There's this legend. When the first Soviet government took up residence in Moscow, following which an uncountable salt-of-the-earth mob pushed its way there too, there arose the so-called housing crisis. Some government enthusiast got the idea of "cramming"
and went and proposed it to "the Old Man." The "Old Man" gave it some thought, but not a lot. Then, with his famous squint, immortalized by the actor who played him in the movies, he said—as the newspapers would put it—"thoughtfully": "You know, my friend, I myself am a man of the old school. I could not, probably, live in an apartment with other families. But the comrades? What the heck, let them try." And so the comrades tried. And they're still trying.
The communal apartment is not only a real residence for real people (or semi-real, as it begins to seem through a historical lens), but also a continually working model of something-or-other.
What's modeled in it is not the Russian village, as it doesn't give off the slightest whiff of the notorious peasant commune. It gives off quite a few whiffs, but not of the peasant commune.
The Russian village is present in the five-story apartment blocks that rose up in places where actual villages had existed exactly five minutes earlier. And "people of the new type," a slippery concept that everyone understands, came into being precisely there.
The communal apartment, with its multiplicity of everyday habits, education levels, ethnic and even, if you will, class backgrounds is a lot closer to the medieval town.
The same overcrowding.
The same regimentation of everyday life.
And it also has its marketplace: the kitchen, with its exchange of goods and information: an onion is borrowed until the next day, and a couple of rubles until payday. Or "Vera Sergeevna, what are you putting into your borshch, it's so rich?"
The cathedral square is also the kitchen. The role of the cathedral is taken by the incessant cable radio, which connects the citizenry with absolute truth and eternal paradise.
The eternally broken faucet does double duty as the town fountain. Around it unfold scandals worthy of the pen.
The main street is the hallway. Strung across it, just like on a street, are clotheslines with socks and long johns.
A neighborly brawl in the kitchen is completely equivalent to a knightly tournament.
The role of the shady, slightly phony woods, where in a moment of distress the hero of a romantic literature can run to sob and dream, is played by the courtyard. Sobbing and dreaming (especially if you are a sensitive adolescent at the stage of sexual awakening) can be done between the shed and the rusty garage, where a motorcycle with a sidecar, taken as war booty and owned by invalid Uncle Kolya the accordionist, is presently disintegrating. Uncle Kolya the accordionist doesn't use the motorcycle, not only because he's missing a full set of limbs but also on account of the absent motor, sold a long time ago for drink.
Between the shed and the rusty garage there's always a fresh layer of shit. Boys and girls use the space to take down their pants for each other. But our romantic hero will find there a haven worthy of his melancholy. However, now we're talking about the COURTYARD—a different world, with different problems.
Communal existence determined communal consciousness. Communal consciousness engendered the communal myth. In time, the myth turned into parody in folklore, in jokes, in cliches, in literature, in pulp fiction. In communal pulp fiction.
The communal apartment was as incomprehensible to a foreigner as, for example, the residency permit. Foreigners either didn't believe in the existence of one or the other, or overly demonized them. In the early 1970s, an American asked if it was true that workers and intellectuals were housed together so that the workers would get an education and the intellectuals would be schooled in the spirit of collectivism. Another time he asked if it was true that a person registered in Leningrad could travel to Moscow only with police approval.
Once I had to entertain a Danish fellow, who got my telephone number from a different Danish fellow, and I didn't know what to do with him so I took him to see my friend. My friend lived in a communal apartment. When we walked through the hallway, hung with skis and babies' washtubs, the Dane's eyes rolled as though he had been transported unconscious into an equatorial jungle.
While we sat in my friend's room and drank the Dane's whisky, in came—twice—without even knocking, one of the neighbors. Nikolai Nikolaevich was wearing a woman's bathrobe, from under which his herring-colored long johns made a fairly convincing show. "Aleksandr Markovich," he said the first time around, "would you happen to have an enema? Oh, you have guests..." The second time he came to consult. "Alekandr Markovich, what do you think, what should be done with the kittens? Drown them or maybe it would be better to suffocate them?" The exotic nature of the questions arose, apparently, because my friend was a doctor.
At some point, the Dane left to go to the toilet, but found himself in the kitchen. The sheer number of crawling and flying insects could have made him think of western abundance or even of capitalist overproduction, but, I am afraid, the reaction was more direct.
He somehow made it to the toilet, where, had he known Russian, he would have had the pleasure of reading two notices written in a big childish hand and hanging on the wall. The first was in the style of May Day exhortations: "Comrades! Flush After You Urinate!" The second was more terse, and also more esoteric: "Don't throw big pieces of newspaper ."
