TOWNS AND VILLAGES IN RUSSIA
The average small town consists of a square surrounded by municipal buildings, a hotel, and a restaurant, with perhaps a statue of a Russian liberator or a Communist hero. The state typically provided each town with a boiler plant, a bakery, a hospital and housing. In the Communist era, there was no advertising, and few signs. Often the only person who had a phone was the mayor.
Traditional villages were often quite charming while the towns developed by the Communists were often ugly. Traditional wood homes were denounced by Soviet planners as primitive and Italian neo-classical architecture and Tyrolean villas were thought of as bourgeois. Boxy, nondescript brick houses, concrete high-rises and smokestack factories were heralded as the wave of the future.
Village configurations have traditionally depended on the kind of landscape they were found in and the type of economic activity that went on there. The most common type of layout in central Russia is to have houses lined up on both sides of a single street, surrounded by cultivated fields and patches of forest and marsh. Large villages have houses clustered without a regular street patten. Small towns usually have a church, some other public buildings and public square where stalls are set up to sell agricultural products on markets days.
Siberian Villages were basically of two types; small ones with less than 100 people and larger one with up to several thousand residences. Large towns grew from trading posts and transportation hubs. In the Soviet period villagers were encouraged to collectivize and move into larger settlements. Many small villages were allowed to die.
During the Soviet era, towns were expanded into cities and given industries. Streets were laid out in a grid. Trolley lines, utilities and parks were provided. Many Russian cities look the same. They are composed mostly of concrete pre-fab apartment buildings. Some Russian towns consist of concrete highrises built along dirt roads. In the Independent, Helen Womack described Russian towns as "shabby, inconsequential places...indistinguishable, with their war memorials, their chicken-coop apartment blocks, their rusty garages, their gardens with cabbage and phlox. Irreverent Muscovites call them Peryulinsk (Fartville) and Makhasransk (Flyshitville).”
In the Soviet era, the government provided housing. Rents were extremely low, often less than $50 a month. The negative side of this was there wasn’t enough money for maintenance or modernization or the construction of new homes, which meant there were housing shortages and apartments themselves were drab and poorly built.
Each citizen was theoretically supposed to be allowed to live where they wanted but citizens were required to be registered with the government and have a residency permit to live in the city. Those that didn't have a permit could be evicted. People could build and finance their own homes but few people had enough money to do that. In some places the state got involved, providing loans but also added surcharges that in some cases doubled the cost.
In the Soviet era, all land and most buildings belonged to the state; in rural areas, private home ownership was permitted, but the law limited such houses to a floor space of forty square meters. The occupants of state-owned housing enjoyed the rights to lifetime occupancy and to bequeath their housing units to the next generation, as well as virtually complete protection against eviction. In 1990 nearly 100 percent of the housing stock in Moscow and St. Petersburg was publicly owned, and more than one-quarter of Russia's total housing stock had been built before 1917. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]
In 1990 the average floor area per person in Moscow was 17.8 square meters, and in Russia as a whole it was 16.4 square meters, compared with averages in Western countries of between thirty and forty-five square meters per person. Rental rates remained at the same extremely low, universal level — 0.132 ruble per square meter — from 1927 until 1992. Maintenance of existing buildings and construction of new housing were both financed from other parts of the state budget; only 3 percent of funds used for these purposes came from residents. State enterprises covered a significant share of housing expenses as part of their employees' benefits. The design and construction of new housing had no relation to aesthetics or even to cost; in cities the State Construction Committee (Gosstroy) simply erected monolithic high-rise buildings containing a given number of housing units, following the dictates of the five-year plan for that locality. *
Communist-Era Housing Shortages and Lack of Privacy
People were placed on waiting lists to get apartments and often waited for years for apartments that were wrecks when one finally moved in. "You can wait fifteen years for an apartment," one Russian said. "And everything that built is already falling apart. The walls have bulges." The housing shortage used to be so bad that many unauthorized people attempted to sleep in the university halls.
