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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

No Room to Swing a Cat in Kommunalka




ST. PETERSBURG -- Multiple bedrooms, 35-square-meter kitchen, large entrance way, spacious bathroom with laundry facilities, three toilets, located in the city center in a converted pre-revolutionary hotel.


As a classified ad, this description would suggest a posh apartment well beyond the means of most St. Petersburg residents. In reality, this is the description of Russia's largest kommunalka, or communal apartment, and for the nine families who live here, it is anything but luxurious.


Living in 17 rooms, laid out along a hallway snaking 70 meters from end to end, many of the 28 residents of this kommunalka on Starorusskaya Ulitsa in central St. Petersburg are angry at a city administration they feel has forgotten them, and sick of the home life they are forced to live.


"We live like bums," said Lyuda Fralova, 47, who works as a communications technician. "The only difference is that we have jobs.


"From the farthest rooms, the walk to the kitchen or to the bathroom is over 55 meters. In the morning, it is tiring just to wash or prepare breakfast," she said.


The simple question of bathing becomes an ordeal for the residents of this communal flat. "To have 28 people living in an apartment with only one bathtub is impossible," Fralova said. "Sometimes I'm still up taking a bath at three or four in the morning."


The kommunalka experience - hailed in the early days of the Soviet Union as an opportunity to erase class distinctions by carving up thousands of mansions and private apartments for socialist living experiments - has faded in recent years. But with a million residents still living in communal apartments, St. Petersburg is considered the unofficial Russian capital of the kommunalka.


The residents of the Starorusskaya apartment, fed up with their cramped and chaotic quarters, have addressed a number of so-far fruitless appeals to the St. Petersburg administration to find them new accommodation. Fralova, whose parents began living in the kommunalka in 1948, said a city government commission came to examine the apartment 20 years ago, and that major repairs - including splitting the apartment up into smaller units - were promised.


The residents say they haven't heard a thing since.


"The last time they did any repairs here was over 10 years ago," said Margarita Zhdanova, a 33-year-old music teacher. "But that was just painting."


Looking at the walls in the apartment's corridors and common rooms, it is difficult to believe it wasn't longer ago than a mere decade. The paint in the corridor is peeling everywhere, leaving numerous dirty-white blotches of wall showing from behind what once must have been blue.


Only the bottom half of the walls in the kitchen are painted, and this faded green is streaked by the residue of years of gas burned on the stoves.


The kitchen, which has five stoves, looks more like restaurant property than part of an apartment, and is often the center of activity.


"After a holiday, it's a complete mess in here," said Darya Ponomaryova, one of the seven children aged 2 to 16 who call the kommunalka home.


"But before and during the cooking, it's very busy and fun."


Her mother, Valentina, doesn't find the kitchen situation quite so amusing. "For the children, of course it's fun, but for us it's very difficult. Especially on the weekends, when everyone is cooking at the same time, and there are only 20 burners."


Each of the kitchen cabinets is locked - a reminder of another problem for the residents: theft.


"A short while ago, someone stole my daughter's boots from the hallway," Zhdanova said. "It's unfortunate, but there are two people who moved here only after getting out of prison and are alcoholics. I can't trust them, so now we have to always lock our doors."


The mention of the stolen boots angers Fralova, bringing her back to the subject of raising children in the kommunalka. "We felt terrible just having kids at all," she said. "I feel like a criminal bringing up children in such a place. It's so inhuman."


The children don't seem to mind their kommunalka existence as much as the parents, saying that they are all friends and enjoy using the long hallway for roller-skating.


They are not the only residents who try to stress the positive.


Maria Fomina, who lives in one of the smaller rooms, is 80 years old and has lived in the apartment since 1925. She was originally there with her family, but the deaths of her father, in 1930, and then of her mother and sister during the blockade in World War II, left her alone.


Fomina, who served in the Red Army during the war, says that as a veteran she could have been given individual living quarters after the war. She's glad, however, that she wasn't.


"On the one hand it's bad, but there are advantages," she said. "If I'm cooking and I have no onions, there is always someone to borrow from until the next day."


Fomina says she sees no real point in the attempts by other residents to change their situation.


"I think that you have to make your own life," she said. "It seems to me that there's no use in going around waving flags at City Hall. ... Why bother wasting your health if you're not going to get any results?"


But for the other residents, especially those with children, it's difficult to be so philosophical.


"Of course we'd like the city government to look into the problem, but we're always at the end of the list," said Yury, who asked that his last name not be given. "They just announced that they are planning to do structural repairs on 24,000 prefabricated apartment buildings that were thrown up in the 1960s. So now we are behind those buildings."