In general, the array of inscriptions in communal lavatories is a subject that has been studied considerably less than the related folklore of public toilets. Too bad. Once I remembered a lot of them, and then I started to forget. I remember in someone's toilet an inscription suffused with desperation, whose somewhat sinister broken Russian doubled its expressiveness: "Don't piss flor." At first I didn't even think it was Russian. Was it not the memory of a communal childhood that gave my friend, the poet Viktor Koval, the inspiration for his auspicious aphorism "As you depart for the next world, please turn off this one."
The whole way back to the metro, the Dane maintained a shocked silence. Then he suddenly arrived at an unexpected conclusion. "It's good that a doctor doesn't withdraw from ordinary people. People can always get help from him. That's progressive." In the sense that a doctor might be a person of wealth, but here he has chosen a way of life that while not very comfortable is unquestionably noble. For a long time after that, I called my friend Albert Schweizer. And the Dane was, naturally, a total lefty who was very concerned about the social isolation and existential solitude of western people.
The population of the communal apartment amounted to an ironclad demographic unity whose composition—violable in individual instances—can be considered a constant.
Who were the residents, or more precisely, the inhabitants?
There had to be a Klavdia Nikolaevna, an old lady living by herself who was "one of them"—in fact, the descendant of the original owners. She lives in a room that children always find really interesting. The room is stuffed with old nicknacks and photographs of mustachioed men in engineers' or military uniforms. There's an out-of-tune upright piano with a bust of the deaf Beethoven, who for some reason seems to be blind as well.
There had to be a schoolteacher, an old maid, who viciously berates Lyuska—a girl of completely contrasting sexual behavior.
There had to be a Jewish family. Grandma, born in Gomel, speaks with a strong accent. Papa, a railroad engineer who speaks with a slight accent. Mama. Loud bathrobe. Bad relations both with the strict schoolteacher and the slutty Lyuska. But well-disposed toward Zhenya the quiet drunk, an ageless man who likes the poet Yesenin and, in rare moments of sobriety, can fix anything. Children. The boy Venya plays violin but dreams about heroism. "Heroism, shmeroism," says Grandma, "you want to grow up to be a criminal? Come right out and say that. Heroism! Az okh un vey! Your grandpa didn't have any heroism, but everybody asked his advice." The girl Ira studies math but dreams about the theater. Although what kind of theater can we be talking about, given the size of her behind?
There had to be the family of a retired pilot from Ukraine. Happy noisy relatives, arriving one after the other from the place they called, in their Ukrainian accents, "Zaporozhya" and staying for months. Two sons, a smart one and a stupid one. The smart one goes to the library and is always studying for some kind of entrance exam. The stupid one raises pigeons and smokes between the shed and the rusty garage (see above).
There had to be a metro repairman. Nobody ever sees him because he works nights and sleeps during the daytime. Although once he was caught eating. Atop a huge enameled bowl of buckwheat kasha lay a circle of six or seven meatballs. All this abundance was patiently consumed in utter silence. His wife—a slob with dyed hair and a really irritating voice. The daughter: a snot-nosed snitch with the eyes of a rat. Later, they say, she became a deputy of the local soviet.
There had to be a widower Rosentsweig, a former lawyer and amateur tenor. Now a comical old man with the evening newspaper—Vechernaya Moskva—and an eternally unbuttoned fly. He forgets to turn off the teakettle. All the water boils off. There's an argument. "Yakov Aronovich, you're going to burn us all to hell." It's obvious that he used to know his way around and in general had himself a good life. There are long telephone conversations with his sister Fira. The tone is somewhat aggravated. "Firochka, let's come to an agreement—you can tell me how to live some other time." An expressively helpless glance in the direction of the policeman Tolya, who is walking past.
There had to be a policeman Tolya. "Myself, I'm from Altai." His wife, also "from somewhere" keeps him on a tight leash. She's jealous. Apparently for good reason. Shaving in the kitchen in front of a greasy mirror, he says, "Well, if I'm not good-looking, then the girls have gorged themselves on hunks." Otherwise, he's even a good-natured kind of guy. Either he doesn't have children, or he does but they're kind of undetectable.
There has to be a Nyurka. She washes dishes in a cafeteria. "Boyfriends" come to see her. Some of them don't even make it as far as her room, but fall asleep in the hallway. Yakov Aronovich, who has to come out at night to pee, is always stumbling over somebody's silent body. At some point she gets alcoholic hallucinations. They begin with her staring tenderly at three dancing generals on the nickel-plated surface of Klavdia Nikolaevna's coffee pot. Nyurka is sent off for treatment, and for a short time Rosentsweig doesn't have to stumble.
There had to be a former NKVD-man with a Baltic last name. Alone, silent, grey, muscular, mysterious. Naturally everybody is afraid of him. He spends a long time polishing his shoes and then goes to the street to play chess.
