Thought Archive

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Kommunalka

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.

16 comments:

Riri said...

Bloody hell! I thought I got the wrong URL for a minute there mate. I like this new praliné flavored look.

Hazar Nesimi said...

Thank you, i like yours too! Subject matter...have you had communal apartments in Algeria during socialism times?

Riri said...

Not to my knowledge. Algeria was different in the sense that once the French were kicked out there weren't any Algerian aristocracy! Those who did well were obviously traitors who worked for the French and were either forced to flee with the French or killed (Harkis). Those who remained were all poor, it was fascinating really because you could say there was only one class of Algerians (or two if you divide society into educated and non-educated).

The sense of fraternity and hope was so immense. Now everything has changed, there is still no middle class and no aristocracy. Just an oligarchy and a mass of people barely managing to make ends meet. The educated classes are scattered and disorganized and they are not doing their role at all.

NoolaBeulah said...

Good piece, Nazim. Sounds horrific. As bad as the living conditions, or even worse, would have been the pretence that socialist heaven was just around the corner. The Great Lie.

Riri, what ought the educated classes be doing? Why aren't they doing it?

Hazar Nesimi said...

It seems like the world on another planet after passing of those many years. Now, it was not bad in the sense that people did not know any better - it was instituonalized scarcity - a warped system but it was very much livable. A certain enjoyment could have been had out of the whole hypocrisy of it. Krutschev in 1962 famously said " This generation of Soviet people will live in the communism by 1980" - so there were a lot of jokes about this. One joke - " USSR must be equal but not ahead of USA, we should not overtake them so that they dont see holes in our dirty pants" After Stalin, jokes were not punishable by Gulag, so it became a form was a mass entertainment.

NoolaBeulah said...

Speaking of which (from this collection, and there seem to be many).

A patient asks the chemist to write down in the registry for him to see the eye-ear doctor. But instead he's told there's an ear-throat-foot doctor and an eye doctor but no ear-eye doctor.

'But I need an ear-eye doctor!' the patient insists.

'And what are you complaining of?'

'I hear one thing, and see another!'

And as a special treat...

Riri said...

what ought the educated classes be doing?

They ought to be contributing to society more and moaning less, but I think that intellectuals have always been whimps, it is the non-intellectual types which move things and initiate change. Intellectuals do not want change, especially for the better, because then they'd have nothing to moan about!

Why aren't they doing it?

Because they're whimps that's why. Of course the official line is that 'they're too good' for this country and that they're 'wasted' in such a shit-hole. But the truth is, it is they who are a waste of space.

NoolaBeulah said...

Oh, yes. Soooo right. If ever intellectuals are initiating change, then watch out. Mostly, thank heavens, they don't, but as you say, just criticise from on high.

One assumes, of course, that the lovely and talented Riri is an exception to this otherwise universal rule.

Hazar Nesimi said...

Staloin and Mao tried to force intellectuals to contribute to society in the important arena of manual labor. Unfortunately they could not even cut their quota of wood or mine uranium property, those pesky good for nothing intellectuals.

Riri said...

Yes Noolabeulah, you are so right as usual spot on when it comes to working out somebody's real worth (in this case me).

I am indeed the exception to many universal rules. Oh wait, have I managed to discredit meself there by sounding exactly like those self-important whimps of intellectual wastes of spaces? Oh at least, I restrict my pontifications to the blogosphere like the true whimp that I am.

I am whimp and I eat shrimp.

Riri said...

Nazim - very pertinent observation. Intellectuals can't do anything, they're totally incapacitated by their intellect!

Seriously, we are in serious danger of thinking TOO much. Pathetic isn't it, but at least there are ways to find out when you might be on your way to becoming an intellectual whimp - one of them is when you start feeling uncomfortable with your hands (especially when they are not occupied at typing on a computer keyboard).

This is really a key turning point because it is the start of many horrors to come which will culminate into you becoming incapacitated even to make your own cup of tea, but you'd rather moan about it in your blog in a deeply 'philosophical' post entitled: 'Tea is such a controlling and time-consuming human invention', 'The Tyranny of Tea' etc etc

NoolaBeulah said...

A mate sent me the following about thought that is not tested, or used, in the real world. It starts with a quote from Kant.

"The light dove cleaving the air in her free flight, and feeling its resitance, might magine that flight would be still easier in empty space."

But the implication is clear - flight would not be easier in empty space - it would be meaningless. Flight is especially realized and has meaning by virtue of the resistance it meets. Therefore, thought as a practice independent of experience, an absolute form, has no description; and though we have intimations of a "transcendental knowledge", that knowledge can never be ours.

Riri said...

Quite NoolaBeulah. One should be very suspicious of those who claim to detain 'transcendental knowledge'. Even Prophets never claimed that, all they did was urge people to be mindful of God, who is ultimately an unknowable entity in the sense we 'know' things within the immediate physical environment.


We can very much have our 'own' knowledge, indeed this seems to be a unique feature of us, what makes us truly us (some would express this meaning by stating that this is why we were made or why we are here). But we have to be very careful not to lose sight of where 'our' knowledge fits in with the rest of the multitutdes of 'knowledges' that our universe alone seems to be abound with.

And 'transcendental knowledge' as a phrase is inaccessible to the human mind. But certainly, the human mind can very well conceive of 'transcendance' as a concept, many things can be described as transcendant because of our 'immediate' and 'physical' knowledge of their attributes leads us to appreciate their transcendant properties. But actual 'transcendant knoweldge' without a-priori 'real' knowledge and reasoning is very iffy indeed.

Am not preaching, so don't say to me 'Mama don't preach, am gonna keep ma baby!' (and I don't mean baby Jesus either).

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