Essays > Communal Apartments > Intimate details
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Knowledge of other people's intimate lives in a communal apartment.
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Photograph: Don't hang up your underwear!
This notice, posted in the bathroom by a tenant, asks people not to hang underwear on the clothesline. [click the picture for details]

Sexual relations in a communal apartment are to some degree public knowledge. A typical situation in an overcrowded apartment in the early 1980s was described by one informant this way (the initial reference is to a man's mother; the expression "sewn up" refers to an anti-alcohol pill that is implanted under the skin): "And then she, apparently, had him sewn up, he started putting on weight, stopped drinking, became a total idiot and also married a woman with a huge body. She moved into our apartment. They lived in two tiny rooms with a plywood divider. They looked like two large pigs. To give them some chance to go at it, this poor N. E., their mother, she'd just go into the kitchen with our N. M., an Azerbaijani, they would just drink vodka from shot glasses, quietly, and she would keep checking the time. These were working people, they went to bed early. So up to about ten o'clock she'd give them a chance to go at it, and then she'd check the time and at around ten thirty she'd go in to sleep."

In an apartment like that it was completely normal for young people to be alone only when their relatives permitted it, say, tactfully spending a few nights sleeping in a neighbor's room. Use of a neighbor's room would happen frequently enough in special circumstances—for example, if a father returned after a long absence, neighbors would take the children for the night. The same thing might happen after celebratory dinners or funeral wakes, when it was not possible for children to sleep in the room while there were guests eating and drinking. Sometimes, however, a screen, a room divider, or a strategically placed cabinet was considered sufficient.

Privacy had its own meaning for residents of communal apartments. They were used to a more "public" privacy than people who grew up in family apartments. A newcomer to a communal apartment is continually faced with uncomfortable situations. For example, a woman who moved into a communal apartment from a private one would hang up her laundry in two layers, so that her underwear would be hidden by other clothes. Her neighbors, understanding that she was simply embarrassed, tactfully observed that her clothes would take a lot longer to dry that way.

expand/collapse this text box Further Study
Boym, Svetlana (1994). Common Places: Mythologies of Everyday Life in Russia. Harvard University Press.

Geiger, H. Kent. (1968). The Family in Soviet Russia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Shlapentokh, Vladimir (1984). Love, Marriage, and Friendship in the Soviet Union: Ideals and Practices. New York: Praeger.

Shlapentokh, Vladimir (1989). Public and Private Life of the Soviet People: Changing Values in Post-Stalin Russia. New York: Oxford University Press.

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