When Dara Nikolaevna was just a few months old, her mother would wrap her up in a blanket and walk with her through the snow to the clinic near their apartment. This was the nineties, the Soviet Union had just fallen, and Russia was reeling from near-total economic collapse. Free food packages handed out to the parents of newborns by the local hospital had outlived socialism and become a lifeline for families like Nikolaevna’s.

Now, more than two decades on, the area of central Moscow in which she and her sisters grew up has been transformed. Money that once poured out of the country has come flowing back, bringing Scandinavian-chic coffee shops and bath supplies boutiques with it. Everything has changed, except for the five-story blocks in which locals live. The best and oldest, with ornate detailing and thick walls, were built by Stalin. Others were flung up by Brezhnev, laid down as part of a rebuilding campaign by Khrushchev or predate the Communist era entirely. Some, like hers, still bear plaques commemorating those who died in the purges, dragged from their homes and taken off into the night.

Now, the messy warrens of flats in the heart of the Russian capital have become a battleground once again. Built by Marxists as rewards for hard-working state employees, rising property prices have turned even the most dilapidated accommodation into a potential cash cow for those they were passed down to. Except, who actually owns them isn’t always clear. Property deeds were a capitalist idea dispensed with by the Soviet system, meaning possession has become all ten-tenths of the law. But more than one family often lays claim to an apartment because more than one family often lived there at any one time.

These are the communal apartments, or kommunalkas, in which most citizens resided throughout the early years of the Soviet Union, from Moscow to Minsk to Kiev. 

After the revolution of 1917, peasants and farmworkers from the countryside were bussed into the cities to toil in factories and stoke the furnaces of the country’s explosive industrial growth. People who had tended livestock or grown crops on one patch of land for generations were forced to trade in the peace of their far-flung villages for trolleybuses and bread lines. Their country homes, built by hand, were given up for a single room in which parents and children slept together, sharing the kitchen and bathroom of kommunalkas between several other families.

Pots and pans hang in the kitchen of a kommunalka in Moscow
© Karina Gradusova

Communal apartment, communal country

Packing workers in on top of each other started as a necessity. The Bolsheviks saw no need for large houses or spacious apartments – for anyone but the party elite, at least – and so the homes of the former middle classes were carved up with partitioning walls, subdivided and parcelled out to meet the new demands of the growing urban population. Soon though, it became ideological. If communism starts at home then the idea of the private family unit, segregated from fellow workers by walls and all-concealing front doors didn’t fit the ethos of their bold worldview. Kommunalkas, officials said, offered a “new collective vision of the future.” Ground was broken on new purpose-built buildings that had galley kitchens catering for half a dozen families and rows of cubicle toilets like university halls.

Nowhere was the transformation clearer than the city of Kaliningrad. Formerly the heart of German East Prussia, the strategic Baltic Seaport was put under Soviet control at the end of WWII. It is now Russia’s only exclave, wedged between Poland and Lithuania. Its architecture, made up of carefully sculpted houses and spacious merchants’ apartments, was at odds with the new management. When the Germans were expelled the year after the war, they were replaced many times over by Russians and Ukrainians. One elegant block of flats saw its multiple-room family apartments subdivided, with a hastily-bricked wall erected through their dining rooms, marking the territory of its new residents. Eating, sleeping and everything in between would now be done in one space.

Kommunalkas faded away after the first set of reforms after Stalin’s death, with Party officials hoping privacy and comfort would lead to the public becoming more content with Soviet rule. Now, the idea of cramped accommodation more often exists in the minds of city dwellers who long for a home office from which to work remotely, rather than a toilet to call their own. And yet, the once widespread kommunalka still has its place in people’s consciousness across the former USSR, acting as a setting for Soviet writers like Bulgakov and Zoshchenko, as well as even giving rise to a popular song. 

A woman and her cat at home in their room in a Moscow communal apartment
© Karina Gradusova

Half mocking, half nostalgic, Russian pop group Duna’s jaunty 1995 tune, “Communal Apartment”, ironically proclaims that “we have no need for a separate home, it’s better to live together.” In the song’s hit video, scantily clad women, police officers, Central Asian migrants and typical Russian men queue for the bathroom, steal each others’ food and gyrate around a cluttered kitchen. If nothing else, it highlights how what was once intended as a grand feat of social engineering descended quickly, and inevitably, into farce, with the lives of half a dozen people squeezed into a tiny flat.

A flat, more often than not, like Dara Nikolaevna’s. Hers was one of the small number of Central Moscow kommunalkas that survived the Communist era, hosting dozens of families at various times all the way from the revolution to the fall of the Berlin Wall and beyond. As a young professional in an expensive city, she saves cash by living rent-free in the four-room property she now shares with her sister. Their mother and father went their separate ways, while the other residents upgraded for plusher pads or moved out of the city altogether. Like many people in the same position, they have little to prove their status apart from being in possession of the keys, as the last ones left.

Twenty years ago, however, it was a different story. “The apartment was split by three families,” she remembers, “aside from ours, there was a woman who lived alone – most of the time – and another family, a girl around my age and her mother. Both women were alcoholics, and so I remember the atmosphere in the apartment being one of conflict all the time.” The building, now in prime real estate territory, was reserved for public service workers, and the apartment was given no strings attached to her father as compensation for a decade shovelling snow and clearing the roads in the icy Russian capital.

 A resident of a Moscow communal apartment washes the shared corridor
© Karina Gradusova

Life at close quarters

While Soviet citizens were expected to live together, sharing a crockpot was evidently a bridge too far. As a result, Nikolaevna’s apartment had three ovens, while the larger kommunalkas could easily have half a dozen. In a country where buying groceries was a part-time occupation, separate cupboards with hefty locks were compulsory.

