Essays > Communal Apartments > How Soviet Russians understood money
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The diminished role played by monetary considerations in Soviet society had many repercussions.
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Photograph: A list of tenants and an envelope pinned to the door are used to collect various payments. [click the picture to read about this]

Faced with something broken, the first reaction of people in most market economies might be: How much would that cost to fix? People who were conditioned to life in the Soviet system did not think that way. In Tour 2, clip Repairs, Ilya questions Auntie Asya about a hole in the ceiling. A western viewer is itching to ask, "How much would it cost to fix that?" But Asya and Ilya do not mention money. Ilya says ironically, "Let's not even talk about roof repairs." The repair itself is the responsibility of the housing department; the job of the person who lives in the apartment is to get that housing department to act, though that may not be possible. Soviet lives were run by rules and regulations, not economic considerations.

As the writers Ilf and Petrov observed in their novel Ten Little Golden Calf (Zolotoi telenok, 1931), the Soviet Union was not a money economy. When the hero of that book acquires, through extortion, a million rubles, he finds to his despair that he has no way to spend the money; in order to live the good life he has to pretend to be a well-connected Soviet citizen. Material benefits (and they existed) came largely through connections, both formalized in the workplace (restricted stores at which special goods were sold) and more informally, through personal ties.

Some of the difference between Soviet and, most pointedly, American attitudes can be seen in gift-giving. Americans exchange gifts, but recipients very often go back to the store and exchange them for something else; there are lots of mechanisms in place to make it easy to do this. Most gifts have a clear market value. For Russians, gift-giving is more personal: to sell a gift, return it to a store, or even give it to someone else would be enormously insulting to the gift-giver.

Of course, some interpersonal relations in the Soviet era, and specifically in communal apartments, did express themselves in rubles. Squabbles between neighbors often involved who paid what share of the electricity bill. A Russian brochure published in the 1940s tells tenants what to do if there is one electric meter, but one of the tenants has an electric iron (the solution is to set that tenant's norm for ironing, and divide the bill accordingly). In the essay "The electric bill as an instrument of justice," we see another example: A tenant complains that her neighbor whose "call code" on the communal door bell is three rings (as opposed to her single ring) and who has a lot of visitors should take on a bigger share of the electric bill. In both cases, the underlying issue is not money, but rather what Russians see as "justice" (spravedlivost') and "equality" ("ravenstvo"), two concepts that were firmly inculcated by the Soviet government and put to use in private life. These concepts have deep roots in Russian pre-revolutionary village culture.

Readers of this essay might also be interested in essays on the family budget and social benefit spending

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