Thin Walls, Bad Neighbors
In the new Russia making yourself at home is still no easy task
A BLUE-and-white-striped Lada sputtered to a halt on the gritty ice in front of my building. Two militiamen jumped out, responding to my telephone call for help. We exchanged salutes, and I explained my predicament: I was moving out of my apartment that morning, and my landlady, angry at losing her tenant, had barricaded herself inside with my bags. To make matters worse, I had a plane to the States to catch and was in danger of missing it because of her antics.
"If you help me out, I'll show you my gratitude," I told them. Before I moved to Moscow, bribing a law-enforcement officer was not something I had thought myself capable of. But now, without compunction, I was hiring a personal two-man commando unit.
They nodded and set to work, the younger of the two hoisting himself up the drainpipe until he reached the sturdier ironwork of the balcony on the second floor. With his Kalashnikov swinging on its shoulder strap, he scaled one balcony after another toward mine, on the fifth floor, his boots searching for traction on the icy railings. The other officer and I climbed the stairs and took up positions at my front door. He began pounding and shouting, "Open up! Militia!" On the landing below, the neighbors huddled in a hissing, exultant throng to watch; pensioners left penniless by the inflation and reforms of the new Russia, they resented my landlady for the dollar income she earned from renting her khrushchovka (Khrushchev-era) flat to foreigners.
The officer on the outside finally lifted himself over the last balcony railing and knocked down the kitchen door. Hearing this, his partner shouldered open the front door and rushed in, and both began violently scolding my landlady for disobeying their order to let them in. I handed them ten dollars apiece, we saluted again, and, grabbing my bags, I bounded down the stairs toward my taxi to the cheers and warm valedictions of the pensioners.
ON the new-Russian housing scene, malevolent landladies and venal militiamen are common manifestations of the anomie that has resulted from the collapse of the police state and the impoverishment of the population. These manifestations have distinctly Soviet roots, and are often still referred to as "Soviet," especially by older Russians, despite the recent changes. When Westerners think of the means by which the former regime maintained power, vivid images come to mind: ruthless KGB operatives, gulags in Siberia, psychiatric hospitals echoing with the screams of dissidents. But in fact Soviet rule also depended on a behemoth bureaucracy that bound its citizens in regulations, the flouting of which threatened the very roofs over their heads. With the disintegration of the Soviet Union the KGB slipped into the past, but the regulations survived -- and thus was born a peculiarly Russian climate of chaos, corruption, and restricted liberties.
After the 1917 revolution Russians had to abandon the notion that societal rank and personal distinction were embodied in property -- that country estates signified high status, for example -- and were made to accept identities debased by the tyranny of bureaucrats, little inky stamps, and dog-eared dokumenty. The propiska, or residence registration stamp, issued by the district militia, reigns to this day as king of the inkblots; it permits Russians to reside in a particular town or city and validates them as residents thereof. As a foreigner, I did not need a propiska -- my visa, registered with OVIR, the Department of Visas and Registration, sufficed. (My landlady's propiska, however, allowed her to retain sovereignty in the apartment I rented from her; I had no legal grounds for complaint when she seized my bags on her own property.) Militias issue propiski only to those born within their jurisdiction, to incoming spouses of residents, to those whose employers intercede on their behalf, and to buyers of apartments; thus for generations Russians have had to marry, connive, or buy their way into the stamps. The propiska amounts to a municipal citizenship of sorts -- those caught without the indigo blotch in their internal passports risk jail, fines, or expulsion beyond city limits. A telling proverb sums up the primacy of propiski, and dokumenty in general, in Russian life: "Bez bumazhki ty bukashka, a s bumazhkoy chelovek" ("Without papers you are an insect; with papers you are a person").
