Doctor Zhivago, in the epic drama, returns to his Moscow home to find it occupied by several working-class families. Bolsheviks had taken over the large house, divided it into tenements and handed the accommodation over to strangers.
Today in Russia, thousands of families still reside in shared apartments (kommunalka in Russian). Our tour group has an afternoon tea date with Svetlana and Sasha who own two communal living apartments in the centre of St Petersburg. They live in one and rent the other out.
Svetlana’s apartments are in a large three storey building. We walk from the busy street through an arched driveway entrance into a central paved courtyard. Residents like Svetlana who own a car, park here.
A pale blue heavy metal door marks the apartments’ entrance. It opens onto a set of concrete stairs with a red metal hand rail. A feeling of dread overcomes me. The chipped paint and bare concrete exude a strong feeling of poverty.
At the top of three flights of stairs, a narrow door marks the entrance to the apartment. Our group of thirteen files into a long narrow corridor lined higgledy-piggledy with shallow shelving, shoe racks, bags and boxes.
We hang our coats on wooden coat hooks while jostling for space to remove and store our shoes. A woman and her young daughter watch silently from a doorway.
Svetlana, a short woman in her early 40s, hair drawn back tightly into a pony tail, greets us warmly with a lovely smile and invites us into her adapted one-room apartment.
On my left is Svetlana and Sasha’s bedroom, the double bed just fitting into the space. Tables set up end to end and laid with cups and saucers take up most of the long living room ahead. They will be folded up and stored against the wall when we leave.
Narrow shelves of pot plants and long orange drapes obscure the tall window at the far end of the room. A soundless picture flickers on the television beside the window.
Svetlana explains that the apartment was built in 1901. Thick walls block out her neighbours’ noise, but the continual din from the street below is intrusive. Leaving the TV on low drowns out the street noise.
High ceilings enabled Sasha to build a mezzanine bedroom come study above their bedroom for teenage daughter, Nadine. She smiles and waves to us from her desk which looks over the dining room before returning to her schoolwork.
Svetlana directs those in our group needing the bathroom across the corridor to one of two communal bathrooms. A roster on each bathroom door indicates who can use it when.
Only four families, a total of 16 people share this small kommunalka. Each family has their own living and sleeping quarters. They share the corridor, bathrooms and the one kitchen.
There are two shared stoves in the kitchen, a couple of bar fridges and limited work space. A mishmash of shelving is packed with pots, pans, crockery and other kitchen utensils. Svetlana has her own large fridge in her apartment.
She says she’s lucky. While she doesn’t mix with her neighbours more than necessary, they “get along fine”. She explains that there are many instances where neighbours don’t get on.
My initial anxiety has abated. The cheerless stairway leading to the apartments belies the homeliness evident in Svetlana’s kommunalka.
As we pour tea from the samovar and enjoy freshly baked tea cake and blini with condensed milk, Svetlana talks openly about her life and life in general in Russia today.
While the living conditions are cramped, Svetlana and Sasha seem happy. They choose to live here, enjoying the proximity to the city centre and visiting their dacha in the country each weekend.
Others have traded their lack of privacy for long commutes, having moved from communal living arrangements in the city into private newer apartments in outlying suburbs.
Having bid the family farewell, I descend the concrete steps, which somehow seem less bleak than they appeared a couple of hours ago. I am heartened and grateful that Svetlana opened up her home to generously share her unique way of life.