As in other aspects of daily Soviet life, the elite were allotted the best and most spacious housing, and influential friends helped them avoid long waiting lists. The average urban Russian family either occupied a very small single apartment or shared an apartment with one or more other families, with joint access to the bathroom and the kitchen. According to a 1980 Soviet estimate, 20 percent of urban families (and 53 percent in Leningrad) shared apartments; that percentage had dropped slightly by the end of the Soviet era. Young, unmarried Russians often found housing only in crowded hostels operated by their employer. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]
In the Soviet era—and to some degree today—newlyweds often had to live with their parents for several years until a flat opened up for them. For some that flat never opened up and the couple’s dream was have a television in their room and someday maybe have a car so they could get away from the in-laws every now and then. New parents were given priority on scarce apartments and loans were forgiven according to how many children they had. In some places, government gave $2000 in credit to start a home, and paid back decreasing amounts as children were born.
Igor S. Kon wrote in the International Encyclopedia of Sexuality: “Millions of Russians spend many years, or their whole lifetime, living in dormitories or communal flats, sometimes several families in one room, where every movement is seen or heard by others. Among 140 Soviet immigrants living in the U.S.A. asked by Mark Popovsky in 1984, “What hindered your sexual life in the Soviet Union?” the absence of a separate apartment was mentioned by 126 (90 percent), the absence of a separate bedroom by 122 (87 percent), and the excessive attention from the neighbors living in the same apartment by 93 respondents (66 percent). The lack of privacy is an even worse problem for nonmarital sex. “Where?” is the desperately important and difficult question to answer. Lack of privacy is detrimental for the quality of sexual experience and produces anxieties and neuroses. [Source: Igor S. Kon, Ph.D. International Encyclopedia of Sexuality ==]
Post-Communist-Era Housing in Russia
Housing is still in short supply, however, the old, state-controlled system has begun giving way to private enterprise and a rudimentary housing market. Despite severe inequalities in housing opportunity and daunting financial disadvantages, many Russians have been able to establish private homes that would have been beyond their reach under the Soviet system. Nevertheless, in 1996 housing subsidies remained a significant drain on the national budget as the state continued the attempt to protect citizens from the inequities of a nascent housing market. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]
The economic reforms of the post-Soviet era brought drastic and problematic changes in the Russian housing system. In the first years of that period, state support for new construction dwindled dramatically, making enterprises a more important source of financing in the absence of large-scale private investment. Privatization of existing housing increased substantially in the mid-1990s, and more types of dwelling became eligible for privatization. The rate of new construction did not keep pace with demand, so waiting lists continued to exist, and the beginning of landownership law reform encouraged construction of fully private housing by Russians who could afford it. However, in mid-1996 the average Russian still spent less than 3 percent of his or her budget on rent because a large share of Soviet-era state housing subsidies remained in place. *
Housing maintenance has been problematic in the post-Soviet era because local housing authorities, to whom full maintenance responsibility was shifted in 1991, have reallocated funds from maintenance to more pressing needs. Meanwhile, individual attitudes toward routine maintenance have been slow to compensate for this shift. In Soviet-era collective living quarters such as urban high-rise apartment buildings, which housed as many as 1,000 people, housing managers were expected to uphold minimum standards of cleanliness and service. In the 1990s, those complexes still house people from all economic levels (a survival of Stalin-era policy), but, given the newly fragmented condition of Russian society and economic distractions facing tenants, initiatives by residents often give way to disregard for voluntary maintenance of common property. Housing officials demand bribes for routine services, and housing complexes have become increasingly shabby. In some cases, the suspicion and anonymity of the Soviet era have been reinforced among people of disparate backgrounds forced to live in a more cramped environment than in Soviet times. However, in some apartment buildings condominium associations have been formed to advance the common welfare of families in a building or neighborhood. *
Privatization of Russian Housing
Many Russians now own their own homes. Russia has privatized millions of apartments and houses since 1992. The establishment of a full market system in housing was complicated by several factors. First, the notion of private ownership of land and housing was diametrically opposed to the concepts at the base of Soviet society, so the advantages of privatization were not immediately understood — especially as low-rent state housing continued to exist alongside expensive private property. Second, high inflation priced most Russians out of the housing market, especially as the inflation-adjusted incomes of most social groups declined. Third, continuing monopolies in construction materials, finance, and urbanized land kept construction costs very high; the first steps toward privatization were taken in the building industry only in 1993. Finally, a relatively high percentage of existing housing stock remained in the public sector, which promised to remain a significant housing owner through the near future. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]