Today more and more Russians, determined to avail themselves of new opportunities provided by the free market, are leaving the hinterland for the boomtowns of Moscow and St. Petersburg and are living on the lam, as it were, without propiski. They need to rent apartments -- but leases are almost unheard of. By law the lessors -- possessors of propiski -- must register leases with the Tax Inspectorate and pay tax on the rent received, but, ever wary of contact with the state and reluctant to pay taxes, they usually do neither. Similarly, lessees without propiski do not want to announce themselves as such. Thus most end up making oral agreements with landlords and paying the rent in cash (as I did). The leaseless, however, are at the mercy of their landlords, liable to summary eviction when, for instance, a potentially more remunerative tenant turns up. Russians (and foreigners) without propiski are indeed "insects," with no effective recourse should disputes with their landlords arise. Hence the bribery.
To return to my misadventure: Without a lease or a propiska I was out of luck, the duty officer at the militia station told me when I first called to complain. "You see," he said, "now that we have democracy, we can't just go around knocking down people's doors without the proper papers. But I'll send over a couple of men. Maybe you can reach an agreement with them."
And I did. The officers earned their keep, and I got my bags back and made my flight. It all worked out po-russki (in the Russian way).
IF geography is destiny, then housing is character. Architecturally reflective of the hurly-burly General Secretary (well known among Russians for his harebrained schemes) who ordered them erected, khrushchovki are slapdash five-story assemblages of concrete slabs, rattling pipes, and warped floors. Thrown up in the fifties and early sixties to meet acute housing shortages, they are now collapsing all over the former Soviet Union. Most are slated for demolition.
When I rented my apparently sound one-bedroom khrushchovka in a leafy suburb of Moscow, I did so on impulse, attracted by its picture window giving onto a park and by its white walls (Russian homes are usually wallpapered in greens, browns, and beiges). Soon after I moved in, however, I began to think of my new abode as a ramshackle cement chamber of horrors that I would have to survive rather than simply adjust to. To live in a khrushchovka, I learned, is to suffer a degradation of the Adamic self and a gradual reconstitution as a guileful Homo sovieticus. The endless domestic quarrels on the other side of the thin walls, the watchdog neighbors with their grudges and envy, the ceilings that flood with the vigorous showers of tenants upstairs -- all these provide an education in misanthropy. Life becomes a montage of grief and spite in which there are always a culprit and a reason for animosity.
One predawn hour in my khrushchovka I was rocketed out of slumber by music -- the national anthem, on the state-run Radio Mayak. The radio in the apartment below was blasting through my floor and into the autumnal darkness beyond my windows. The news followed, and then Michael Jackson's "Beat It," and a report on Russian composers in Europe ... on and on, all day, until the sign-off after midnight.
I tried to reason with myself. I am living in Russia, I thought. Russians are tolerant; I must be tolerant. I embraced this as a verity; I murmured it over and over. But when the third dawn in a row broke with the anthem, I called my landlady and complained. She railed against the "witch" in the apartment below, concluding, "This is our Soviet reality: thin walls and bad neighbors. You must endure. We Russians endure. It is our Soviet reality ..."
I endured, but I decided to broach the subject gently with the neighbor herself. The man in the apartment next to hers cracked his door when he heard me knocking. "She won't answer," he said. "You're bothered by the radio, I suppose. So was the last tenant. The old witch is doing it on purpose to get at your landlady, so you'll move out."
I went to the zhek, or local housing authority, to file a complaint, but without a propiska I was shooed away -- like an insect.
Weeks of Radio Mayak passed, and winter came. With the windows shut tight against the cold, my apartment resounded more than ever with anthems, Russian pop, Zhirinovsky's tirades. I endured -- and quietly began losing my mind. I finally considered moving out.
my friend Yuri said when I called to tell him that my phone number might be changing. "Listen -- you know what Raskolnikov did. Take an ax, wrap it in paper, knock on her door. When the old hag opens..." We laughed, and then his voice steadied. "You're thinking like an American. That sort of cultural sensitivity -- talk about enduring and such -- leaves you only one choice in Russia: dig your grave and climb in. You have to adapt to our Soviet reality." He paused and then asked about the fuse box on the floor below me. "Her radio comes through the electrical network. You just have to cut one wire -- the clear one -- and poof! No Radio Mayak! It's easy."
