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Essays > Communal Apartments > Not quite like family
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Co-tenants are inevitable witnesses to other people's private behavior.
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Tenants in a communal apartment are like family in some respects and like strangers in others. The transparency of the space they occupy means that they are privy to things about each other that otherwise would be known only by close relatives. Co-tenants are always present as silent observers just beyond the doors of your room. They know the sound of your footsteps.

Most of our informants had been at least once in every room of their apartment and more or less understood how they looked inside. They know each other's daily schedules. They know that a particular neighbor is at home because his slippers are not outside his door, and that another neighbor is away because the door handle is in a downward position, and that means the door is locked. If someone is gone from the apartment for a few days or for a long time, one of the neighbors undoubtedly knows how to get hold of him.

What neighbors know about each other encompasses not only daily routines, but many different aspects of their lives: their professional activities, their habits, family relations, likes and dislikes, and opinions. As one informant put it, "Everything is on show. And to some extent this is a part of what we are. Because you grow up in front of everybody, you know that everyday people are taking your measure. How you're dressed, where your mother works, who comes to see you. What you eat. If you have free time. What's in your laundry, what kind of underwear you've got hanging on the clothesline.

Sharing communal spaces inevitably leads to the public display of behaviors and conditions that would in other circumstances be embarrassing. Women walk around in bathrobes and housecoats or with towels on their heads (see this in one of the clips). Men can appear in the hallway or kitchen in their undershirts or even with a bare chest (say, when washing up in the kitchen). In the evening or at night a male co-tenant can go from the bathroom back to his room wrapped in nothing but a towel. Encountering people in this state is not understood as a violation of privacy. Some things simply have to be done in front of other people, or they would not get done at all. In the kitchen, for example, people often brush their teeth and wash and color their hair.

Some of these behaviors involving personal cleanliness need an enclosed space, but privacy in an enclosed space is relative if that space is shared. Often even this relative privacy is disregarded. See the essay "Acceptable violations of privacy."

Communal neighbors see each other without makeup or cosmetics. The usual communal dress is an old bathrobe or gym pants—the kind of clothing that people don't show to "outsiders" on the street or at work. On the contrary, if you are wearing a suit or polishing your shoes in the hallway, neighbors can ask where you're going.

expand/collapse this text box Further Study
Historical and Cultural Studies

Garcelon, Marc (1997). "The Shadow of the Leviathan: Public and Private in Communist and Post-Communist Society." In Public and Private in Thought and Practice: Perspectives on a Grand Dichotomy, Jeff Weintraub and Krishan Kumar, eds. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gerasimova, Katerina (2002). "Public Privacy in the Soviet Communal Apartment." In Socialist Spaces: Sites of Everyday Life in the Eastern Bloc, David Crowley and Susan E. Reid, eds. Oxford: Berg, pp. 207-230.

Kharkhordin, Oleg (1997). "Reveal and Dissimulate: A Genealogy of Private Life in Soviet Russia." In Public and Private in Thought and Practice: Perspectives on a Grand Dichotomy, Jeff Weintraub and Krishan Kumar, eds. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Siegelbaum, Lewis H., ed. (2006). Borders of Socialism: Private Spheres of Soviet Russia. New York: Palgrave.

Comparative and Theoretical Works

Donzelot, Jacques (1979). The Policing of Families. New York: Pantheon Books.

Goffman, Erving (1978). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York, Penguin Books.

Mira, Ricardo Garcia, ed. (2005). Housing, space and quality of life. Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

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