Essays > Communal Apartments > The electric bill as an instrument of justice
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People pay close attention to money spent on lighting public spaces.
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The way tenants in a communal apartment deal with their electric bill is an excellent illustration of some aspects of the communal mindset. Their behavior is particularly striking if you keep in mind that electricity never cost much, even with respect to the limited budget of an average communal dweller; this was as true in the Soviet Union as it is in contemporary Russia. Nonetheless, a significant portion of communal conflicts arise over electricity. The reason why this is such a problem may not be obvious at first glance, because the source lies not in the electric bill itself, but in a general hypersensitivity to justice in the division of resources.

A visitor to a communal apartment is often struck by the poor lighting—or simply darkness—in the entryway and hallway. It is dark there because different bulbs in the hallway are owned by different tenants, and if these people are not home, or if they are simply sitting in their rooms, they have no desire to light the hallway for someone else's benefit. Since they pay for the electricity, they won't allow anyone to turn on their light.

Right up to the 1980s, it was very common, particularly in midsized apartments, to light public spaces (say, the lavatory) by providing every family with their own fixture, wired into the family's room where the switch was located. This arrangement, which assumed individual electric meters, ensured that nobody would use somebody's else's bulb or somebody else's electricity to light up a public space. Of course, such a system entailed significant inconveniences: while you were in the hallway on the way to the lavatory, lit up by your bulb, one of your neighbors could get in ahead of you. (The satirist Mikhail Zhvanetsky has a sketch about this called "In the communal apartment.")

In some apartments, separate switches were set up at the lavatory door. In that case, the accidental use of the wrong switch—say, by somebody's guest—inevitably led to a scene, which often began when the switch's owner simply turned off the light on the hapless visitor. Sometimes, leaving the lavatory, people would take their bulbs with them. In large apartments, the system of individual switches was for obvious reason unworkable, as some fifteen fixtures with their wiring would have to be put in place.

Today large and medium-sized communal apartments usually have only one bulb and one switch in the lavatory and bathroom. The charge for lighting public spaces is calculated by subtracting the sum of everybody's individual meters (see "Hallway, electric meter, wires") from the amount registered on the common apartment meter, see "A partial view of the kitchen". The difference constitutes the charge for lighting public spaces. It is divided among families in proportion to the number of individuals in each family. (See the video clip "Who pays and cleans?".)

An extreme example of the kind of attention that can be paid to the just division of resources is the complaint of an older woman who wanted to increase the "public space" share of a neighbor who had, in her opinion, too many visitors. In her view, these visitors made too much use of the apartment doorbell. Communal apartments have either individual doorbells, marked by the tenant's name, or one common doorbell; in the latter case, next to each family name is a number showing how many times to ring to get that person (see"Doorbells on an apartment door" and "Different neighbors, different doorbells"). Sometimes both systems are used, so that you have individual doorbells plus a general apartment bell that can be used, for example, by the janitor or some other visitor who has come on apartment business. In the case of the woman who complained, the few visitors who came to see her would ring the apartment bell one time, while guests of her sociable neighbor rang three times. The woman concluded that more energy was used by a bell that was rung three times very often, than by one that was rung once and not very often, so that the fact that she and her neighbor paid the same sum was a clear case of injustice.

The object of anxiety here is clearly not the inconsequential sum of money that constitutes the external part of the argument. Embodied in the electric bill is the all-important principle of justice and equality. Nobody can be permitted to enjoy an advantage over someone else, no matter how slight that advantage might be. See essay "How Soviet Russians understood money".

During the inflationary period of the 1990s, when kopecks had lost any real value, they were nonetheless counted up in communal electric bills. The person whose turn it was to calculate each tenant's bill from the numbers entered into the chart (see this chart and another one), gave out change with the maximal possible precision, despite the absurdity of this effort in real terms. The point was to exclude even the hint that this person was taking advantage of others.

Mikhail Zoshchenko's story "A Summer Breather" describes a characteristic situation linked to paying the electric bill.

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