That night I stole downstairs with a pair of scissors, pried open the fuse box in the hall, and was confronted with a welter of wires, one of which looked relatively clear. I cut it. I felt my face blanch: the radio was still blaring. I snipped again, and then again -- no result. The next morning one of the pensioners in my building stopped me on the stairwell and exclaimed, "Hooligans! Hooligans cut our phone lines! Nowadays we have no order in our country. Look at what Gorbachev and democracy have done to us!"
His electrical talents having come up short, Yuri rose to the challenge with a second plan, based squarely on the core elements of post-Soviet reality: deceit, bribery, and vodka. At his urging I returned to the zhek to complain that my electricity had failed. As soon as I crossed the threshold, the two women behind the desk cut short their gossip session and leveled a contemptuous look at me ("Insect!"). But I was undeterred.
"I have an electrical problem," I said. "Maybe we can reach an agreement..." I produced a crisp dollar bill and rendered myself human enough to earn a place on the repairman's schedule. The next morning a disheveled prole in brogans appeared at my door with a toolbox, scratching his head. I explained about the radio.
"Ahhh. Now, listen," he responded, "what you are asking me to do could cost me my job ... hooliganism ... immoral besides ... The poor old woman is afraid of thieves, so she keeps the radio on. This is our Soviet reality."
"Maybe we can reach an agreement," I suggested. I pulled out a liter bottle of Rasputin vodka. His eyes widened and he rubbed his chin.
"Well, it is the end of the month, and the guys in my unit need to celebrate. What the heck." He slipped the bottle into his coat pocket and pulled out his wire clippers.
That evening I enjoyed a blissful silence. Hooliganism provided a profitable Soviet-style symbiosis for the electrician and me: I worked better than ever in my newfound tranquillity, and he made money cutting radio lines (and, eventually, splicing them back together). Through the failings of my khrushchovka and the spite of my neighbor I had become a Soviet man -- though I was not proud of it. "Who is?" Yuri said.
MY landlady called one frigid afternoon to tell me about the winter radiator ritual I would have to perform (a simple matter of turning a knob and draining off excess fluid, she said), which would also benefit all my neighbors' radiators -- and, she added casually, prevent "an explosion that might result from a buildup of steam." While she stayed on the phone, I knelt beside the piping in the kitchen and discovered that the knob had rusted itself into immobility.
"Impossible," she chirped. "Just give it a tap with a screwdriver." I tapped the knob gently; when I turned it, the whole thing came off in my hand. Two buckets' worth of water streamed out onto my floor. The radiator sighed and went cold.
"No problem. My husband is on his way now to fix it," the landlady said. "No problem."
An hour later the husband stood before me on the hallway doormat in mud-caked boots. He had a dazed, effete look. A bulbous fur hat topped his head, and his eyes appeared crossed. My next-door neighbor, Nikolai -- a gentle, befuddled pensioner who always looked out for me -- stood behind him, arms akimbo, shaking his head in silence, as if witnessing the opening act of a tragedy he had seen repeatedly.
"I am an artist -- a peintre, if you will -- who works with oils," the husband said, introducing himself. "Not watercolors, mind you. Oils."
"Well, would you at least step inside and take a look at the radiator?" I said. "What am I supposed to do?"
"I don't want to mess up your floor. I will send over workers from the zhek immediately!" He turned and pranced down the stairs, his fur earflaps flapping.
Nikolai shook his head. "Our workers..." he said. "They aren't like your workers in the West. These are Soviet workers." He shook his head again.
Three days passed. A glacial cold permeated my apartment and the four beneath me: my infelicitous turn of the knob had knocked out the heating for the entire column. This earned me less than friendly looks from my neighbors when we passed in the stairwell. Nikolai was sympathetic to me -- but his apartment was unaffected.
