Communal Living

Communal dwelling was envisioned as a solution accommodating the needs of all, supposedly providing high standards of living. As the art theorist Gabriel Désiré Laverdant in his work “La Mission de I’art et du role des artistes,” quoted by Benjamin, advocates: “We must make it possible not only for a few privileged individuals but for all people to live in places. And if one is to occupy a palace, one should properly live there together with others, in bonds of association.” (Benjamin, 1999, 139). The realization of the idea, however, proved to be not enjoyable, to say the least.

Svetlana Boym suggests: “If the American dream is pursued in the individual family house, the Soviet dream can only be fulfilled in the communal house. Our central archeological site of Soviet civilization is the communal apartment. It is at once a memory of Soviet collective home, the institution of social control, and the breeding ground of the grass root informants in Stalin’s times.” (Boym, 2012)

Further on, she paints the picture of communal living with the recollection: “As a child, I would often play with the peacefully reclining and heavily intoxicated uncle Fedya, with his fingers and his buttons, telling him tales to which he probably did not have much to add. This time we were all in the room, listening to music to muffle the communal noises, and my mother was telling our foreign guests about the beauties of Leningrad. “You absolutely must go to the Hermitage, and then to Pushkin’s apartment-museum and, of course, to the Russian Museum . . . .” As the conversation rolled along, and the foreign guest was commenting on the riches of the Russian Museum, a narrow yellow stream slowly made its way through the door of the room. Smelly, embarrassing, intrusive, it formed a little puddle right in front of our dinner table. This scene, with the precarious coziness of a family gathering, both intimate and public, and a mixture of ease and fear in the presence of foreigners and neighbors, remained in mind as a memory of home. The family picture is framed by the inescapable stream of Uncle Fedya’s urine effortlessly crossing minimal boundaries of our communal privacy, disrupting the fragile etiquette of communal propriety.” (Boym, 2012).

The carrying on physiological functions of the organism is the gist of communal living, its annoying counterpoint and the pinnacle. The coordination of multiple rhythms of the human bodies produced a many-headed living being, a new organism of a community, a system of balances and disturbances forming the fragile and resilient equilibrium.

The reminiscence provided by poet Vitaly Pukhanov (Pukhanov, 2001; translation is mine), points out the same conundrum:




I came to believe in existence
Of the parallel worlds,
In a communal apartment,
In one such evening.

The kitchen was spacious–
Gas, telephone, light.
A common behind-window view
And the damp toilet.

We met in the kitchen
Every day on the sunrise.
And–sometimes–in the bathroom.
And–never–in the toilet!


To which I could not help but add my own ultrashort memoir about Professor Kirill Nikonov telling us, his students, once during the lecture at Lomonosov Moscow State University: “Were it not for the need to go to the toilet, we would not have needed homes.”



Benjamin, Walter.

  1. The Arcades. Translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, the Belkman Press of Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England.

Boym, Svetlana.

  1. Soviet Everyday Culture: An Oxymoron?. 1-30. [retrieved 1/1/2016]

Pukhanov, Vitaly.

  1. Neprikasaemoye. Oktyabr, 10.