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Essays > Communal Apartments > The kitchen
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How space is organized and objects function in a communal kitchen.
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The kitchen is the heart of the communal apartment, its central square, the primary public space ("communal space," to use the formal term). It is not just a place to prepare food. This is where the tenants meet, sharing their joys and sorrows. This is where problems are resolved (not infrequently after a shouting match). The walls are used for hanging announcements and various charts that organize apartment life (schedules for who is in charge of cleaning, charts counting and dividing the electric bill). Years ago there were always a lot of people in the kitchen: women at their tables and stoves, along with their offspring and other family members. The noise and smells would spread through the entire apartment.

The space in the kitchen is divided among the tenants by family. Each family has their own kitchen table (or part of a kitchen table, shared with a neighbor), their own burners on a stove (or all four burners, if the family is large), their own space above the table and the passageways around it, where clotheslines are hung. The table and stove are usually next to each other.

Clothes are hung to dry not only in the bathroom, but also in the kitchen and on the balcony where they dry better. Mostly small items are hung out in the kitchen; if people put sheets out to dry there they would make cooking difficult (and neighbors would be tempted to wipe their hands on them). It is only permitted to hang laundry in the area that is close to your family's space (table and stove). Sometimes things are "express-dried" right above the stove.

A layout in which several tables are grouped in the center of the room permits a more efficient use of space as well as, to some extent, reproducing the layout of the distant past when there weren't any gas stoves. At that time the kitchen had, usually at its center, a big wood stove which was fired up on holidays. For everyday, people cooked on kerosene stoves, the pressurized kind or just the regular one. These were kept on the wood stove, where each family had their own "sector."

People don't store groceries in the kitchen, with the possible exception of things like flour and salt. To prevent theft, hanging locks are often put onto kitchen cabinets. When food is ready, the pot or frying pan is either taken into the room, put into a special cupboard (in this photograph you can see the open door), or kept in an improvised refrigerator between the glass panes of the double windows (here you can see a jar of fermented cabbage). In large kitchens, as opposed to the kitchens of small apartments, all refrigerators are in people's rooms.

Toiletries are often stored here, rather than in the bathroom: the bathroom is a closed space, while here, everything is under observation and control. In addition, people can wash their hands and faces and brush their teeth in the kitchen. Washing your feet or hair would be unusual (although in some apartments washing your hair is acceptable). Sometimes you can wash some small item of clothing, although it is more convenient to do that in the bathroom, and in a washing machine.

Since most apartments are no longer large, there rarely is a line to use the sink. Waiting becomes an issue because the single water heater serves both the kitchen and the bathroom, so that in order to wash dishes, you may have to wait until someone is out of the shower. Next to the kitchen tables you often find garbage cans or pails; every family has their own, and they are carried out as necessary. In an earlier period most apartments had a single garbage can, which was emptied regularly by the person on duty. Garbage that isn't removed can anger other tenants because of the smell and the danger of cockroaches. Incidentally, we often see on walls white lines, drawn with insecticide chalk to prevent cockroaches.

Sinks, faucets, and pipes are often damaged; usually, the faucets drip. Old pipes that are no longer used are not removed for many years. The windows here have not been washed for so long that it looks as though that was never done.

In an earlier period, the kitchen was always full of people. You needed to take a place in line in order to wash dishes. Women bustled around their stoves, and the cooking of food and boiling of laundry didn't stop until late at night. Now the kitchen is comparatively empty even in the daytime.

expand/collapse this text box Further Study
Buchli, Victor (1999). An Archeology of Socialism. Oxford: Berg.

Crowley, David and Susan E. Reid, eds. (2002). Socialist Spaces: Sites of Everyday Life in the Eastern Bloc. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Eaton, Katherine Bliss (2004). Daily Life in the Soviet Union. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.

Gronow, Jukka (2003). Caviar with Champagne: Common Luxury and the Ideals of the Good Life in Stalin's Russia.Oxford; New York: Berg.

Harris, Steven E. (2003). Moving to the Separate Apartment: Building, Distributing, Furnishing, and Living Urban Housing in Soviet Russia, 1950s-1960s. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Chicago.

Reid, Susan E. (2006). "The Meaning of Home: 'The Only Bit of the World You Can Have to Yourself.'" In Borders of Socialism: Private Spheres of Soviet Russia, Lewis Siegelbaum, ed. Gordonsville, VA: Palgrave.

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