The ghosts of former times are always at our shoulders, awaiting examination, should we dare to glance behind. They have lead us to where we are now and point us towards tomorrow. So much for free will, we are often undeniably the product of our past.
There are older Russians whose thoughts linger fondly on Soviet times, remembering an idyll of maternal certainty that the all-encompassing State provided, a literal Mother Russia. Oddly, according to a 2017 survey, over 50% of the population would also appear to welcome Communism’s return. I assume that there are many nationals experiencing nostalgia by proxy, for times that they never saw. It happens.
The deal shifted over time, hardening under Stalin and relaxing under Khrushchev’s Thaw, and Gorbachev’s Glasnost and Perestroika. At its most controlling, the maternal state would offer work, of a sort, food, most of the time, medical care, to a certain standard, a roof to shelter beneath, though perhaps not ideal, and the spirit of equality; if not the practice. For those content to ride the rails, the track was already laid out and order prevailed.
Towards the later decades of the Soviet system, order could be enforced if necessary; for square pegs who did not share the same vision of paradise as the State, and who made a point of advertising that fact. For, paradise is just what the task masters were setting out to fabricate on the backs of the proletariat. This burgeoning utopia would turn its coils of suspicion upon those ingrates who dared to differ, who declared that the emperor was indeed naked, or who politely asked to step out of the party. There must be something wrong with them, surely?; those who desire to leave perfection and their apportioned lot within it. That’s logic.
The stress of communal housing brought utopia’s cracks into focus. One family to a room was common, in an repopulated property that was once home to a single household. Under Bolshevik acquisition it would be shared amongst an assembly of disparate lives whose edges would fray and grate under the magnifying glass of proximity (with or without the original owners present). That’s unless chance rolled favourable dice for all concerned and the collision of strangers worked, or the individual participants forced it to work, collectively.
Allocation of living space was a matter of basic maths: Each individual was officially deemed to need no more than 5 square meters to live, eat, sleep and pace about in. Essentially: a prison cell’s worth. Divide a building’s floor space by 5 to reveal the appropriate number of inhabitants, officially speaking of course. Whether the officials who made such decrees went home at night to similar mathematics is unclear, but a great many of the proletariat certainly did in the early days of Communism, even though the goal of providing an apartment per family was announced in the 1930’s. Progress in this regard was slow at best, meanwhile communal or kommunalka living arrangements forced an intimacy of bathroom timetables, mutual displays of personal laundry and the overspill of lives interloping into the privacy of others. And, to whom should the residents complain as they jostled in their friction? To take issue with their manufactured situation was to take issue with State policy and by extension: the State itself. A potentially dangerous course of action.
Fortunately such box-families who shared corridors, kitchens and washrooms with the passing lives of others could request (not demand) an upgrade to larger premises if their situation became unbearable (enough). This would inevitably involve reels of red tape and long delays but it could be done. The process itself; a temporary psychological salve: put up with “now” because “later” will be better. Paradoxically, an effective mechanism of religious control, also.
Change unfolded at it’s glacial pace, meanwhile the raw end of shared living unfolded thusly:-
“Moscow is crammed; apartments are filled with a specific smell from the large amount of human bodies congested there. And in every apartment every single minute you can hear the sound of toilet flush, the water closet works without any pause. On the entrance door there are signs saying: ‘One bell ring for such-and-such, two bell rings for such-and-such, three bell rings for such-and-such, etc.” Korney Chukovsky 1923. As featured on Friendly Local Guides.
Variations on equality
Equality, whilst a theoretical cornerstone of the Soviet system, could be ‘reapportioned’ according to the personal usefulness or status of the individual, in the eyes of the state of course. No surprises then; that shortened queues or priority allocations for quality housing, travel (and other) permits, motor cars and more were available to party members and their families whom the system favoured. Those poster-boys and girls who exemplified the triumphs of Communism by excelling within their own fields under the greater umbrella of the state could even win an apartment of their own -and the ultimate freedom of personal space. What luxury!
And for those who lacked heroic, newsworthy endeavour; the open secret of a greyer alternative path remained. There, lay a system of fixes, bribes, favours and trades so commonplace and overt that it bordered on officialdom and often crossed its path, with a reach even exceeding the efficacy of hard cash alone.
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