Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

FACES & VOICES: xaBachelor Finds Room of His Own a Luxury




At the age of 42, Oleg Shwartz has finally achieved a measure of independence from his mother and father. He rang me last week in great excitement to tell me he had moved -- not to an apartment of his own exactly, but into his own room in his parents' new two-room apartment.


"Won't you miss the old place?" I asked him. "Not in the slightest," he said.


No, it is I who will miss the old St. Petersburg kommunalka, or communal apartment, where he used to live and where I was a frequent guest. To me it seemed romantic because I did not have to live there.


It was a prerevolutionary building, of course. A marble staircase, reeking of piss, led up to the flat, which had nine large, high-ceiling rooms. When the former bourgeois home was first appropriated by the Communists, nine workers' families would have been crammed into those nine rooms, but by the time I visited, only six families were living in the apartment, sharing the one kitchen and single toilet and bathroom.


Oleg, a joiner who makes scenery for theaters, lived with his father, an ethnic German called Ernst Rikhardovich, and his Siberian mother, Polina, in one room.


Ernst Rikhardovich would begin the day by going out onto the balcony and throwing a bowl of ice-cold water over himself. Then he would come in and start lecturing the family about the need for law and order. Polina would try to keep the peace by changing the subject and getting everybody to eat her Siberian pelmeni (the real thing, made with both beef and pork). But as often as not, father and son would end up quarreling and Oleg, an anarchist at heart, would retreat to his narrow bed behind a curtain, the only private place he had, to read a good book. The family all read copiously, as this was the only way they could escape from each other.


If the family had to be careful to avoid conflict, the neighbors had to regulate themselves even more strictly or there would have been war. (It happened before my time, but two neighbors hanged themselves in the marble stairwell.)


In the corridor, there were six light switches leading to six separate electricity meters so that everyone knew how much power he had used. In the bathroom, the families kept their toiletries on separate shelves. ("For goodness sake, don't make a mistake and use the neighbors' soap," Oleg would say to me when I went for a wash.) The telephone was common and incoming calls were not allowed after 11 p.m.


Living as he did, it was hardly surprising that Oleg never had much luck courting women. (He did once have a Lithuanian girlfriend called Rita but she emigrated to the United States.) Instead, the companion of his life was a dog called Bely, or Snowy, for he was Shwartz (Black). He also had and retains many friends, for the bespectacled Oleg is a lovely man who values loyalty and friendship over money.


Now I must visit him and his infuriating but good-hearted parents in their new home in a concrete high-rise block. From the architectural point of view, it will not be so interesting for me. But Oleg is delighted that between him and his mom and dad there is now a wall. For him, this is the height of luxury.