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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

FACES & VOICES: The Russian Dilemma Of Neighbors




Neighbors. The connotations of the word are as often positive as negative. For every nosy neighbor, there is the good neighbor, ready to help. And yet, whenever I hear the Russian word sosedi, it always seems to be pronounced through gritted teeth.


The truth is, I suppose, that the further away the neighbor, the better. If you live in a house, it is not difficult to be pleasant to your neighbor over the garden fence.


How much harder it is, if you live in a box, to tolerate the sounds of other people mating and fighting and their tastes in music coming to you from above and below, left and right. For the many Russians still living in kommunalki (communal flats), even that amounts to undreamed of privacy, as their annoying neighbors are in the very next room.


"Oh God, those neighbors!" complained my friend Zhenia, who lives in a self-contained apartment, with only one room, in a soulless mikrorayon (high-rise suburb). Until recently, his next door neighbor was a saintly old woman caring for a bedridden husband, who groaned loudly at all hours of the day and night.


"Now she's rented the place out to a couple of lesbians," he said. "Every Saturday night, they watch 'Pro Eto' [a talk show about sex] at full volume, then go to bed but end up having a massive quarrel instead. They smoke like chimneys and their smoke comes drifting into my room through the fortochka [small window]."


Zina has problems with her neighbors, too. A genteel geologist, she comes to clean for me once a week to supplement her income as a scientist. She vacuums the carpet for half an hour, then sits on it for the rest of the afternoon, reading books.


"You don't mind, do you?" she asked. "It's just that I don't want to go home and face the neighbors yet."


She lives in a communal apartment with younger people who like to throw parties. Last week, she asked me to call her apartment to see if anyone was in and, only after I assured her nobody had picked up the phone, did she venture home.


Living as I do in three European-standard rooms, shared only with a husband and cat, it would be a sin to complain about the neighbors in the kommunalka above. Actually, despite the fact that they run the bath and then go out, leaving the water to drip through my ceiling -- and even worse, play Modern Talking at three o'clock in the morning -- I generally find them quite amusing.


Other neighbors call them the "rough family." Tanya, a single mother with three children by different fathers, makes a brave effort to cope, renting out her rooms to Azeri guest workers. When the struggle gets too much for her, she comes to me, grinning with gold teeth and breathing vodka, to borrow money for "bread." Her son Lyosha has graduated from drawing penises on the wall of the stairwell to car theft, but always has a smile for me and would never touch my car, as I am a neighbor.


The other night, it seemed that World War III had broken out in their apartment. The soft August night was torn apart with sounds of kicking, thumping and screaming. Tanya told me afterward that the Azeris had had an argument over their watermelons. One of them nearly had an ear cut off in the process.


"Sosedi," she said, as if that explained everything. Neighbors. The further away the better.