Essays > The World of the Soviet Citizen > Property and ownership
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Soviet Russians did not view themselves as renters; rules were very different from market economies.
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The Soviet system inculcated ideas about property and ownership that are different from those in market economies.

Russians often view Soviet-era apartments and communal rooms as having been given out "for free" because there was no initial cost to occupy the space and payments for usage were very small. The Russian noun "kvartplata" is often translated as "rent," but the people who paid it understood it as something like the monthly "maintenance" that American coop owners pay: a single charge that covers heating, water, gas, repairs, and so forth. A different analogy would be to usufruct, the right to use but not sell property that originates in Roman law. The Russian language clearly reflects people's understanding of what they could do with their living space: while Russian has a verb ("snimat' ") with the direct meaning "rent," it was only used for what you did when you rented space from another tenant.

When someone in Soviet times did rent a room from another tenant, the amount was generally four or five times greater than kvartplata: in the 1970s, this meant approximately twenty rubles a month as opposed to four. This represented a little bit of market-based pricing, although people could go through their whole lives without ever having to use the information. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, the ratio is not much different. Kvartplata for a room in a communal apartment (like those shown on this Web site) runs about 1000 rubles, or $40 a month (2007). Renting such a room in St. Petersburg would cost anywhere from five to seven thousand rubles, in addition to kvartplata.

The Soviet system of subsidized rental differs in important ways from a landlord-tenant situation. In most market economies, landlords and tenants sign leases for a specific period of time. When that time is up, a landlord can raise the rent (subject to some restrictions, like rent control in New York City). In the Soviet Union, the government provided people with permanent housing at more or less the same subsidized cost. You could in theory be moved to a different unit elsewhere in the city, but in practice this rarely happened (perhaps if the building was condemned) and a few possibilities were always offered.

Other differences brought the system even further from the practices of market economies. For example, when it provided you with a particular room or apartment, the Soviet government took on an obligation to allow your descendants and even contemporary members of your family to "inherit" it. You could be ninety percent sure that your children and grandchildren would continue living there after your death. This didn't mean that they truly inherited it from you because they still wouldn't own it, but they would have the right to continue living there and to pass it on, in turn, to their own family members and descendants. Even if you didn't die but, let's say, got divorced or left home, the unit could not be taken away from relatives who were already living there and wished to remain. In other words, the right to temporarily reside in that space there was never given to you personally, but to the people—your family—who had legal residency there.

expand/collapse this text box Further Study
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.

Hachten, Charles (2006). "Separate Yet Governed: The Representation of Soviet Property Relations in Civil Law and Public Discourse." In Borders of Socialism: Private Spheres of Soviet Russia, Lewis Siegelbaum, ed. Gordonsville, VA: Palgrave.

Procaccia, Uriel (2007). Russian Culture, Property Rights, and the Market Economy. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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