expand/collapse this text box Communal apartments and this website
This Web site--an online ethnographic museum--explores and explains a striking social phenomenon: the Soviet "kommunalka," or communal apartment. Instituted after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the kommunalka was a predominant form of housing for generations. By the 1970s, these crowded and uncomfortable apartments began to empty out in a noticeable way. But even now, when their location the most fashionable central districts of large Russian cities make them hot targets for real-estate buyouts, many remain in place, with life ordered in much the same way as it always was. On this site, we show video clips of ongoing communal apartments and their inhabitants, shot in St. Petersburg in 2006. There are also audio interviews, photographs, documents, commentaries, and explanations of many different kinds.

The communal apartment is unusual because it brought together families of vastly different educational backgrounds, attitudes, ethnicities, and life habits. These people had nothing in common except for the intimate spaces that they shared. Usually, each family lived in one room, with the kitchen, hallway, lavatory, and—in later years—bathroom, as highly contested public spaces. Communal living was the combined result of rapid urbanization and explicit social policy. New housing construction in Russian cities could never keep up with the massive population influx from rural areas, which increased dramatically with Soviet industrialization campaigns. Revolutionary goals of suppressing the bourgeoisie and nurturing the Soviet "new man," who was supposed to be trained to participate joyously in collective existence, led to this quintessential form of Soviet private life.

Beginning in the late 1950s, the government began building housing projects at the outskirts of major cities. People could get apartments there, generally through their places of work. But waiting lists for those "private" apartments (the adjective meant "not communal") were very long, and for decades many residents of "kommunalki" found themselves stuck in their small rooms in these overcrowded urban flats.

Forced to cope, residents devised a variety of strategies for maintaining order, for defending their own personal spaces, and for negotiating control over spaces that were shared. The resulting way of life was a core experience for generations of Russians, and is background, and sometimes foreground, to all of Soviet high culture.

expand/collapse this text box Using this Web Site
Language переключить язык bilingual text window display for printing
Choose English or Русский in Options or click the Language button in the upper right part of the window. (You may also select your toolbar style in Options.) All texts are offered in two languages. Titles and dialogue in all video clips are also translated. To display a text in both languages at the same time, click the Bilingual View button in the upper right part of the window (displayed after you select an exhibit, such as a video clip, photograph, etc.). The Printable View button opens a window with the current text displayed for printing.
Video Type
An earlier version of this website required the user to select a video format to match his or her browser. In 2016 we started using the HTML5-compatible format, i.e. a combination of mp4 and webm files. Our video clips can be played in all modern browsers, including the mobile versions.
Navigation site search and alphabetical index site map
This virtual museum offers 45 short video clips (5 to 7 minutes), 364 photographs, 12 audio interviews, and 46 one-page essays created specifically for this site, plus a number of documents and other materials. All these exhibits are accessible from the main window by using the silver tab buttons at the top. Links to all exhibits are also included in the Site Map window. A specific exhibit may be located by searching for any word and phrase (Russian or English) used in the accompanying commentary. Exhibits may also be displayed by clicking the entries in the alphabetical index of keywords. The search form and index are opened via the magnifying glass button. Photographs may also be located and displayed from the table of thumbnails.
Related exhibits are crosslinked. A linked exhibit will open in a new window so you can examine it without losing your place in the main window. The new window's heading tells you how to find the same item through the tab buttons in the main window. For example, the heading "Photos > The Neighborhood > A bridge over the river" in the secondary window tells you that the same photograph can be found in the main window by clicking the Photos tab button, then selecting The Neighborhood tour, and then clicking "A bridge over the river." We recommend closing these secondary windows when you are finished working with them. The main window is designed to accommodate the smallest notebook (with a desktop setting of 1024 x 768), although if you are using this minimal desktop, you may need to hide some optional browser toolbars.
For devices that cannot display multimedia, we offer text-only pages; you will find links to them in the Site Map.
expand/collapse this text box What are "Your Tours"?
Custom tours Sign in (or register) if you want to create custom tours. create a new custom Tour edit custom Tours Select whose custom Tours you want to see listed here.
A custom tour is a series of exhibits compiled to demonstrate a certain facet of communal life. It may also be a list of exhibits put together for some practical purpose, such as a quick review before a class. Unlike other tours in this virtual museum, a custom tour is not limited to one type of media: essays, video clips, photographs, scanned documents, etc. may be presented in any combination.
Custom tours for Russian and English audiences are displayed together in the Your Tours page. Some of the tours presented there were put together by the authors of this Web site, but any site visitor may design and display a custom tour.
