Communal Living in Russia: Photos
Apartment II. Rooms: Table with teakettles
  Summary
  A fragment of the interior of the room of Nina Vasilievna, an old woman. 2006.
  Basic Facts and Background
  When: Summer 2006

Where: A room in a communal apartment in a building on Kamennoostrovsky Prospekt, in the prestigious historical center of St. Petersburg. Among the residents of this apartment are friends and acquaintances of Ilya. The apartment is in the same entryway as the one in which he lived for 30 years. Eleven families now live in the apartment. There was a time when 16 families lived there.

Nina Vasilievna (born 1924) has lived in this apartment all her life, and in this room since 1930. Anna Matveevna, ten years older than Nina Vasilievna and her former nanny, has lived in the room next door since 1931. Anna Matveevna often comes into Nina Vasilievna's room.

What: On the table we see three teakettles, one of them electric, two pots, and two bowls, one of which holds little pieces of stale bread. The thermos is made in China and has an aluminum cover that can be used as a cup. There is a green enamelled jug, a jar of jam, and a plastic container that filters water.

Tap water is poured into the container. It goes through a series of filters, after which it is safe for drinking. In general, in Soviet times it was always assumed that you could drink tap water, although in many households people drank only boiled water. But in the post-perestroika era, few people risk drinking tap water, the more so that it is sometimes rusty or has an odor. It is hardly likely that it is dangerous, but it does not taste very good.

The thermos is probably used for brewing medicinal herbs, which older people in Russia use along with other alternative medical preparations; herbal mixtures are sold in pharmacies. We can assume that when Nina Vasilievna is feeling ill, she uses the electric teakettle to make herself tea without having to leave the room. We can assume that both the tea kettle at the far end of the table and the jug as well are used for water. Water might be brought from the kitchen in the jug, then poured into the filter, and then used in the electric tea kettle.

A word about the bowl with the pieces of bread in it. Drying pieces of stale bread to make "sukhari" is characteristic of people who lived through the Siege. Survivors of the Siege and their families have a special attitude toward bread; they do not throw it out. Black bread was the basis of food rations during the Siege. Nina Vasilievna doesn't throw out pieces of stale bread. She moistens them, making a kind of wet cereal that she feeds to birds when she goes out for a walk.

The enamelled teakettle resting on a wire trivet was recently brought in from the kitchen, as we can surmise by the rag—a potholder—wrapped around it. Another piece of cloth, used to wipe off crumbs, is right there on the table. In the plastic bag on the right is a baguette.

The pots we see on the table have been brought in from the kitchen. In a communal apartment, food is usually put onto plates in people's rooms. At the same time, cooked food can remain in pots and frying pans in the kitchen, sometimes in cabinets built for that purpose, sometimes on shelves between double windows; it can also be brought into the room and put in the refrigerator. In large apartments, refrigerators are usually kept in people's rooms, rather than in the kitchen. Nina Vasilievna's refrigerator is not plugged in (we can see the plug).

The television is not plugged in either. The same is true of the teakettle (although it is possible that it is a very simple one without an on-off switch, so that its plug has to be pulled out every time it is used). There may be rational explanations for the disconnected plugs, but it is possible that other considerations are at play here: for example, a superstitious fear of fire. And that fear might be more powerful than the need for a refrigerator. Perhaps Anna Matveevna and Nina Vasilievna share the refrigerator in Anna Matveevna's room, thereby saving on electricity.

On top of the refrigerator is a television, in front of which is a greeting card, probably sent to Nina Vasilievna in honor of one of the spring holidays (International Women's Day on March 8, The Day of International Solidarity with Working People on May 1, and Victory Day for World War II, which in Russia is celebrated on May 9). Nina Vasilievna keeps her cards in an album.

Judging by its design, the lamp with its green lampshade and tassels dates from the 1920s. Nina Vasilievna tries to make her surroundings pretty: behind the lamp we see daisies and pussy willow branches in a vase, and there are flowers in a jar on the right hand side of the table. Willow branches, which we see both here and in other places, have been blessed in church. On the holiday called Willow Sunday, a week before Easter, Orthodox Christians mark the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem. The willow branches with their buds are the symbolic substitution for the palm branches with which, according to tradition, people greeted Jesus. Pussy willows are usually bought by the entrances to churches. During services they are sprinkled with holy water. The branches are kept for an entire year, often in back of icons. They protect the home and promote good health.

The white enamelled bowl at the center of the table looks like it is many decades old. It is so worn at the edge the enamel is gone.

The electric teakettle and the water-filtering container are the two objects that bear the mark of the post-perestroika era. In all other respects, the table belongs to an era twenty-five or thirty years earlier. Except, perhaps, for the baguette, which would not have been sold sliced and in a plastic bag.

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