(Read my previous post here)
Post #1. Moving to Russia. November, 2015.
So apartment blocks in Russia are funny things. There seemed to be a couple of basic rules during the soviet union when it came to construction.
- Keep it simple. Very simple.
- Functionality over aesthetics
- Grey is the new black.
My first apartment ticked both of the criteria. Most apartment blocks in smaller cities like Volgograd, and in the outskirts of the larger cities, follow a similar sort of architecture. Rectangular, long short buildings, either 5 stories high, or 25.
Mine was the first variant, only 5 stories high, on the main street of Volgograd, Prospekt Lenin. Actually, I lived about 100 metres up the road from the cities main Lenin statue (picture in previous post), which was very impressive in day or night. The building was around a 20 minute walk to school, which was located right in the centre of the city. The underground metrotram also stopped outside my apartment building, where it was 1 stop and 20 rubles ($1AUD = 50 rubles) to the centre.
As with most apartment blocks in Russia, the entry for my building was in a courtyard surrounded by almost identical apartment buildings. To get into it, I would walk along the main street, turn off through some iron gates to the side, and walk across the courtyard to my door. Each building had about 8-10 different ‘doors’ which would give access to a staircase from which you could access, in my apartment building, around 15 individual apartments. I lived on the top floor, with views of the main street.
To follow on from the previous post, I arrived to my apartment block at around 9.30pm. I was super tired, and it was so dark I couldn’t even really comprehend where I was or what my block looked like. I took my suitcase up the 10 flights of stairs. On the way up I also met the two resident staircase cats (who I later found out belonged to the Babushka who lived next door to me). The staircase stank of raw fish and meat that she would feed the cats and leave out for them. My apartment was better than I thought – however by Australian standards for example below average. I was happy with it though. The government regulated (yes) heating (which can’t be adjusted) kept it warm, it had a separate kitchen and bathroom and quite a large bedroom and living space.
One thing that was new to me (but not to the apartment) was the gas boiler for hot water. Not just any gas boiler but an extremely temperamental one at that. The furniture existed from the 90’s, but it was cozy and soon became my home.
The first question I asked my school director, who had dropped me to my home, was if she had any towels so that I could take a shower. It had been 30 hours since my last one, and she had just told me I had to be at work at 11am in the morning.
Unfortunately, in Australia, we have quite a strange way of pronouncing this word, and for about 3 minutes I was trying to explain to this lady what I meant by towel. Eventually, her face lit up in understanding. She ran off to the kitchen. My hopes skyrocketed, a nice shower then sleep and I would feel great.
She came back in with a roll of toilet paper. “Here”, she said. I thanked her, though asked if she had anything slightly bigger that would help to dry after a shower…
They were supplied the next day. So ensued a showerless night. I also discovered on this first night just how temperamental the hot water was. In this case, there was none.
Bedding was a pretty uncomfortable sofa bed, with quite a large height gap between the part where the pillow was and where my spine was. However, I got used to it pretty quickly.
The kitchen in my apartment contained a fridge, gas light stove and strangely enough a microwave. It also contained another sofa bed. Which was really strange because I couldn’t imagine wanting to sleep next to the fridge but anyways.
My bedroom/living room contained 2 sofa beds (one which I slept on), a TV which didn’t work, air conditioner which didn’t work, and an enormous wardrobe and shelf space. There was also a picture of Paris above my bed just to remind me of where I wasn’t! 🙂
This was my first experience of a Russian apartment . However after living there for a while I feel I could say a thing or two about how this was similar and different to the apartments of others.
Russia has extremely poor infrastructure when it comes to living. The kind of block I was living in was a standard ‘Post-Stalin-era’ apartment block. What this means to my knowledge is high ceilings, more spacious rooms and thicker walls (supposedly).
Interesting note about the thickness of walls – during the Soviet Union, even ‘thick walls’ are relatively thin, the reason being so that neighbours could listen and report neighbours who spoke of ‘anti-government’ or ‘anti-revolutionary’ topics. These neighbours would then be arrested in the middle of the night by the former KGB and most likely never to be seen again.
During the 1960’s and onwards, there came the Khrushchyovka apartment blocks, which were much lower cost constructions, normally comprised of concrete panels, and only rising 3-5 stories. These were the most common types of apartment buildings in Volgograd, and having visited a few of these where friends lived I can definitely say I was happy to be living where I was. These have much lower ceilings and smaller rooms, and generally worse plumbing and other utilities.
Of course, like any country, if you have money, you get what you want. This is particularly true in Russia. I also visited some apartments on the opposite end of the spectrum. The buildings themselves looked quite average, but were definitely built post 1995. The inside common areas also maintained an aura of soviet blandness, however the interiors of these apartments were fantastically appointed and in most cases much nicer than most ones in Australia for example.
Money talks in Russia, however it doesn’t change the fact of the unreliable water supply and government controlled heating (another blog post to follow about this!).
In most of the Stalinist, Post Stalinist and Khrushchyovka blocks, water supply does not travel very well up the pipes. Given that in my first apartment, I lived on the top floor, this often meant a very weak water supply, and coupled with my boiler, often showers which were basically freezing or at best lukewarm. This was especially challenging in winter when it was cold enough outside to make taking a shower quite a miserable experience of ‘get in get out’ as fast as possible.
All of these sorts of apartment blocks also had huge communal courtyards. During winter these were the most miserable places you could be, freezing cold, open spaces full of puddles hiding under thin layers of ice or snow. During the spring they became wet and muddy. Summer was the best they got, where it was possible to sit outside under the trees on benches and actually were quite pleasant. The functions of the courtyards were all the same. Soviet architects didn’t plan for all citizens owning cars, or have the budget to make underground parking. As such, all courtyards became car parks, however each had their own playground with cool retro soviet play equipment and also colourful wooden benches. The idea of having these courtyards is actually quite cool, not that I could use it during winter or most of the year but just the idea was nice. Rubbish skips were also located here. The concept of ‘recycling’ does not yet exist in Russia!
Overall though, the apartment I had was much better than I had prepared myself for, and quickly became a place I would be happy to go home to.
Also, here’s a picture of Masha the cat, sleeping on the windowsill as usual above the heater. Just to finish off the post 🙂