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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Private lives, communal living

RITA REZNIK herds her guests into a windowless pantry and rushes to get the teapot. Once a storage closet for the spacious kitchen it opens onto, the cozy room is her refuge, a place she can close the door to be alone. In her home, those places are hard to find.


Reznik, 40, lives in a communal apartment. The luxurious quarters of a noblewoman and her army lieutenant son before the revolution, the cavernous eight-room flat, just off the Arbat, now houses six families. Reznik has lived there for 17 years.


"This place has a life all its own", she says with a light laugh that peppers her words. "We've always got something going on".


She pulls sugar and some candy down from the shelves in her pantry and places them on the table. As she digs around for spoons, brushing against a family tree of the Russian imperial family that she has tacked to one wall, two women and their children come into view in the kitchen with bags of food and some dishes. Each heads for one of the two stoves.


"The woman who lived here had a servant and a cook", Reznik says. "The cook lived in the little room over there". She leans out of the pantry and points to another door off the kitchen. It has a heavy padlock on it. In addition to the storage closet, Reznik also once claimed the cook's quarters, but loaned it to another woman who was cramped in one room with her daughter. When the daughter left for Israel, the woman kept the padlock on the door.


"Rita's too nice", says her husband Valery. "She felt sorry for this woman and got sucked in. That's what communal property is all about - having people walk all over you".


As Mikhail Bulgakov hinted in his 1930s novel "The Master and Margarita", pre- and post-revolutionary Moscow can be distinguished on the question of apartments alone. Once an exclusive neighborhood for Russia's elite, downtown Moscow was transformed into a maze of barracks in the 1920s and 1930s, as these once-elegant apartments were chopped into cramped communal quarters. Where one family had once lived spaciously, now six or seven - sometimes as many as 12 - families make their homes in former living rooms, dining rooms and bedrooms, vying for one stove and toilet. In the early years, housing authorities piled as many people as possible into each apartment: Forty people holed up where Reznik lives after World War II, including two in her storage closet.


FOR MUSCOVITES, communal apartments are a symbol of Soviet life, where people of all backgrounds are lumped together to sort out their own fates, and private lives are played out before everyone's eyes. Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov, a famous duo of satirical writers, captured this life in their 1928 novel, "The Twelve Chairs", where a lover's quarrel in a communal apartment culminates with a slammed door knocking down the inner walls, bringing the entire apartment - and the lives inside it - together as one.


It is little wonder that the object of living in a communal apartment has always been to get out. By the 1970s, most of the original generation of communal dwellers had gone, and the apartments, lowest on the housing ladder, started attracting people who had nowhere else to go. '


Dusya Yevstratenko lived 10 years in a rubber-factory dormitory before moving in as Reznik's neighbor. Sent from Byelorussia to Moscow, when she graduated from technical school at the age of 18, she is one of Moscow's limitchiki - workers imported to the city for menial labor that Muscovites refuse to perform. Like most in her position, she is poor and has few housing options. After waiting 10 years for her residence permit, she ended up in the communal apartment, a vast improvement over the dorm.


Now 37, Yevstratenko is married to a man who lives thousands of kilometers away in Kharkov. She has left the rubber factory to teach at a kindergarten and stays in Moscow for the sake of her 3-year-old daughter. Her hometown, Gomel, is soaked with radiation from Chernobyl.


"I'd walk there on foot if I could", she says. "But I can't go there because of my daughter".


Reznik, a science teacher, could go elsewhere, but she doesn't want to. Like many who live downtown, she would rather share a kitchen and bathroom with 10 other people than live in her own apartment on the outskirts. She has a comfortable room and foyer, once a living room or parlor, at the front of the apartment.


"Moving out to one of those new regions would be like going to another city", she says. "If you've lived in the center of the city for a long time, you just can't imagine leaving".


She can tolerate her neighbors, although like other native Muscovites she disdains the limitchiki, who she says are out for themselves and will do anything to get what they need". They have stronger nervous systems", she says, perhaps recalling the loss of her room - for which she pays rent - off the kitchen. "They'll just step right over you. They hate Muscovites".


Neighbors aside, the reason to stay is not because she can buy soy sauce two steps away on the Arbat or find a wide range of sausages within walking distance. Central Moscow has an aura, and once you are used to it, you cannot -leave.


"Look at this", she says, stepping from her room out onto a boxy balcony. Facing the Kremlin church cupolas, which peer through two grey stone buildings, she sweeps her arm north, then south. "There's the Ostankino TV tower. and there's the Shabolovka tower. Moscow starts and ends there".


Although Moscow's housing shortage is far from being solved - Gorbachev's perestroika-inspired resolve to provide every family separate housing by the year 2000 is already an old Moscow joke - both city authorities and private entrepreneurs view the downtown kommunalki, as they are called, as prime real estate. In certain well-publicized cases,


residents have been unseated and forcibly evicted to outlying regions.


"There is the civilized way of doing it, and then there is the uncivilized way", Reznik says. Often private firms offer to resettle communal apartment dwellers in apartments in exchange for the right to buy the apartment. Sometimes this is appealing, since people in kommunalki generally are on housing lists for years and these firms give them a choice of apartments. But frequently they simply find themselves uprooted and sent to a new housing development without any say.


"I've waited for the state to give me an apartment for years", says Reznik. "I don't expect anything from them anymore. I would move if it were a good area. But I'm not going if it means one of those new regions".


Reznik says two firms have looked into buying her flat; one offered six million rubles.


"I think it was some sort of underground millionaire", she says.


In order to sell, each of her neighbors would have to agree to privatize his or her room. Then the group would collectively sell the apartment.


Lack of control over their lives is something people in communal apartments are used to. But until now, they never worried about being thrown out of what was considered the city's worst housing.


"Privatizing a room or apartment is just a deception of the people", says Alexander Rakhlin, head of the All-Russian Foundation for the Liquidation of Communal Apartments, a social organization which has a program to turn residents of communal apartments into owners. Founded in October 1991, the organization helps residents to unite in a multistep privatization program designed ultimately to yield them collective ownership of their buildings. The idea is that they then can sell their buildings for profit and settle comfortably elsewhere, or else fund much-needed building repairs by renting or selling shop space on ground level.


But under current law, only rooms or apartments can be privatized. Rakhlin, who has helped found 300 local building cooperatives, is nevertheless committed to the plan, which he predicts will be approved by the end of the year.


"People have to feel that they have a right to their apartments", he says. "The city owes them this".