After a relatively slow beginning in 1992, privatization of housing stock increased dramatically. The Soviet privatization law of 1989 began the process, which was continued in Russia by the 1991 Law on Privatization of Housing. But the newness of the laws, the lack of administrative procedures, and the continuing attractiveness of low rents in state-owned housing limited the total number of units privatized in 1991 to about 122,000 units, or 0.3 percent of urban housing stock in the Russian Republic. By the end of 1993, more than 40 percent of urban housing stock (about 8.6 million units) in Russia had been privatized, and the total was between 55 and 60 percent one year later. Often the privatization process involved renters buying the apartments in which they were living. An important step in this process was a 1992 constitutional amendment that allowed free distribution of housing, broadened the categories of housing that could be privatized, and simplified privatization procedures. In the mid-1990s, the growing problem of how to house military families formerly domiciled outside Russia caused the Ministry of Defense and agencies dependent upon it to withhold their housing stock from privatization; in 1993 defense budgets financed 15 percent of Russia's total housing investment. *
Availability of new private housing improved somewhat by the mid-1990s, after a sharp decline in the first post-Soviet years. In 1993 the output of new housing was 57 percent of the peak Soviet-era output reached in 1987, and in the early 1990s the ratio of unfinished projects to usable housing output was more than three to one (compared with 84 percent in 1988) because incentives promoted new starts rather than completions. Between 1986 and 1992, the number of names on housing waiting lists increased from about 8 million to some 10 million, mainly because in that period Russians began to change jobs and places of residence more frequently and because family units became smaller. In 1993 more than 21 percent of urban households were on waiting lists for housing. The waiting lists began to shrink in 1993, and by the end of 1994 about 9.1 million Russian households (including single-person households) were registered for housing. Inflation also played a major role in housing availability; in 1994 the price of a typical Moscow apartment of fifty-five square meters increased by five times over the 1993 average. A housing allowance program has been established to bridge the gap between rental costs and family incomes. *
Because they felt the direct pressure of longer waiting lists and the support costs associated with the movement of people into their jurisdictions, local housing authorities lobbied against abolition of the internal passport (propiska) system that had restrained internal migration in the Soviet period. In 1993 the system was officially abolished in all jurisdictions except Moscow and St. Petersburg . *
Impact of Land Reform and Private Enterprise on Russian Housing
Experts consider reform of landownership and condominium laws an important step toward full privatization of housing. Privatization of land, both urban and agricultural, has been a controversial issue for Russian legislators; there is a strong body of opinion that land is fundamentally public property that cannot belong to any single person. In the late Soviet period, new landownership laws confused rather than simplified the legal status of various types of land. Consequently, housing privatization has been hindered because ownership of a residence may not include ownership of the land on which it stands — a disparity rare in Western property law. Legislation passed in August 1993 legalized the sale of land, allowed villages to give away plots of land to individuals, and removed the space limitation on private homes on collective farms. Although dwellings built on suburban garden plots technically still could be no bigger than a summer cottage, such land increasingly was used to build year-round housing, thus expanding the number of available residences in Moscow and other cities. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]
In general, Moscow was the center of land-use innovation because it was the center of new commercial activity and foreign influence. The constitution of 1993 recognized for the first time the right to private ownership of land, a departure that experts believed would have a major impact on overall real estate ownership. In late 1993, a presidential decree established Russia's first set of provisional condominium regulations, which were considered an important clarification of housing ownership policy. But additional legislation, drafted by the Yeltsin administration to expedite landownership, was blocked in the State Duma in 1996. *
Especially in Moscow, the emergence of Western-style enterprises associated with housing construction, such as finance companies, real estate offices, plumbing suppliers, and lumberyards, heralds more growth. The rapidly rising cost of existing apartments has fueled a brisk property business, as speculators buy privatized property in the hope that prices will continue to rise. In the mid-1990s, private houses began to appear rapidly just outside the ring of Soviet-era high-rises that surrounds Moscow. According to a 1995 report, prices for private land and housing in Moscow ranged from US$900 for an unimproved small plot to US$300,000 for a four-bedroom villa in a compound with security guards. As of mid-1996, mortgage loans were not yet offered by the Russian banking system, so buyers had to pay cash. Many Russians build their own dwellings, bribing city officials and contractors when necessary and collecting materials wherever possible. The demand for materials has prompted the emergence of numerous building supply stores and a parallel rise in the price of materials. Thus, although many Russians remain on waiting lists for existing housing, others have begun what they hope will be a Western-style progression from a first modest dwelling to something larger. The same divergence has appeared in housing as in other aspects of socioeconomic activity: individuals with financial resources or unusual initiative have taken advantage of the new opportunities of the 1990s. Those not so fortunate remain dependent on state housing subsidies. *
The World Bank's 1995 report Russia, Housing Reform and Privatization gives a full picture of the economic forces and existing traditions at work in forming a new housing market.