On the fourth morning I heard feet stomping and scraping in the hallway, followed by oaths and hacking coughs and lusty expectorations. I opened my door. Two middle-aged laborers -- one tall, thin, and wizened, the other short, bullnecked, and weathered, a sort of Russian Laurel and Hardy -- stood puffing vodka-scented white vapor into the blue stairwell. Nikolai emerged from his apartment and eyed them, shaking his head.
"From the zhek," the bullnecked man grunted. "Got a glass for us?"
"Vodka! To warm us up."
"Sorry, I don't drink."
Nikolai followed them in and asked me to wait in the living room. In my kitchen an hour later hammers were pounding, pipes were clanging, and metal was sawing through metal. Nikolai stood guard, shouting orders at the workers about wrenches and bolts. A sound like a serrated knife ripping through sandpaper was followed by a prolonged cacophony of drilling, oaths, and fervent expostulations.
"Done," the bullnecked man said. He and his partner stomped out the door past Nikolai.
I rushed into the kitchen. The flooring, a sort of blue linoleum, was torn to shreds for a square yard around the radiator. Bas-relief mud footprints were everywhere. A leg had been knocked off the breakfast table. One of the men had wiped his black and greasy hands on the white curtains. The room smelled of sweat and vodka breath.
Nikolai put his hand on my shoulder. "Our workers still have a Soviet mentality and are somewhat careless," he said. "This is our Soviet reality. But your radiator now works."
MOLDERING in grime, pod'yezdy, the common entranceways to apartment buildings, embody both the moral bankruptcy of Soviet ideology and the decay that accompanies current lurches toward a free market. The Soviet concept of "the people's property" engendered disdain and negligence toward almost everything owned by "the people" (that is, the state). A sense of communal responsibility is still absent and unmissed, and public areas are growing increasingly squalid as state maintenance services diminish.
Our pod'yezd was little more than a doorless, snowblown cavern, and as such served as a shelter for threesomes of wayward husbands with their bottles, and for youths who gathered to smoke and banter. Like all things Soviet, it had its state-hired taskmaster: a middle-aged charwoman who showed up each morning in ritual rancor to spray disinfectant in the corners, rearrange the dust in the stairwell, and shovel snow off the outer walkways onto the shoes of passing pedestrians. She might also shoo away bums with her broom or yank cigarettes out of the hands of teenage girls; she was the gnomish enforcer of the common good.
The charwoman and the dirt aside, the pod'yezd had its charms; it was Nikolai's favorite haunt. He would stand there smoking his Belomor Kanal cigarettes (named for the canal that Stalin sent legions of political prisoners to build in the subarctic north; Russians often pun Belomor to "belle mort"). The acrid stench would waft under my door, and Nikolai's hack would echo in the stairwell. I would often come out to talk with him.
"The city is planning to demolish this building and move us to a new development," Nikolai told me after the radiator affair. "But we've lived here since Khrushchev, since our youth." He took a puff and scratched his head. "Our youth. Since '91 our world has come apart -- our youth has slipped into the dustbin of history, as Americans like to say. Maybe by American standards this khrushchovka is a dump, but it's what we have known. It's where my wife and I have lived our life together. I can't imagine I could ever really move." He never had to. A week later Nikolai's hack disappeared from the pod'yezd. I came upon his wife on the landing; she stood before me, tiny and red-eyed and trembling. The night before, Nikolai had had a stroke and died, she said. She broke down in front of me, and her sobs echoed off the walls. Minutes later the neighbors came out to console her. They gathered around her -- a huddle of pensioners in the stairwell of a building soon to be crushed into rubble, aged castaways from the defunct and discredited era to which they, and their khrushchovka, still belonged.
Jeffrey Tayler is a writer who lives in Moscow.
Illustration by Glynis Sweeny
The Atlantic Monthly; November 1997; Thin Walls, Bad Neighbors; Volume 280, No. 5; pages 54-61.