There had to be a dissolute student Alik. His parents are on some kind of permanent assignment in another place. Let's say, China—everyone was in China in those days. From behind his door comes some kind of endless Besamemucho. He borrows a thirty (old currency) from kind Lyuska. He annoys the schoolteacher by playing tapes of the poet-singer Okudzhava. Not clear where he is a student. Probably not anywhere.
There had to be two sisters: Tatyana Dmitrievna and Olga Dmitrievna (named, it goes without saying, for the pair in Pushkin's Evgeny Onegin). They're very quiet. For good reason: both are deaf and dumb. But they're only quiet during the day. At night they engage in the systematic cleaning of the apartment's public spaces, making thunderous noises with basins and buckets. It is impossible to get it across to them that noise bothers people, or even what noise is. First of all, they are invalids of a sort. Second, they are seamstresses, and generous ones to boot. On their birthdays, everyone in the apartment gets a present: sateen pajamas, an apron with the emblem of the Moscow Youth Festival. The festival's playful daisy calls forth other associations, as it is placed in the spot where it would be usual to have a fig leaf.
There had to be a woman Saida. Works as a cleaning lady in our school. Her son Rinat studies at the Bolshoy. He is the apartment's genuine pride: twice he was on television in a government concert. In the evening she drinks two glasses of cheap wine, after which she hobbles into the kitchen and shouts "Rinatik, call a chair!" The affable Rinatic calls a chair. Saida hoists herself up on it and tells a long story, which little by little ends up in Tatar. On Tatar holidays there are very delicious Tatar belyashi. Or maybe it's only now that they seem very delicious. And in general, in memory everything is not quite the same as it was then. The literaturization of memory? A defensive reaction? The patina of time?
And finally there had to be—all the others, with the exception of all the rest of them.
The communal kitchen was a self-standing communicative space. There, on the background of the nonstop cable radio came an equally nonstop conversation that encompassed the broadest imaginable gamut of thematic and stylistic characteristics. A conversation about everything. A Great Conversation, occasionally followed by spontaneous brawling on the part of its participants.
This Great Conversation is the basis of several works by the artist Ilya Kabakov. One of these, called Olga Georgievna, you're boiling is an endless series of uncoordinated and utterly authentic speech gestures, produced by the communal body of the communal kitchen. For example, "Vera Yakovlevna, don't pour anything into the slop pail, there'll be a smell and all kinds of infections. Oh, I said slop? What a mistake, I meant trash! If it's the slop pail, then pour away, that's what it's there for, but peelings and paper go into the trash..."
It's clear what inspired him. Climbing the stairs to his studio on the seventh floor of the famous building of the "Russia" company on Sretensky Boulevard, you could hear your fill of amazing things coming through the doors. "So you're the lawyer?" I heard once. "You're no lawyer, you're an asshole. Got that?"
The communal apartment and art is a separate and for all practical purposes inexhaustible theme. Once it appeared in life, the communal apartment immediately appeared in literature as well. Zoshchenko, Bulgakov, Kharms, Ilf and Petrov, all operating from different, and sometimes extremely different, esthetic positions and pursuing different artistic goals, all gave us so-called "shining examples."
The most perceptive writers understood the communal apartment as the essence of the new social order which had, by definition, its own language. Such newborn lexical mongrels as upravdom for superintendent, from upravlyat', manage, and dom, building; "tenant-in-chief"; zhakt, the housing office; or "We'll consider the question of eviction" confidently pushed their way into the literary language, cramming it and occupying its living space. Even before the appearance of the kolkhoz (collective farm) and the Gulag, the communal apartment was a universal indicator of the fact that the utopia was mutating into a disutopia.
And then movies. In movies of the Stalinist era the communal apartment was not much in evidence. The heroes lived either in modest but pleasant workers' settlements, in solidly built village huts, or huge professors' apartments with glass doors and a view of the Spassky Tower. Communal apartments with their eccentric scholars who would leave their glasses in the most unsuitable places, their warmhearted simple grandmas with bottomless plates of freshly baked pies, and their mean-spirited aunties with their hair in rollers always listening from behind the door—all these made their entrance in the 1960s, and once having done so, could not disappear.
And to this day they still can't. Not from art, not from memory, not from life.
Translated for this project by Sasha Shein. See also an alternative translation by Timothy D. Sergay.
The Russian original was first published as "Kommunal'noe chtivo" in the magazine Itogi, 1998, issue 18 and reprinted in the author's collection Domashnee muzitsirovanie (Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2000), pp. 135-42. Used by permission. Translation Copyright © 2008. All rights reserved.