In a typical small city in the 1980s, about 40 percent of the population lived in apartment blocks, another 40 percent lived in traditional wooden homes, with electricity but without running water and plumbing. The remainder lived in dormitories.
House type and farmsteads vary from region to region. In northern Russia, where large extended families are common, the main house and other buildings are combined under a single roof. Access is provided by a large, sometimes elaborate gate. In southern Russia, where families have tended to be smaller, the houses tend to be smaller and the different buildings are separated.
The houses that many Russians live in are in terrible condition. Describing the living room of a house where he was having a drink with some Russian friends, Mike Edwards wrote in National Geographic, "The waterlogged plaster looked as it might join us at any moment. The kitchen plaster fell long ago and the bedroom plaster smashed a bureau. Someone promised they'd fix it, but that was years ago.”
Russian Houses can be exceptionally cold, especially at night. Russians compensate by bundling up like mummies in blankets and comforters. The interior walls of many homes is brick covered with plaster, which is very cold in the winter.
Traditional Rural Russian Homes
Housing in rural areas is more spacious than city housing, but it usually has few amenities. The traditional wooden farmhouse contained two rooms divided by a raised corridor, with living space for people on one side and for animals on the other. There are few log and thatch houses anymore. Most are built with bricks, In Siberia and some other places wood is used. Electricity, pipe water and indoor plumbing are available in most places but still many rural houses lack them.
A traditional northern and central-Russian-style “five walled” houses had four side walls plus a central dividing wall. It was built of logs and had a thatch roof. The ritual center of the house was the hearth, which was located opposite the entrance, where guest were seated. In southern Russia, whitewashed adobe was often used in place of logs for building houses. The standards of cleanliness were generally higher than in the north. For example animals were not usually let inside the house as was the case in the north, where keeping the animals warm was more of a concern.
Traditional wooden homes have dark wooden panels and carved lattice wood around the windows. A fireplace is often located in the center on a dirt floor. Behind the house is an earthen cellar for storing food or a summer kitchen, often with no ceiling, no windows and no chimney. Outside the house is a kitchen garden and apple and cherry trees.
Many traditional homes are built of wood and have a peaked roof and window frames decorated with carvings. “Izba”, single-story wooden cottages, are the traditional Russian dwelling. They are still common in the countryside. They have"wooden window frames and eaves and small kitchen gardens. The gingerbread houses of western and northern Russia and Siberia feature carved window frames, lintels and trim.
Irkutsk in Siberia is famous for its wood houses, richly decorated with ornate carvings and fretwork around the windows and brightly painted shudders, doors and window frames. Common motifs include tulips over the windows, fans and suns on plaited bands, irises on the walls and figures on the edges of roofs. Siberian Homes
The Siberiaki settlers of Siberia built villages and homes likes those in their home villages in northern Russia and the Ukraine. Villages were strung out along rivers and roads. The wooden houses were surrounded by a fence. Buildings organized around a courtyard included a separate bathhouse, storehouse and a stable for animals. Poorer homes had a barn attached to the main house and people and animals shared warmth generated by a large wood-burning stove. Sometimes the land was privately owned. Often it was leased from the government.
Homes and buildings were often built using communal labor provided by friends, neighbors and relatives. Before construction began an animal or fowl was sacrificed and placed under the foundation Each house had a “beautiful corner,” an area diagonal from the entrance where an icon shelf was displayed. Decorations including carved designs around the windows and bird figures situated below the eaves. The first fire in the house was lit with embers from a fire from another house to encourage the family’s guardian spirit to move to the new house.
