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dining table from the movie

A Typical Apartment of the Soviet Time

USSR with its planned economy was a strange place to live. Everything was standardized, including residential buildings, apartment plans and furniture. Let’s explore what was the typical apartment like during the Soviet Union time.

Irony Of Fate – The Movie Which Describes It Best

Irony of Fate

Irony of Fate – friends celebrating New Year in the sauna

Lukashin sleeps on the plane

Main character drunk and sleeping on a plane. Cameo of the movie director – guy who sits near him.

On the evening of Dec 31st we always watch the same New Year movie – “Irony of Fate”. We have done that for the last 40 years and this film does not get boring with age. The plot is – a guy plans to celebrate New Year’s Eve with his fiancé in Moscow, but he goes to a sauna (Russian version – “banya”) with friends before that and they all celebrate too much… and in the end send him to St. Petersburg instead of another guy.

He arrives to St. Pete, catches a taxi to his Moscow address, which happens to also exist in St. Pete. He opens the apartment door with his key and it is a same apartment, just in the other city. That may sound crazy to you, but in fact – that could’ve been true. Most cities had streets with similar or equal names, all Soviet apartments did look typical, even the lock could’ve worked. He is still drunk, so he falls asleep on the couch and then the owner of the apartment – a beautiful woman arrives. She is not happy about the stranger, sleeping on her couch in boxers, since she is expecting her fiancé to show up. And from there, it is a comedy of situations for the rest of the movie. We usually watch this movie when we prepare Olivier (“Russian”) salad. Here is the link to the movie if you want to watch it (with English subtitles) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lVpmZnRIMKs&index=1&list=PL9E67823658DBB5CC&spfreload=10

The interior, shown in this movie is a typical interior of the late Soviet Union – the 70s-80s. The main male character probably works in science, the main female character is a teacher in school. So, how come they have identical apartments in different cities?

Typical Buildings In Typical Surroundings

Typical buildings

Typical buildings in “sleeping districts”

From my earlier post, you have seen that there were just several types of residential buildings and all “sleeping districts” were planned the same. Apartment plans in these buildings were also approved at the state level. Yes, there was a small coincidence – that both families had the same (2 room?) apartment, but the social status of main characters is very similar, so that makes sense too.

Soviet kitchen from the movie

Soviet kitchen from the movie

Typical soviet apartment started with a corridor, which had coat hangers, shoe racks and a mirror. Bathroom (or bathroom and WC) were accessible from the corridor. There were no master bathrooms with access from a bedroom and a typical apartment had just one bathroom. Kitchen was always small – 5-6 square meters, even though kitchen usually was the center of the apartment and guests were typically entertained in the kitchen and not in the living room. The main living room was usually the biggest one – about 20 square meters, other rooms (if they existed) were 11-14 square meters. If the number of rooms was less than the number of people, living in the apartment, somebody was always sleeping on a sofa in a living room. There was typically a small balcony, which was mostly used as storage.  Apartments without furniture did look same inside and outside. But how could they select the same furniture? That does not sound believable!

Typical Furniture And How to Get It

I know. In the modern world, where there is rather a paradox of choice than no choice, it is not possible for two different families to choose the same set of furniture. But we are talking about Soviet time, a time of deficit of everything. I wrote about deficit before. Deficit is when you go to a furniture store and there is no furniture there. Or, you really do not like the furniture that they have and search for better options. Better options were also scarce. Soviet people were not spoiled by either luxury or variety. They had a choice between Soviet made furniture, which was not good and Czech or GDR (East Germany, German Democratic Republic) furniture, which was more or less decent. The latter was not available in store every day, but if you are lucky or have patience to stay in long lines or have “connections” in the furniture store – you could score a good set of furniture. That was exactly what most people tried to do. Imported furniture was more expensive, but that was not the main obstacle. People had money. The goal was to get access to the desired item. (Now you understand why there was no need for my current profession – marketing at that time))

"Stenka" in the movie

“Stenka” in the movie – at the background

The most significant object of wish was a furniture piece, called “stenka”. Stenka means “the wall”. It is a wall of cabinets and dressers that you mount in your living room. A stenka was quite practical – it usually included a dresser where you could hang your clothes and a set of open and closed cabinets, where you could store things. Some of the cabinets had glass doors – you would store crystal glasses and/or books in these cabinets. (both were deficit as well). Best “furniture walls” were made in GDR, they had lacquered doors with or without decorations and were uber-chic! Both of the apartments in the movie had “stenkas”.

dining table from the movie

Dining table, surfaced for a special occasion. Uncomfortable situation – both guys have no appetite.

