Street Life: A home where the neighbours live with you

Click to follow
The Independent Online
RUSSIAN TELEVISION showed a fascinating documentary last week about the biggest kommunalka (communal flat) in the country. It set me thinking about my old friend, Oleg Schwarz, who spent his life in one of those mind-boggling apartments and reached the age of 42 before he got a place of his own.

The flat shown on television housed no fewer than 20 families. Oleg's was more modest, providing rooms and shared kitchen, bathroom and toilet facilities for only nine families. But like the featured apartment, it was in St Petersburg, which has some of the oldest housing stock in Russia and therefore the highest number of surviving communal flats.

Oleg's apartment was on Ulitsa Pravdi or Truth Street. A marble staircase led up to the door, behind which the rooms opened out, all with high, moulded ceilings. Before the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the grand apartment had belonged to a single, bourgeois family. After the Communists came to power, appropriating all private property, nine workers' families were crammed into rooms intended for a genteel couple with children and a servant or two.

In his satirical novel Heart of a Dog, Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940) described how a professor, who had created a proletarian monster by transplanting a human heart into a dog, lived to regret it when a Communist housing committee came to take over his comfortable apartment.

Oleg and his family were not proletarian brutes but decent working-class people, still living with the grim consequences of Communist housing policy in the 1990s. Oleg was a joiner who made scenery for the theatre. He lived with his father, an ethnic German called Ernst Richardovich, and his Siberian mother, Polina, in just one of the rooms.

Ernst Richardovich would begin the day by going out on to 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 dumplings. But as often as not, father and son would end up having a row and Oleg, an anarchist at heart, would retreat to his narrow bed behind a curtain, the only private place he had, to read. 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 neighbours had to regulate themselves even more strictly or there would have been war. (It happened before I knew Oleg but, several years ago, somebody from a next-door room hanged himself in the marble stairwell.)

In the corridor, there were nine light switches leading to nine separate electricity meters so that everyone knew how much power he or she had used. The women cooked together in the kitchen, making large bowls of food that would be shared if someone had a birthday, but otherwise delineating their territory precisely with separate shelves for their pots and pans.

There was always a queue for the lavatory. In the bathroom, the families kept their toiletries on separate shelves as well. "Ours is the sixth shelf up. For goodness sake, don't make a mistake and use the neighbours' soap," Oleg would say to me when I wanted to wash my hands. The telephone was shared and incoming calls were not allowed after 11 o'clock in the evening.

The bespectacled Oleg was warm-hearted and funny but his living conditions were hardly conducive to a private life and he never had much luck courting women. He did once have a Lithuanian girlfriend called Rita but she emigrated to America, after which he started to drink more vodka than was good for him. The companion of his life was a dog called Bely or Snowy, for Oleg was Schwarz (in German, black).

And it was thanks to Bely that Oleg finally came by his self-contained accommodation. About this time last year, on a foggy, icy November evening, he was taking Bely for a walk. The dog ran out into the road and he chased after him. A drunk driver came careering round the corner and knocked Oleg down. He spent a month in intensive care until he died, without regaining consciousness. At the age of 42, Oleg Schwarz got a place of his own in the Kirovsk cemetery.