Essays > Communal Apartments > "Justice" and the sharing of resources
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How the principle of "justice" applies in the division of resources within a communal apartment.
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Photograph: Chart for calculating various monthly payments.
This chart shows what is owed for electricity, gas, and the telephone. It hangs in the kitchen. Tenants take turns calculating payments and collecting money. [click the picture to read about this]

People who live in a communal apartment comprise a closed group, granted certain resources by the government. This might mean two sinks, three stoves, a 20 square meter kitchen, a telephone, and a toilet. All of these resources have to be shared. There has to be a schedule for the bathroom; space in the kitchen, and the storage room has to be divided. The division must be just, and communal residents understand justice to mean equality.

In addition to dividing communal spaces and allocating times for using the bathroom and telephone, people have to deal with a common electric bill and telephone bill. The part of the electric bill involving communal spaces is apportioned according to the number of persons in each family; payments for the telephone are divided among regular users. When there are repairs or household supplies like a broom or a new telephone are purchased, the cost is also divided. Labor is divided: each person has to be on duty for a certain period of time and perform specific functions for the apartment. There is an endless dividing up of various duties. Guiding all of these allocations is not a preoccupation with money but rather with principle: everyone has to be equal. If one person receives more, this means by definition that everyone else is getting less; if someone puts in less, that person is living at the expense of others. Let's say that somebody's parents come to visit and stay for a week. That means that when it comes time to pay the electricity bill, that person's portion will go up by two shares. Otherwise co-tenants will complain that the visitors were using the light in the toilet at everyone else's expense. Perhaps someone's five-year-old daughter sometimes talks on the phone: shouldn't she be counted when that bill is divided?

The communal group is constantly monitoring, to make sure that everyone's share is equal and everybody is doing his or her part; this is not about telling each other what to do but keeping count of what everyone has done or is doing. To ensure that the principle of equality is realized in daily life, each participant in the group pays close attention not only to his or her own use of communal resources, but also to what the neighbors are up to. Similar close attention is paid to activities that do not involve communal resources. This category includes anything newly received, any purchases you might make, any successes you might enjoy in your life, even the laundry you hang on the line and what you eat for dinner. Attitudes like this lead easily to suspicion and envy.

The idea that the good things in life are apportioned to individuals as each one's "share" or "portion" ("dolya") is an ancient one. It is preserved in the etymology of the Russian words "s-chast'-e" (happiness) and "u-chast'" (one's lot in life), both based on the Russian root "chast'" meaning part or portion. Both imply a fate determined for the individual from above. An individual's happiness is just a part (chast') of the general pie that has been bestowed on the group. In the same way as the government keeps an eye on its citizens, the communal group, in the person of each one of its members, cares that the pieces of this pie are apportioned justly.

The principles of just apportionment under socialism and communism were encapsulated in well-known slogans. The principle of socialism was "from every person according to his ability, to every person according to his labor." The principle of communism changed the second clause: "to every person according to his need." In real communal living, apportionment of good things, like the assignment of housing, did not depend on one's labor, and at the same time was not sufficient to cover everybody's needs. The insistence on equal portions, on equal poverty, was an effective means of avoiding social conflict. Why argue over who is in more of a hurry or who has let who use the bathroom? It's easier to hang up a schedule that gives everyone fifteen minutes.

expand/collapse this text box Further Study
Analytical Studies

Field, Deborah A. (2007). Private Life and Communist Morality in Khrushchev's Russia. NY: Peter Lang.

Fitzpatrick, Sheila (2002). Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times. Oxford: Berg.

Kharkhordin, Oleg (1999). The Individual and the Collective in Russia: A Study of Practices. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Semenova, Victoria (2004). "Equality in poverty: the symbolic meaning of kommunalki in the 1930s- 50s." In On Living through Soviet Russia. Daniel Bertaux, Paul Thompson, and Anna Rotkirch, eds. London: Routledge.

Click the image to see a larger version, uncropped and annotated.
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