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Communal Living in Russia, A Relic of the Soviet Union - 2002-05-31

Much has changed in Russia since the fall of communism a decade ago. But at least one holdover from the old Soviet days remains alive and well in some of the country's major cities. Communal apartments, where numerous unrelated families share living space, are still common and they're especially prevalent in the northern city of St. Petersburg.

Number 38 Tchaikovsky Street looks like so many apartment buildings here in the city. It was built in the late 1800s when czars ruled Russia and St. Petersburg was their capital and main cultural center. The building's large central staircase arcs invitingly upward from the entry hall with a faded grandeur of a nearly forgotten past. It, like most things here, looks run-down and shabby. The paint on the banister is peeling - the steps are worn and bare.

Elena Alexandrova lives on the second floor. She hesitates but then agrees to allow visitors into the apartment and shows them around.

"Our apartment is very old. You can see we have a long corridor. We're walking down the corridor now and here we have steps. There are three levels in this apartment. Let's go," she said.

The size of the apartment is impressive - 400 square meters overall with 13 rooms leading off the central hallway. There are even two toilets and three kitchens. A century ago one family lived here - with servants quarters in the back. But then came 1917 and the Bolshevik revolution. Apartments like these were confiscated and given to the people. Now 10 families live here. Each has one or two rooms to call its own. But, they must share kitchen, toilet and bath facilities.

"This kitchen is shared by five families. Here we have the stoves, each stove is for two families, two burners for each family. Each family has its own table. We wash dishes in turn. We try our best not to have arguments but we have to wait in line everywhere. There are lines to do dishes, to the bathroom, to the toilet. You run to check when it's empty. We clean the apartment in shifts and we make a schedule for that," he said.

While they may try to avoid arguments, it doesn't always work.

It's not the first time Ludmilla and Irina have gotten into an argument. Irina says she's caught Ludmilla stealing food.

Ludmilla Yumelyanova has lived here since 1976. She shares one tiny room with her divorced husband and her son. Both Ludmilla and her ex-husband are heavy drinkers and smokers and that causes problems with the neighbors. Ludmilla's hands shake as she tries to light a cigarette.

"I cannot say how sick I am of this apartment; I'm sick of the people," she said. "Even though we have two toilets, we always have to wait. But, people get used to anything. So we stand and wait. It was better when there were old people here. But, now with these young people... It used to be clean here. I started drinking, I don't know why. I feel so bad," she said.

Irina Vassilieva is one of these "young" people Ludmilla is talking about. She's a 32-year-old artist who lives at the far end of the hallway. She has two rooms, which she shares with her husband and her son from a previous marriage.

"This is a good communal flat and I have the use of my 'own' kitchen. If I had to use the main kitchen I would be afraid to get poisoned that somebody would spit in my soup. I would like to stay here, but I'd like at least one additional room to put a piano and move my daughter here," she said.

But some of the other tenants are not so content. Elena Alexandrova said people are sick of living here.

"Ludmilla's ex-husband has started several fires here, he comes home drunk and then smokes. Of course, we're sick of it and we want peace and quiet just with our own families. You know people living in communal apartments eventually come down with psychological problems if we stay here two more years we'll all need mental treatment," she said.

There are many such stories about communal living. In his autobiography, Russian President Vladimir Putin wrote about the tensions he witnessed when he was growing up in a communal apartment here in St. Petersburg.

When the communal living system was first established families were given rooms. In recent years, tenants have been allowed to buy their rooms, giving them the benefit of ownership. But that has created other problems. For example, a tenant cannot simply sell his or her room without the approval of all the other tenants in the apartment.

As a rule, an average room in a communal apartment in St. Petersburg costs between $5,000 to $12,000 to buy. A small individual apartment in the same area would cost between $16-22,000 dollars. So, most people stay in communal apartments hoping to save up enough money to eventually buy a single-family apartment.

There's a great deal of renovation going on in St. Petersburg as the city restores its once grand buildings, monuments and palaces. In the center of town some of the best communal apartments have already been bought up by investors and developers and renovated. Whether that will one day happen at 38 Tchaikovsky Street remains to be seen.