All custom tours may be viewed by all visitors, but in order to author a tour, one needs to register. This is done in the Your Tours page by clicking the sign in button and filling out a simple form.
Why would you want to make a custom tour?
A teacher may create a custom tour (or a set of such tours) to serve as conveniently organized materials for a course in Russian culture, history, or language, or as a supplement to a Russian literature course. Because all materials in the museum are available in English, teachers of anthropology, architecture, cultural studies, sociology, geography, or urban studies whose main focus is not Russia may also be interested in compiling series of video clips, photographs, or other exhibits for their courses.
A student may be assigned to compile a custom tour as a course project, a test, or a regular homework assignment. The student may then present his or her tour in class or have it evaluated by the teacher.
A conference presenter who wants to use our exhibits to illustrate certain points in a lecture may find it convenient to arrange a selection of these exhibits as a custom tour. The selection then becomes an outline of the presentation. Items can be displayed by clicking them one after another. Each will open in a separate window while the list will remain on the screen.
Are they hard to make?
Compiling custom tours is very similar to adding products to an online shopping list. After you sign in, every exhibit on the screen will have a link you can click to add it to your tour. Two mouseclicks is all it takes to add an exhibit to your selection. The exhibits in custom tours may be reordered at will, and all other aspects of the tour may be changed at any time.
You can personalize your tours
The tour author may write two texts to accompany each custom tour. For example, one may serve as an introduction to the exhibits you selected. The other text may serve as conclusion and include questions for review or further research. Both texts are optional.
All exhibits in this museum are accompanied by our notes: every exhibit has a title and a summary, and many also have other annotations, such as transcripts of the dialogue or narration, or important background information. The author of a custom tour may choose to display or suppress these annotations. (They will still be available to the visitor elsewhere on the site, but will not be displayed next to the exhibits in the custom tour.)
If desired, the authors of custom tours may also write their own summaries for all or some of the exhibits.
How custom tours are displayed
Custom tours are listed on the Your Tours page alphabetically by the authors' nicknames. (Your real name and email address are never displayed and are not shared.) The Filter allows the visitor to limit the listing to a selection of custom tours. Authors may choose to archive some or all of their custom tours for a while, if, for instance, a tour is not yet ready or a particular course is not being offered in a given year.
We hope that this feature of our site meets some of your needs. To start using it, simply click the sign in button in the Your Tours page. If you are already signed in, click the new custom tour button in the same page.
Feel free to write to Dan Wheeler at dwheeler@colgate.edu with any questions.
expand/collapse this text box Technical Requirements & Troubleshooting
A Windows PC or Macintosh with at least 1 GHz processor and 1 GB of RAM is recommended. Tablets (iOS and Android) with larger screens have also been tested. At this time we do not have an interface for small-screen smartphones. However, our videos and sound clips do play in most smartphones, and if you don't mind scrolling and zooming while reading our texts, you should find this website useful even on a smartphone. We have not tested a Linux or Blackberry system.
An Internet connection with at least typical wi-fi speed is required to view our videos. With a slow connection, you can still view the images, read the texts, and listen to audio recordings.
This version of the site was tested with all major browses that were in widespread use at the end of 2015, including tablets and smartphones. Legacy browsers that are not compatible with HTML5 standards (released in 2012 and finalized in 2014) are not recommended.
Fonts & Encodings
This site does not require any special fonts. All texts can be viewed with the fonts included with Windows, Mac OS, and modern versions of iOS and Android. Your browser will automatically select the correct encoding (UTF-8 or Unicode).
Our video and audio clips can be played in all modern browsers, including the mobile versions. No plug-ins or add-ons are necessary.
If the site doesn't respond as expected, check the following:
  • Are JavaScript and Cookies enabled in your browser? Click this button to test. If you don't see a confirmation message, JavaScript and/or cookies may be disabled. See the browser's Options or Preferences, or consult the browser's Help.
  • Please report all issues to dwheeler@colgate.edu.
