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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

ESSAY: In Russia, Remont Can Turn You Into a Wreck




Every Soviet person has heard the saying: "Remont is a natural disaster." What does remont, or renovation, entail? It means that life will become intolerable for some time, that the apartment and everything in it will become covered in dust, that things will have to be boxed up (and tea services and fur coats stored at relatives' apartments), that you'll have to deal with crude workers, obtain paint and other materials and dream about the time when it will finally end. As an acquaintance of mine put it, "It is impossible to finish remont; you can only stop it."


In Russian there is the expression, master-lomaster, or master craftsman-wrecker. Renovations are rarely done without something being broken, ruined or stained -- sometimes hopelessly so. You practically can't leave the workers unsupervised. Everything must be checked. Otherwise, they are sure to do hack work. Besides, many workers periodically take to hard drinking. Then the remont comes to a standstill for one or two weeks.


During Soviet times, remont was not considered proper in intelligentsia families. It was seen as Philistine. People from the intelligentsia were supposed to live in untidy apartments with many books and sit in the kitchen discussing politics. Philistines polished the floors, collected crystal vases and bought German tea services and tiles.


Remont could be done either officially or unofficially. There were official repair offices at which, like everywhere else, you took your place in line. First you had to get an appraisal for the work. Then you would have to sign up for the remont and wait your turn. Finally, one or two mastercraftsmen would come. They would first make hats out of newspapers and put them on. Then the remont would begin. The renovation office had its own building materials. But the choice was limited. You had to chose from what there was. Given that there was never the color you needed, you had to make due. I once took several tubes of paint from an artist friend of mine to get the right shade of purple.


The craftsmen from the renovation company had absolutely no interest in doing fine work. You had to pay extra if you wanted something special done. A master craftsman once taught me that "You have to say: 'I will show my gratitude.' Then there is an incentive to work well." I once gave a painter a book in which there was 10 rubles. The entire remont for a one-room apartment at the time cost 300 rubles.


There were also private craftsmen. You could find them through acquaintances. As a rule, they were very expensive. But this was no guarantee of the quality of their work. Everything depended on luck. You could find true virtuosos among them. One such worker painted a fresco in the kitchen of my relatives on his own initiative. He painted a goose and an egg, an open can of sprats, a big fish and vegetables. The fresco turned into one of the attractions for guests of the apartment.


Now people's relationship to remont has changed. Either everyone has become a Philistine, or remont has become a part of the culture. Bourgeois culture has been rehabilitated, and the intelligentsia discredited. People from the intelligentsia now take great pleasure in renovating their apartments. The repair process has become far more expensive but much less painful: You can get satisfaction from remont.


In any case, everyone in Moscow seems to be engaged in remont. There is the huge newspaper Extra-M that is almost entirely dedicated to construction companies, building materials and services. Repair and construction work is one of the few sectors in Russia that is noticeably on the rise. New Russians have put their money into real estate and increased demand for construction and remont. Because competition among remont companies has intensified, repair work has become more affordable for people with modest incomes. You can also now find on the market many ugly materials that correspond to the tastes of the clients -- for example, bathtubs of monstrous dimensions and hideous colors and luxurious Oriental sinks or toilets in rococo style.


The quality of the work teams themselves has changed. Gastarbeiter from Ukraine and Moldova have appeared on the scene. They are driven here by poverty at home, and will sometimes work for half or even a quarter of the rate of local workers. As a rule, they are not in the remont trade back home. I once met workers from the Crimea who came to Moscow to work as painters after the nuclear power station shut down in their town.


You'll often find qualified workers in repair and construction companies because people who have high qualifications move into jobs that require lower ones. Thus, half-drunk craftsmen have been replaced by engineers with higher education.


A rather curious concept has arisen in Russia -- yevroremont, or European renovation, which is just an alternative to Soviet remont. The yevroremont uses expensive, imported materials that can cost as much as five times more than an ordinary remont and often has the same results.


In the Soviet Union, walls were covered with wallpaper. First, it was with rich, big patterns, and later there appeared more subdued tones and refined designs. But in any case, the room had to be wallpapered. In the West, there are often just white walls. At first, people here did not like this: White walls were associated with hospitals. But now everyone wants to have white walls. In order to attain a smooth effect our walls have to be made even. This is a tortuous process. So, the wallpaper remains after all. But you can always put up white wallpaper that imitates plaster walls.


Any person here will have encountered one way or another the problem of crooked walls or crooked furniture.


The geometry of the 19th-century mathematician Nikolai Lobachevsky -- which challenged Euclid's postulate that one and only one line parallel to a given line can be drawn through a fixed point external to the line -- could have been conceived only in Russia.


One person (a professor!) once boasted to me of the clever solution he came up with for the bedside table that would not fit in the corner against the crooked walls. He sawed the legs of the table so that it, too, would be crooked enough to fit.


Whether you are doing an expensive yevroremont or an ordinary remont, everything depends on chance. An acquaintance of the family put a lot of money into turning her apartment into a model Western living space. It was all done in good taste. Everything in the apartment was replaced -- starting with the doors, windows and floors and ending with the light switches. But when the remont was finished, the plaster started to crumble. It turned out that the apartment building was improperly built and was already beginning to fall apart.


Irina Glushchenko is an independent journalist who writes for Nezavisimaya Gazeta and Dom Aktyora. She contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.