Most urban Russians live in dreary pre-fab apartment complexes that sometimes stretched for miles. Many were built from concrete panels constructed in assembly lines and together with cranes. As one architect said, "It costs less. So we drown in mediocrity.” In the Soviet era, a typical apartment was sold as a shell with no cabinets, appliances, closets, bathroom vanities or even molding or electrical fixtures. The owners were expected to supply these things for themselves.
Many of the monotonous shoebox apartments that Russians live in were built during the Khrushchev and Brezhnev years. In Siberia many of the apartments were built by gulag prison labor and were first built to house them. Many of the large apartment blocks were built to supply housing for workers in specific industrial areas. They had central play area for children but lacked privacy.
A typical Soviet-era apartment has only two rooms: a kitchen and a combination living room, bedroom and dining room. The living space is cramped and there is little privacy. The sofa often doubles as someone's bed. Toilets are often outside the apartments. Some have no showers. Residents are often forced to wash in freezing cold water in the kitchen sink as there is no hot water either. The roofs on many buildings in Moscow are protected with iron railings to protect the men shovel snow off of them from falling off.
As of 2005, apartment residents paid about a $20 a month apartment service fee that presumably covered maintenance. Even so many apartment blocs are dilapidated and in a terrible state of repair because neither the residents nor local authorities clean them up. The stairwells stink of cat urine and there are stories about horrible odors produced by homeless people that die in basements and their bodies decompose for several days before they are discovered.
Soviet-Era Communal Apartments
Many Russians grew up in “komunalka”, communal apartments where families shared a telephone, bathroom and kitchen with other families and family members sleep together in the same 14-square-meter room. Parents often shared rooms with their children and newlywed couples often shared rooms with other relatives.
A typical komunalka had nine families from three generations sharing a kitchen, bathroom and several rooms. They were crowded. It was not unusual for one to have 20 families sharing the same space, with several families sleeping together in a single room. Often two or three children shared a single bed. Others sleep on mattresses set up on the floor. A typical communal apartment in Moscow had eight rooms, 18 people and one bathroom and one kitchen. Sometimes entire families lived with their possessions in a single room, with the parents sleeping on a fold out sofa and the children sleeping on the floor.
Many komunalka had no hot water and lots of rats running around. Kitchen and cabinet space was carefully delineated with women preparing meals at designed times, in designated spots. For privacy people retreated behind curtains and read a lot. People waited in line in the morning to take a shower and then had to dry themselves and dress in another room. People kept their stuff in designated places.
Russian President Vladimir Putin grew up in the 1950s and 60s in a cramped communal apartment in St. Petersburg with a communal toilet, no hot water and rats running around. "There were rats lining up in the front entryway," he wrote in his autobiography. "My friend and I used to chase them with sticks. Once I saw a huge rat and drove it into a corner. Then it turned around and threw itself at me."
Describing the smell of communal apartment Russia, Ian Frazier wrote in The New Yorker, It is “not a bad smell, or good one, but a living Russia smell—of cigarette smoke, damp concrete, some kind of fragrant rushed-underfoot grass or berry, cabbage soup, cat pee, sour cream, and sunflower-seed cooking oil.”
Toilets and Hovels in Russia
Public toilets often have one trough as a multi-use urinal and another trough with a cement floor with square holes in them for toilets. Describing a bus station rest room in Siberia in his book “Reeling in Russia”, Fen Montaigne wrote, "I saw men heading for a low-slung concrete building, evidently the bathroom...The odor hit me 50 yards away. As I approached, I could see piles of feces and puddle of urine ringing the building. Conditions were so appalling in the bathroom itself that travelers had taken to relieving themselves around it...I wondered, Why do Russians tolerate such squalor?"
Some people live in shipping crates fitted with a door and a few widows and hooked up to an electric grid. The toilet is anywhere outside. The nearest bath is a 12 mile walk. On the walls are stencils letters than tell crane operators not to drag the crate on the ground. [Source: Wall Street Journal]
In Buryatia region of southern Siberia, a group of homeless people live in crude wood-and-metal shacks covering shallow caves dug into the ground next to a garbage dump. The people endured winter with temperatures that drop to -50°C.
