Essays > Communal Apartments > Expressing "privacy" in Russian
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About the concept of privacy in Russian culture, and the word "privacy" in Russian.
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Photograph: All tenants' bills are left in plain view on a mirror in the entryway. Among these bills, for example, is one that is long overdue. [click the picture to read about this]

Different cultures construe privacy in different ways: that is, they create various standards for the inviolability of the individual. Standards of privacy often concern the appearance and functions of the body; they also apply to territory, property, thoughts, and emotions that an individual wishes to keep to himself or herself. The way interior space and the objects within it are arranged carries assumptions about how a given culture understands privacy. Among the markers of privacy are fences, walls, screens, windows (with their curtains) and doors (with locks and bolts). Such barriers prevent other people (especially outsiders) from intruding into space we consider our own and obtaining information about us. An envelope works in the same way, protecting a letter from other people's eyes. A similar function is carried out, for example, by rules of politeness and good conduct that limit spying and gossiping, and by laws that protect against self-incrimination and ensure the confidentiality of communications with clergy or doctors.

A trip on a crowded subway forces people to intrude on one another's private space, but both victims and perpetrators behave, for the most part, as though there's nothing personal about it. They leave the train and never meet again.

People who live together meet every day in the kitchen and in line to use the bathroom or the lavatory. On this site we talk about the specifics of privacy in a communal apartment: how residents understand what is theirs, what is everyone's, and what is nobody's. The special nature of privacy in a communal apartment is reflected in practices of personal hygiene, in the way intimate life is organized, and in many eloquent details of everyday life.

Until very recently, Russian had no single word for privacy. At the present time the word "privatnost'" is used primarily in legal language, and not in everyday conversation. The adjective "private" could always be translated either as "chastnyi" (applied most often to business, property, or to an individual operating on his or her own, outside of an organization), or "lichnyi," "personal."

"Lichnyi" is common in conversational Russian, for example "Stay out of this, it's my personal (lichnyi) business!" In the nineteenth century, the word "privatnyj," a calque from French, was used to contrast with the word "kazennyi" meaning "belonging to the state." In contemporary conversational Russian, a complaint about the lack of privacy—say, in a dormitory, where you can't invite guests so that nobody knows about it—can sound like this "I have no private/personal (lichnyi) life." At the same time the five-volume History of Private Life (1987-91; in French as Historie de la vie privée; 1985-87) by Airès and Duby, devoted to the evolution of privacy as a cultural phenomenon, is called in Russian "A History of Private (chastnyi) Life."

In the Russian language of the Soviet period these two words were in opposition: "chastnyi" was pejorative, in contrast to "social/communal," while "lichnyi" (personal) was neutral. So, for example, in the Soviet period "personal property" was permissible, while "private property," when not altogether illegal, was subject to severe restrictions. "Private ownership of means of production" was illegal. To the extent that apartments, cars, or dachas were items of private use by their owners they were classified as "lichnyi" property; were they to be used for profit, they would likely transfer to the illegal category of "chastnyi" property. Means of production in a socialist society had to be owned communally (by the state).

In a communal apartment, privacy was a source of constant, sometimes heightened concern, which sometimes meant searching for a word to describe it. How this worked out can be seen in a letter of complaint from 1960. Following a divorce, the complainant is living in the same room as his ex-wife and school-aged daughter. He wants to carve out his own space by putting up a divider, but his ex-wife uses a variety of means to prevent this. In the complaint letter he writes about the need for "everyday self-enclosure."

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Comparative and Theoretical Works

Aries, Philippe and Georges Duby, eds. (1987-1991). A History of Private Life (five volumes). Translated from the French by A.Goldhammer. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bates, Alan P. (1964). "Privacy—a Useful Concept?" Social Forces. 42(4):429-434.

Bourdieu, Pierre (1992). "The Kabyle House or the World Reversed." In The Logic of Practice. Translated from the French by Richard Nice. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Gal, Susan. (2002). A Semiotics of the Public/Private Distinction. Differences. 3(1).

Landes, Joan (2003). "Further Thoughts on the Public/ Private Distinction." Journal of Women's History. 15(2).

Works on Russia/USSR

Field, Deborah A. (2007). Private Life and Communist Morality in Khrushchev's Russia. NY: Peter Lang.

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.

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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