Essays > Communal Apartments > Poverty and the quality of life
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A discussion of some of the economic and social factors that explain why people stay in and tolerate communal apartments.
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The images of Russian communal apartments in this site convey abundant information about standards of living, quality of life, and economic status. But analyzing and interpreting this "data" is not a straightforward task. While some clearly are impoverished, not all of the people whom we encounter in the clips are necessarily as poor in material terms as their housing conditions would suggest. In addition, it is critical to understand that the nature of poverty in the Russian Federation and other formerly socialist countries differs in significant ways from poverty in much of the rest of the world.

It is crucial not to assume a direct association between cash income and the size and condition of living quarters. As noted in other essays on this site, there are many reasons why people lived in communal apartments in the Soviet period and have continued to live in them in the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union. From a broadly historical view, severe shortages of housing explain the existence of communal apartments as a mass phenomenon spanning many decades and the entire USSR; the "communal lifestyle" was also supposed to accord with communist ideology. The bureaucratic and institutional intricacies of Soviet life over the decades explain why some people managed to acquire private apartments while others remained in communal apartments; material rewards (housing topmost among them) in the Soviet period were distributed according to socialist value systems and the peculiarities of "nomenklatura"—privileges accorded in a very hierarchical way to administrative and cultural elites within and by the communist party. Connected with that, while many families were able to marshal their professional resources, utilize their personal connections, and set aside some of their limited cash income to acquire better housing, due to factors of social position or personal habit others were unable to do this.

The gradual privatization of the housing market in the post-Soviet years has created a real estate market where it is increasingly difficult for people outside of the business sector to accrue the cash needed to purchase property. Residential mortgages are rare, as the banking industry has not yet developed a system of affordable and accessible mortgage lending; in any case, most citizens are unaccustomed with the practice of long-term borrowing. Unless they have cash income apart from their primary salaries, personnel in education, health care, the sciences, civil administration, and other public sectors earn less than the average monthly salary (as of 2006, 9900 rubles per month or approximately $343, according to the Russian Federal State Statistics Service) and thus cannot accrue monetary capital. It is not surprising that many unmarried, divorced, or widowed women still live in communal apartments. Without the ability to pool family resources, and economically or socially vulnerable in other ways, such persons have had a very difficult time improving their standard of living.

There is, however, a dimension of choice at play here as well. As we see in several clips, people have remained in (or moved to) communal apartments well into the years of the market economy when relaxation of housing shortages and bureaucratic constraints have made it much easier to move. Some greatly prefer to live in the center of a city, a factor especially important to St. Petersburg residents but common across Russian cities, where the best "culture" and most interesting street life happens in the central neighborhoods. As Marina notes in the clip "Outer City Housing Complexes" (Tour 8), the vast tracts of housing outside of the center can be alienating and depressing. Single people, and elderly pensioners in particular, may find the conditions in a communal apartment not only acceptable and affordable, but also reassuringly companionable (see "We're Like One Big Family," Tour 8). Still others may have built interesting, comfortable habitations for themselves over many decades—for some their entire lives—in a communal apartment, and may be loathe to make radical changes in their domiciles and daily patterns; this is likely the case with Vadim and Lena whom we see in "If All This Were Yours..." (Tour 4) and other clips.

People in Russia regard the condition of their housing as an indicator and expression of social status, class, and personality. But as is clear from many clips on this site, the way people "read" status into the elements of housing is highly variable. Although their apartments may appear decrepit and shabby, with cigarette butts in the entry halls, and with "empty" rooms and corridors laden helter-skelter with forgotten and unwanted possessions, some view the elaborate architectural elements of their central St. Petersburg buildings as more important signifiers of their cultural status. Do they even see the decrepitude that may so strike the eye of a stranger? Would they agree with a foreign visitor that the distressed conditions of their walls, floors, and plumbing are marks of their poverty? Possibly not.

expand/collapse this text box Further Study
See the Russian Federal Statistics Service website (English version) for many statistical charts concerning standards of living, income, population demographics and much more.

Works on Russia/USSR

Balzer, Harley. (1998). "Russia's Middle Classes." Post-Soviet Affairs. 14(2).

Bater, James H. (2001). Adjusting to Change: Privilege and Place in Post-Soviet Central Moscow. The Canadian Geographer. 45(2): 237-51.

Butenko, I. A., and Kirill Emilevich Razlogov. (1997). Recent Social Trends in Russia, 1960-1995. Montreal; Buffalo: McGill-Queen's University Press.

Clarke, Simon. 1999. "Poverty in Russia." Problems of Economic Transition. 42(5): 5-55.

Fisher-Ruge, Lois (1993). Survival in Russia: Chaos and Hope in Everyday Life. Boulder Colo.: Westview Press.

Manning, Nick and Nataliya Tikhonova (2004). Poverty and Social Exclusion in the New Russia. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.

Pesmen, Dale (2000). Russia and Soul: An Exploration. Cornell University Press.

Piirainen, Timo (1997). Towards a New Social Order in Russia: Transforming Structures and Everyday Life. Aldershot, England; Brookfield, Vt., USA: Dartmouth.

Comparative and Theoretical Works

Bourdieu, Pierre (1984). Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gupta, Akhil and James Ferguson, eds. (2001). Culture, Power, Place: Explorations in Critical Anthropology. Durham: Duke University Press.

Low, Setha M. and Erve Chambers, eds. (1989). Housing Culture and Design: A Comparative Perspective. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

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

Semenova, Victoria (2004). "Equality in poverty: the symbolic meaning of kommunalki in the 1930s- 50s." In On Living through Soviet Russia. Daniel Bertaux, Paul Thompson, and Anna Rotkirch, eds. London: Routledge.

Click the image to see a larger version, uncropped and annotated.