As my Soviet life moves to a ever greater distance beyond the horizon, few things are worth remembering - or reminding myself about. Communal Aparments, while not personally experienced - as our family had managed to preserve a separate rump of a larger "capitalist" flat - were a great fixture of contemporary Soviet Life all the way into privatization of 1990s.
The communal apartment was the pièce de résistance in the chronicle of the miseries of Soviet everyday life. Contrary to the myth, they were not a product of collectivist ideology. Rather, they developed out of urban overcrowding and a Proletarian zealotry which made local authorities eager to punish the bourgeoisie, our family included, by forcing them to give up part of their apartments to the poor. A whole folklore exists about the humiliations, petty vindictiveness, fights and resentments associated with involuntary communal living. Michael Zochenko had developed a whole genre of satirical literature devoted to description of such a communal living.
Kitchens and bathrooms were the sites of epic battles over property (saucepans, washbasins) and use of space that could end up with a brawl or a bloodbath. Women, stay-at-home housewifes had it the worst, fighting it out with the neighbours all their lives. There are a few kommunalka memoirs that mention mutual support among neighbours and a feeling that one was part of an extended family where different classes, genders, nationalities and religions were all huddled together. Much more common was the sense that the family’s room, not the kommunalka as a whole, was home.
There wasn’t much room for possessions in the kommunalka, or even in the small separate apartments. This was just as well, as goods of all kinds, even basic necessities like food, shoes and clothing, were in short supply throughout the Soviet period. Yet shortages did not mean that Soviet citizens were indifferent to consumption. On the contrary, getting hold of scarce goods via connections and various under-the-counter arrangements became a Soviet pastime. Marxist ideology may have emphasised production, but in the Soviet Union it was hierarchies of consumption (based on preferential access to goods) that mattered.
While the Soviet regime may be said to have discouraged consumerism by keeping goods scarce, it was not ideologically on the side of asceticism, it promised us the Paradise on Earth. the meagre supply of goods in the present was only a harbinger of the abundance to come. I remember how potent was the symbol of Cornucopia with goods falling out from the sky - this was to be the future of the Soviet consumer, who had to persevere just a little longer to enter to paradise later.
Western consumer goods that were now known to exist but remined out of reach.
In the Soviet Union,the Western goods were veru coveted, and their arrival en masse with the collapse of the regime at first seemed like a miracle. The bitter pill that these consumers would have swallow as a price of free access to goods, and the coming of anarchy was neither predicted nor waited for.