Many apartment dwellers don’t have their own bathrooms or showers. They have to go to their relatives house or a public bathhouse to take a proper bath or shower Where flush toilets are found, flooded toilets are common. People sometimes construct home- made boilers in their bathroom when only cold water is available.
“Dacha” is a Russian word for "country house." It describes not only the house itself but the lifestyle of escaping from the city to enjoy a weekend or the entire summer in the country. Many Russian say their best times as children where mushroom hunting and swimming in a lake in the summer near the family dacha.
Dachas life was created in the 19th century by urbanites who yearned for the countryside and built shacks or homes, where they whiled away the summer. Dachas are not just the domain of the rich. Russians from all walks of life own them, and they can vary from elaborate mansions and estates to small, one-room shack, clustered with other dachas in a clearing in the woods.
Many Russians spend their summers in the countryside in dacha communities established in the Soviet era according to strict rules that kept them largely uniform. Built on land owned by the state, these dachas were usually small one-story houses built on one sixth of an acre. Second stories, fireplaces and greenhouses were all forbidden. In the Soviet-era dacha communities generally consisted of 50 to 100 units established by a trade union or factory and occupied by people with roughly the same income and social status.
A modern five room dacha has a garden in the front and small cottage for the caretaker and cook in the back. In the late 1990s, as part of a land reform initiative, dachas owners were given title to their dachas plots and allowed to buy and sell land. A typical dacha and it plot now ssold for between $25,000 and $50,000 in the early 2000s.
Hanging out at a dacha is not all rest and relaxation. Russians often spend a lot of time in their garden plots—planting, harvesting, weeding and watering their potatoes, cabbages, onions, garlic and vegetable plants.
Dacha fixtures include baskets for picking berries, wooden milk buckets, old painted furniture and woven shawls. Dachas usually have little furniture because they are vulnerable to burglaries. In the old days this meant that people brought a television, radio, seeds, coolers and folding chairs from home and packed them into their Fiat-like Zhigulis.
On Friday afternoon, the roads heading out of Moscow are filled with traffic as Muscovites head for their dachas. The weekend dacha ritual begins with shopping for picnic-like food such as sausage, potatoes and vegetables that require a minimum of cooking. “Shahlik”, grilled marinated meat, is a favorite for barbecues. Many people begin marinating the meat Friday morning. Then you load up the car. Once on the road, the traffic is often so bad that it can takes hours to reach a destinations which is just beyond the suburbs. People are usually famished when they reach the dacha so the charcoal fires are lit up and people begin eating shashlik and washing it down with champagne or vodka.
Dacha Estates of the Communist Elite
Elaborate dachas with brick walls and three to four-stories are known as “cottegi”. The dacha favored by Khrushchev and Brezhnev had indoor and outdoor movie theaters, sliding-glass walls, bars, ponds, fountains and a bomb shelter 250 feet below the ground. Indiri Gandhi, Tito, Ho Chi Minh and Richard Nixon were all entertained there.
The three story dacha where Gorbachev was placed under house arrest during the failed coup attempt in August 1991 has an escalator to the beach, a separate recreation building, and quarters for guests, doctors and guards. [Source: Peter White, National Geographic, September 1994]
Communities with luxury dachas and beginning to look like wealthy American suburbs. The dachas have become so numerous that they no longer have pleasant views of the woods and meadows but only views of other dachas. Environmentalist claim that the dachas craze is harming the environment by chopping down trees in an important green zone outside Moscow and filling the air with fumes from cars driven by dacha owners on the weekend.
The increased wealth and opportunities that have occurred since the fall of Communism have allowed a lucky few to add stories and rooms and make other improvements on their dachas, which has disturbed the egalitarian atmosphere of dacha communities by breeding jealousy and resentment. Referring to a formally close friend who just built a news dacha three times the size as his old one, one Russian told the Los Angeles Times, "They look down on us now. All we do is say hi from behind the fence."
The mother-in-law of man of successful accountant with a fancy dacha told the Los Angeles Times, "To tell you honestly, we are little bit embarrassed. I feel ashamed before my neighbors. Our generation broke our backs to achieve things in life, and all this is very unfamiliar."
