or intellectual needs.'

'A—ah! It is all taken into account, and we have no needs! And who fixes an extra hundred candle power lamp? Is that how you occupy yourself with intellectual labours? We know what sort of intellectual labours you are busy with! We know everything...' Then all the tenants, eager to hear any sort of row, poured from their doors, and out came the children. The bulldog in Elena Victorovna's room scratched frantically with his paws on the door, thinking probably that someone was hurting his mistress.

Then Sophia Pavlovna Diakonov fought with the lower middle class woman over the small storeroom about which they had already quarrelled and been to court. Sophia Pavlovna wanted to put her washing in the bath; it was already filled with the washing of the lower middle class woman, this she threw out, then she burst open the door of the small storeroom about which they argued, and turned out all the litter belonging to the lower middle class woman. The other, seeing this, uttered a shriek probably similar to that with which Red Indians rush to scalp their victims, and seized her by the hair. All the onlookers urged them to stop, and the two Japs stood in the doorway of their room, with heads turned up, barking either one against the other or together.

'My God, an educated woman!' said Elena Victorovna, holding her head in her hands and going to her room.

When the fight in the corridor was over, Zvenigorodsky, to whom she had entrusted her gold trinkets only an hour and a half ago, came to her, dressed in her hat and blue costume, with her pretty face and golden curls protruding beneath her hat and a tired expression on her face. She seated herself on the divan and silently took off her gloves from her thin, well-shaped hands. She was probably not in a condition to talk.

Then, having taken off her gloves and placed them on her knees, she said that her husband had turned her out of the room, and that she was going to apply at the court for him to be turned out instead.

'I must fight!' said she, extending her hands in an attitude of despair. 'Just to think that only a month ago he would not let me move, anticipated my every wish, and I remember' (she swallowed her tears) 'we stood near the window and he stroked my hand as he talked to me... and now...'

'My God, an educated man!' said Elena Victorovna. 'Can it be that nothing sacred is left in life? Not even the slightest sense of dignity, nothing but calculation and looking after one's own skin?'

'But now he has killed my faith in men,' went on Zvenigorodsky, wiping her eyes hurriedly, 'I will do all in my power, even though I have to starve and sell my things, to poison his life. I have friends who will help me.'

Elena Victorovna listened to her compassionately, herself ready to cry, and at her words that she had friends who would help her, tenderly stroked her hand, but at the same time a terrifying thought flashed through her mind: was it not a mistake that she had given the trinkets to her to keep?

The thought pricked so sharply that she could not get rid of it. An expression of alarm took the place of that of compassion. She did not even answer what her friend was saying, but thought all the time about her gold trinkets.

To ask for them back immediately after Zvengorodsky had talked about starving and selling her own things was difficult, not only difficult, but for an educated person, impossible. At that moment the professor's wife, wearing an old-fashioned dress smelling of camphor, entered asking what was the best stuff with which to wash dogs. Zvenigorodsky immediately said good-bye and left the room.


[Quoted from Panteleimon Romanof. Three Pairs of Silk Stockings. A Novel of the Life of the Educated Class Under the Soviet. 1931. Translated by Leonide Zarine. Edited by Stephen Graham. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. 1931. Copyright © 1931 by Charles Scribner's Sons. Printed in the United States of America. Also published by E. Benn, Ltd. in London, 1931 as well as, reportedly, by Hyperion Press in Westport, Conn., 1973.]

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