Essays > Communal Apartments > Apartment stewards
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An essay about formal leadership in a communal apartment.
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Photograph: The note on the bathroom wall was written by the apartment steward to alert residents to the fact that the recently painted bathtub must be treated with care.

In line with the officially legislated "Rules for the use of residential premises," most questions of collective existence had to be decided "by agreement among residents." However, someone had to monitor observance of these rules, and to have authority over how they were interpreted in a given situation. According to the rules, residents were supposed to elect the leader of their collective in a general meeting.

The person chosen as the so-called "apartment steward" represented the whole apartment in dealings with personnel of the housing administration, and at the same time was the administration's liaison within the apartment. Among this person's duties were insuring the timely payment of all the residents' bills, effectively responding to any disturbance of order, and scheduling and running general meetings. The apartment steward was actually charged to arbitrate conflict situations, before these escalated to the level where they had to go before local Comrades' Courts, or to the police or a court of law. Not all neighbors had the skills needed to fulfill such challenging social labor.

In the last decades of Soviet power, the arbitration and oversight functions of the apartment stewards diminished. By the end of the twentieth century the stewards' work had generally been reduced to just adding up and posting the electric charges for the payment of electric bills, and that only if the list of charges was not handled by all or some of the other residents in turn. In one apartment in our museum there is even a list of "apartment stewards": it details who in what month is supposed to take the electrical readings and write out the charges.

The protagonist of Lydia Chukovskaya's novel "Sofia Petrovna" was elected as the steward in the apartment which had once been her own before residential allotments were reduced and it became a communal apartment.

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