Essays > Coping with Communal Life > Narratives and stories
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Listening to the stories people tell.
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This web-based portrayal of the communal apartment in Russia as a "way of life" is built upon two main elements—visual exploration of the spatial aspects of apartments through video Tours and photographs, and interviews with residents about their lives and experiences in these apartments. Some of the information gleaned in these interviews comes from people showing the anthropologist and the filmmaker around their rooms or apartments, pointing out significant or interesting features of the space and the equipment and objects within it, and explaining how space and things are used. Many interviews also involve people telling stories about themselves, their families, events, social life, and relationships in the communal apartment today or in decades past.

Whether they are talking about rooms, furniture, plumbing, and laundry, as Sonya does in the clip "A New Shower," narrating a tale of long distant decades in a communal apartment as in the clip "Nina Vasilievna," or relating a story about neighbors stealing from neighbors as in "Over a Cup of Tea," the things people say are permeated with social meaning and moral judgment. We can listen to these accounts of everyday life at many different registers—on one level, to grasp people's attitudes towards the physical mechanics and spatial features of the communal apartment (the size of rooms, the height of ceilings, how the plumbing works, etc.), on another level, to discern their reaction to the practices required to cope with the challenges of their space, and on yet another level, to understand how people weave life stories—about themselves and about others—in relation to their residence in these crowded places.

As is natural in such crowded situations, the theme of how residents manage to get along together and what happens when they do not are frequent subjects. We hear many stories about long-term battles and intense flashes of conflict, about the subtle ways that people take revenge on each other for some affront they may have endured. In a communal kitchen, people were constantly suspected of secretly putting salt or something worse in a neighbor's pot of soup; in the story "A Little Girl Takes Justice into Her Own Hands," for instance a child contaminates the rich neighbors' beet salad with wood shavings. Many people relate such events with relish and flair for dramatic details. Certain stories have an almost folkloric quality; especially when someone describes their childhood, as Lena does in clip "We Laughed and Cried", and "Jew Rugs." People from the past come alive like characters from fairy tales, and the absurdities communal apartment dwellers endure seem both comic and tragic.

Sometimes people romanticize communal apartment life, and their good relationships with other residents, either past or present, as when Lena talks about how people used to sit around the kitchen drinking coffee and smoking together, or sharing baked goods with everyone on a holiday, in the clip "Who Lived Here Before the Revolution?" Other residents set themselves apart from others, as Alla Ignatevna does in "There Shouldn't Be Any Communal Apartments." Intriguingly, both of these women pride themselves on their bourgeois ancestry before the 1917 revolution, but while Lena casts collective life in her place as being merry and sociable, Alla Ignatevna disdains the proximity of other residents and the lack of privacy to protect her own "inner life" within her communal apartment.

Through the stories they relate and the things they say about themselves and others, but also through their vocal intonation, their facial expressions, their clothing, and the objects they keep around them, people actively create themselves as personages, as particular kinds of social beings upholding particular values. This is especially clear in clips like "How Many Tenants?" and "Robbers and Ghosts."

As listeners, how can we know what is true in all of these stories? Especially when people tell about the distant past, or relay a story passed down through generations, or when the stories seem preposterous, impossible? An old woman tells a strange story about a man living in an attic above her apartment during the Stalin era, with his family's former maid bringing him food until her arrest, in the audio recording "The Engineer in the Attic." While stories like these may make us question the teller's veracity, perhaps the point is not to ask whether all the details are true or believable, but instead, what the underlying social meanings of these stories are, and how collective memory accrues through families and communities over time, forming overarching cultural narratives and a shared sense of history.

expand/collapse this text box Further Study
Humphrey, Caroline (2001). "Inequality and Exclusion: A Russian Case Study of Emotion in Politics." Anthropological Theory. 1(13).

Hutchings, Stephen C. (1997). Russian Modernism: The Transfiguration of the Everyday. Cambridge, U.K.; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Pesmen, Dale (2000). Russia and Soul: An Exploration. Cornell University Press.

Ries, Nancy (1997). Russian Talk: Culture and Conversation during Perestroika. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

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