“There were small, daily fights about very basic things. Everyone had their own version of everything – our own cooking surfaces, our own toilet paper rolls in the toilets – and don’t you dare use someone else’s. It was ridiculous because they’d position it in a certain way to see if it got moved or touched.” Despite that, “there were constantly lines for the bathroom or to cook something in the kitchen.”

The brimming tensions of sharing a small space often bubbled over into outright hostility. “I remember how one woman would sweep the floor in the communal hall area, and then throw all the trash and the dust onto our door rug,” Nikolaevna says. “Or she’d paint our peephole with her nail polish, so we weren’t able to see whatever she was doing in the hall. And once I was looking through the viewer when suddenly she came out of her room and started to paint the peephole. I opened the door and she was shocked and ran away back to her room.”

If daily living was a complex affair, it was only compounded by the interpersonal relationships that sprung up between residents penned into tiny spaces in close quarters. According to Nikolaevna, gossip and scandal reigned supreme in her building, and falling foul of it only made the sour atmosphere worse. “The other two women would constantly use our washing powder, soap and things like this – not because we had better products, but just because they wanted to wear us down emotionally.”

“Both of them were part-time prostitutes, and so they’d call men to their rooms. As well as working as street cleaners, which was how they got the apartment, they would also invite men back. And, after a while, my dad started to sleep with them as well, cheating on my mum. And they’d be drinking vodka together sometimes when she came back from work and would catch him in the act.”

While official statistics aren’t collected, a large share of people still living in kommunalkas are estimated to be vulnerable - old lady sits in communal apartment eating a banana
© Karina Gradusova

While this way of life has faded from view in countries like Russia and Ukraine, reserved exclusively for the cash-strapped and marginalized few who sublet or inherit keys, the sour side of shared living threw kommunalkas back into the headlines in 2015. A policeman living in a shared apartment just outside Moscow was arrested by his colleagues after murdering a married couple and their seven-year-old inhabiting one of its rooms. According to the disgraced officer, he had quarrelled regularly with his flatmates but a row that broke out after they unscrewed a set of spark plugs and cut off light to his room pushed him over the edge. 

However, not everyone’s life in a communal apartment was equally grim. In an article for the city of Vologda’s regional newspaper, Red North, just this week, Alexei Cheremisin wrote that they weren’t so much a cause of misery as a microcosm of all that was going on in society at the time, good and bad. Describing the “rotten frames, broken chimneys and tarnished roofs,” he explains how he came to form acquaintances with those he was learning to live on top of during the stagnant 1970s.

One of Cheremisin’s fellow residents, a septuagenarian known only as Uncle Venya, he recounts, painted a large sign on the decaying property in bright white paint that, with characteristic Russian irony, read “Long Live Communism”. By the time the authorities came to look for him, Venya had already died. The residents were relocated and the house was knocked down not long after. The old man, it seems, used his last moments on earth to protest on behalf of his neighbours.

Russian photographer Karina Gradusova has sought to capture the lives of the last remaining residents in the country’s kommunalkas. In her 2017 photo series, shot at a large shared apartment complex in the capital, the diversity of those still hanging on to the way of life out of necessity becomes clear. Single women living with their cats, students, young families and elderly alcoholics peel potatoes side by side and shave in the long gym-style bathrooms, before retreating to their rooms.

© Karina Gradusova

Will the last one out turn off the light?

The level of disrepair has hardly improved since the fall of communism. In Russia, the cult of “remont”, or home repairs, is an all-consuming life goal, economic investment and hobby. Instead of moving home, many families prefer to dramatically overhaul their apartments when finances and time allow. Those in kommunalkas, however, tend to lack both the funds and the security to do the same, and so the rot has only set in deeper.

In some cases, that has had catastrophic consequences. Safety hazards are abound in these former blocks and just last week in St Petersburg, a team of 17 firemen fought to tackle a colossal blaze engulfing a communal apartment for almost an hour. One resident died, while another three were saved. The city, Russia’s second-largest, is known as kommunalka capital and officials have expressed concern that the elderly and vulnerable people living in cramped conditions are particularly at risk from the spread of COVID-19.

A man shaves in the shared bathroom of a Moscow kommunalka
© Karina Gradusova

In Moscow, where property prices are among the fastest-growing anywhere in the world, these dilapidated dwellings with their lingering smells and decades of accumulated dirt are proving eye-catching for property developers and local authorities who stand to gain from their redevelopment. Corporate buyers have set their sites on whole buildings for demolition, while individuals with cash to spare have worked out they can purchase rooms in kommunalkas for very little and then apply for resettlement or compensation when they are demolished.

The result is a fierce competition for the remaining keys. In some cases, people registered at the address who haven’t been seen in years are turning up and claiming ownership. In others, would-be developers are forced to haggle with everyone whose name is associated with the property in order to buy them out and begin to convert the rooms into a single apartment.

For Nikolaevna, who has no proof of ownership other than childhood memories and plant pots on the windowsill, all the attention is posing a problem. A visit from a Moscow city inspector began a process that could ultimately see her evicted from her home, as officials seek to normalize the status of those living in the properties their predecessors handed out.

Moscow, once the capital of the vast communist empire, has now become the kind of place where apartments given for free to street sweepers are the source of envy and get-rich-quick schemes. Jealous neighbours, former flatmates, corporate property magnates and municipal workers are all a threat to those still staying in the Stalin-era flatshares their parents once squeezed into. Living together, it seems, isn’t much easier even when there are walls between them.

Cracked eggshells pile up in a bin in the kitchen of a Moscow kommunalka
© Karina Gradusova

Gabriel Gavin is a British writer and journalist covering Central and Eastern Europe from Russia.

Karina Gradusova is a Russian photographer living in Moscow.