expand/collapse this text box Credits & Acknowledgements
Department of Ethnology, European University, St. Petersburg, Russia
field research, writing, interviews, still photography, data analysis and organization
Alice Stone Nakhimovsky
Professor of Russian and Jewish Studies, Colgate University, Hamilton, NY, USA
English translation, editing, data analysis and organization
Department of Russian, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, USA
conceptual and structural design of the site, multimedia editing, programming, translation editing
Nancy Ries
Associate Professor of Anthropology and Peace and Conflict Studies, Colgate University, Hamilton, NY, USA
essay writing, data analysis and organization, bibliography, English translation, English voiceover narration
Slawomir Grunberg
Log In Productions, Spencer, NY, USA
video photography
Natalya Kulakova
St. Petersburg, Russia
Russian translation
Tomasz "Mucha" Pracel
Ithaca, NY, USA
visual design
Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, USA
English voiceover narration
Ithaca College, Ithaca, NY, USA
English voiceover narration
University at Albany, State University of New York
English translation
University at Albany, State University of New York
English translation
Colgate University, Class of 2010
English voiceover narration
New York, NY, USA
English translation
Most of the photographs in this virtual museum were taken by Ilya Utekhin, who also wrote all annotations for the images, videos, audio recordings, and documents. All video annotations and transcripts were translated by Alice Nakhimovsky. She also translated most of the essays, all transcripts and annotations for the audio recordings, and many annotations for the photographs. Some of the essays were translated to English by Nancy Ries. The majority of the photograph annotations were translated by Laura Wolfson; some were translated by Nancy Ries. Most of the essays were written by Ilya Utekhin. Editorial advice from Nancy Ries and Alice Nakhimovsky were crucial in bringing them to their final form. Several essays were written by Nancy Ries; some were written by Alice Nakhimovsky. These essays were translated to Russian by Natalya Kulakova. Laura Wolfson translated most of the dialog in the From Films section. Some of the texts in the From Books section were translated by Charles Rougle and Timothy D. Sergay. The transcripts for our videos were prepared by Anastasiya Vanyakina. Video, audio, and image editing, as well the basic organization of the material, computer programming, and project management were done by Slava Paperno. Other project participants are listed above.
The authors are deeply indebted to their informants, the tenants of the communal apartments in St. Petersburg, Russia, who kindly invited us to their homes and talked to us about their life. We especially appreciate their permission to film the apartments.
We are grateful to the following photographers who kindly allowed us to use their work on this Web site: Arunas Baltenas, William Fovet, Solmaz Guseinova, Lauren G. Leighton, Savva Minaev, Nancy Ries, Nikolay Turkin, Yuri Zaitsev, Evgenii Zelenin "xAme(L)e0n4uk", as well as the German studio Buechner- Filmproduktion GbR in Koeln.
The creators of this museum (as well as its visitors) appreciate the generosity of the copyright holders of the books and films quoted in our exhibits: film studios Belarusfilm, Lenfilm, and Mosfilm; publishing companies Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Gerald Duckworth & Co., Ltd.; Hesperus Press Limited; the newspaper Sunday Telegraph (London); the radio station Radio Liberty; Федеральный картографо-геодезический фонд (the copyright holder of the maps); the estates of Joseph Brodsky, Vasily Grossman, and Daniil Kharms; A.I.Ilf, M.V.Zoshchenko, S.S.Shilovsky; authors, translators, and performers Hugh Aplin, Mikhail Zhvanetsky, Mark Reinberg, Lev Rubinshteyn, ...[to be continued].
The site has been considerably improved thanks to the many friends and colleagues who reviewed its early version in 2008: Svetlana Boym, Francis Conte, Sandra Freels, Bruce Grant, Peter Holquist, Anna Korsun, Lisa Little, Peter Merrill, Irina Paperno, Sarah Phillips, Benjamin Rifkin, ... [to be continued]
The project enjoyed generous support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, The Consortium for Language Teaching and Learning, Colgate University, and Cornell University.
Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed on this Web site do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
expand/collapse this text box About this project
The foundations of this project lie in the extensive research that was carried out by Ilya Utekhin (European University, St. Petersburg, Russia) in the late 1990s and culminated in 2001 in the publication of his Essays on Communal Living (second edition: Ob"edinennoe gumanitarnoe izdatel'stvo [OGI], Moscow, 2004).
The first Internet version of Muzej Kommunal'nogo Byta (a Virtual Museum of Communal Living) was created in 2000 by Ilya Utekhin, Katya Gerasimova, and Vladimir Sharykhin.
The current work began in the summer of 2006 when Slawomir Grunberg filmed the tours and interviews conducted for this project by Ilya Utekhin in several communal apartments in St. Petersburg and continued through the better part of 2008. When you read this text, our virtual museum offers 45 short video clips (5 to 7 minutes), 364 photographs, 12 audio interviews, and 46 one-page essays created specifically for this site, plus a number of documents and other materials.
Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed on this Web site do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
For an independent evaluation of our museum, please see this review in Slavic and East European Journal, Volume 55, Number 1, Spring 2011: page 1, page 2.
expand/collapse this text box Contact Information and Copyright ©
Questions? Suggestions? Contact Dan Wheeler at dwheeler@colgate.edu.
Copyright © 2006-2008 Utekhin, Nakhimovsky, Paperno, Ries. All rights reserved. When quoting, reference to this site is required.