Dachas owned by the nouveau rich have large green lawns, castle-like structures, fancy banyas and tall brick walls (something unheard of in Soviet times). Some wealthy Russians are buying up dacha plots from their neighbors or large pieces of property from collective farms to build their dream dachas. "In America, when someone builds something, their neighbors want to build something just like it," an owner of a fancy dacha told the Los Angeles Times. "When Russians build something, their neighbors want to tear it down." Resentment over fancy dachas got so out of hand in some communities that some have been set on fire with Molotov cocktails,
A “banya” is the Russian equivalent of a sauna. A typical Russian “banya” is a small shed (that often doubles as a laundry room) with a bare light bulb and a hissing boiler that produces steam. The word banya means "bathhouse." A banya is an action as well as a place. It is usually a weekly ritual that is often done at the same time every week with the same group of friends.
The Russian banya is a combination of dry sauna and steam bath, followed ideally by a massage, a beating with birch branches and a plunge in ice cold water. Russian's say it makes you clean and healthy in a way that nothing else can.
Almost every town, neighborhood or community has a public banya. Large public banyas have separate sections of men and women. Small ones have single bathing area and males and females use the baths at different times or different days. Generally customers pay a small entrance fee and take off their clothes in the changing area.
Possessions in Russia
In a traditional house the most important pieces of furniture is a clay stove, which is used for cooking, heating and bathing. Near the stove are wooden shelves, which served in place of beds for sleeping, attached to the wall. Peasant traditionally slept on plank beds.
Most homes have furnishing that are not all that different from those found in the West. These include chairs, iron bedsteads and kitchen ranges. Many homes have a step ladder in the bathroom for doing odd jobs, a table covered with an oilcloth in the kitchen, a glass-fronted cabinet in the living room displaying the family’s porcelain and cut glass.
Many homes have a samovar, a Russian tea urn. They are large and ornate. The water in traditional ones is heated with an inner tube filled with hot charcoal. Modern samovar have electric heating elements. Other typical possession include cheap veneer furniture, a worn glass case filled with chipped tea sets and rickety chairs.
Today many houses now have furnishings from Ikea. Homeowners with valuable possessions subscribe to police security services that requires them to phone the police and provide an entry code when they come home.
In the Soviet era, televisions were expensive. In the late 1980s, a closet-size, black-and-white Russian TV with an 18-inch screen sold for $500. Color televisions went for over $2000. Despite the fact that a color television cost the equivalent of nine months salary of an average worker and a black and white set costs one and half months salary almost every family had a television.
The same was also true with VCRs, which cost 20 months salary and cars which went for seven or eight year’s salary. There were millions of them. Money to pay for them came from relatives living in North America and Europe, from second jobs, by battering for services, or from bribery, smuggling, buying and selling goods in Europe, and dealing on the black markets.
Possessions of a Typical Russian Family
In the 1990s, a typical Russian family spent 60 percent of its income on food and 30 percent on clothing and household goods. They had 2 radios, 1 stereo, 2 telephones, 2 televisions, 1 broken down automobile but no VCR. There was little incentive to save because inflation undermined the value of savings. [Source: Peter Menzel, "Material World," Sierra Club Books, 1994]
The family's most prized possession were: 1) a “domra “ (a traditional Russian stringed instrument) for the mother; 2) video games and a book of Sherlock Holms stories for oldest daughter; and 3) a stuffed animal and Barbie doll for youngest daughter. In the future, the family hoped to have enough money to fix their car (which will cost over $2,500).
The family's other possessions include a piano, samovar (heirloom urn used to make tea), dresser, full-length mirror, living room chairs, sewing machine and table, quilt, 2 Oriental carpets, framed pictures, 2 sofa beds, vacuum cleaner, ironing board and iron, 2 tables, kitchen stuff, wicker baskets, large cabinet with china, books, icons, dolls, toys, 2 bicycles, armorie for linens, domara, skis, sports equipment, cuckoo clock, Ottoman (matches sofa), end table, child's table and chair, doll collection , sled, kitchen table and benches, hot water heater, gas stove, stacks of wood, tools, sauna, clothes, and broken ladder.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
Last updated May 2016