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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Life With the Stalinists Just Got a Little Worse

No package tour can offer the privilege of sharing the bathroom with a Stalinist, octogenarian babushka, I always tell visitors to St. Petersburg who are mildly stunned to discover that I live in a communal flat. No guide book ever includes a section on splitting the bills with eight parsimonious Russians, all of whom claim never to make phone calls or to absorb any light in the common areas.

Expatriates who lock themselves away in embassy compounds will never penetrate the mysteries of this vast, ungovernable country, will never even begin to understand its murderous history and its warm, exuberant, psychopathic inhabitants. Only a communal flat, I rant, can teach us the true meaning of domestic totalitarianism.

However, if the St. Petersburg Phone Company carries out its threat to charge for local calls, I am going to have to seriously reconsider my position here. Telecommunication facilities in our apartment are already an area of vigorous, heated contention, due primarily to a diminutive, chain-smoking gent named Gennady who lives right in the pitchiest, blackest corner of the building.

Recently, he has begun to conduct covert nocturnal missions to sever my fax line. Apparently, he's a technophobe, haunted by the specter of Soviet communication control. Every night he's out there hacking away and every morning I'm reconnecting in ever more ingenious and intricate ways. At the moment, the line runs twice round the block and through the nearby kindergarten. But what I'm really tempted to do is to simply run a live electric wire into the back of the communal telephone. Cut that and bite your own tongue off, sucker!

Even without local call billing, the monthly tussle over phone charges is a nasty experience. Responsibility for all such household matters -- bill-splitting, toilet policing, the so-called "power duties" -- falls to the Old Stalinist Babushka and her formidable daughter, known affectionately as Younger Stalinist. Last month, I was charged 17 times more than anyone else for phone rental and electricity. I didn't argue. Both Stalinists are women of piercing vocal capability.

So far, the details that have filtered down of the telephone company's plans have been, quite simply, terrifying. All local calls will be charged and itemized (just imagine the sadistic glee of the Stalinists when they receive their first novel-length bill) with 10 free minutes (that's none for me, all for them, by my reckoning) per day.

However, there is talk of introducing an alternative system, tapered to the needs of communal residents, estimated at one third of the city's flat dwellers. For the sake of public order, the sanity of over a million and a half St. Petersburg inhabitants and, finally, for people like myself, still clinging to lofty ideals of integration and cultural exchange, it just better be good.