Then you hunt for a good sofa, a good set of arm-chairs and a table. Many apartments, including apartment of my parents had a glass coffee table for everyday use and a dining table, which surfaced only for special events (such as the New Year’s Eve) and spent most of its life disassembled, hidden between stenka and the wall of the room. You also hunt for a good set of kitchen furniture (having a “soft corner” – a corner mini-sofa and a table was best!). You hunt for a Czech set of coat hangers and Yugoslavian bathroom equipment (if it is not white, but blue or beige – even more chic!).

After you are done with that – you do work on decorations. Lamps, rugs (often one rug will be on the floor in the living room and the other one will be attached to the wall), and accessories. I guess by that point, I do not need to explain that there was not much variety in these either, right?

In the end – if we hunt well – our apartment is super-chic and it does look super-similar to thousands of other “well-furnished” typical apartments.

Did That Make People Depressed?

No, absolutely not. On the contrary – that made life easier! Buying something that was difficult to get was a major source of happiness. And you had a clear view – what you need to have to “live well”. Now it is much more difficult, since the Joneses, living next door may make 10x more than you do and may have seriously better furniture than you do as a result of their income. Nobody likes that. Life was more fair during Soviet time, or at least, it was perceived as being more fair.

There are two possible directions from this point. I can either continue in a chronological order and tell you what happened when all the furniture in the world (and all renovation techniques) became available and how that changed the interior of a typical apartment. Or I can first answer another question – why did people attach rugs to the walls? Lets try to work in a hyper-text mode. Tell me, which topic I should write about first? (preferably – comment below, but you can also send me an email). Looking forward to hearing from you! 

Leave a Reply

  • Juan Andrés - 3 years ago

    Go first on the first topic! (what happened when all the furniture in the world (and all renovation techniques) became available and how that changed the interior of a typical apartment).

  • Mary - 3 years ago

    I would be curious to know why people attached rugs to the walls. By the way, I love the blog and read it all the time. Thank you for providing such informative yet entertaining articles!

    • Gil - 1 year ago

      Because it helps insulate the walls and keep the room warm. :)

      • Tanya Golubeva - 1 year ago

        True, true :-) But it was more than that – carpets were also status symbols!

  • Oleg - 3 years ago

    Really great article, Tatiana!

    I particularly relate to your remark that these difficulties were actually not depressing people. That reminds me of book by Sheena Iyengar from Columbia University called “The Art of Choosing”. Author made detailed research in Eastern Europe and actually discovered that people were not happy of abundance of choice that came on them. In fact, many were disappointed as income difference grew as well and it became harder and harder feel yourself as wealthy citizen. So this growth of choices was perceived as actual shrinkage.

    • Jóža Šándor - 3 years ago

      It’s even worse: the abundance of choice might be just illusory. I mean, what’s the point of being able to choose from ten different brands of ketchup when two thirds of them are merely red-colored flavoured corn starch, and the last third is a bunch of Unilever brands inconsistent in both quality and price?

      When the “open market” thing started here in (former) Czechoslovakia 25 years ago, I was happy about it at first, expecting everything will be only better from now on. But 25 years later, I’m actually afraid to buy anything because any product I get could be a fraud. I bought an IKEA shelf last year, and while I never expected it to be made of plywood or even real wood, this one was not even made from proper chipboard: the sides were hollow, filled with corrugated paper! Cleverly disguised, of course, so you wouldn’t know until you’d take it home and attempt to drill a cable hole into the side.

      You know the fairytale in which a prince has to find the real princess among a bunch of identical mirror images? This is exactly the same, except one can’t be sure the princess is even present at all. Instead of furniture, food, clothing, appliances, they are selling us mere *simulacra* of furniture, food, clothing and appliances. Hollow mirror images. It’s like no producer cares about serving the people anymore; if they could get away with selling empty boxes for the full price, they would just do it, without even a pause.

      My perspective may be a bit skewed, as our living standards during the Soviet era were somewhat higher than Russian ones. Hardly any basic thing was really “deficit” here, except when the supply chain accidentally broke (e.g. one of our two toilet paper factories caught a fire, and we all had to “use” torn newspaper until they fixed it – and long after that, because everybody was hoarding the toilet paper, causing more shortages even though the factory was fixed months ago). Still, sometimes I think I’d actually prefer *less* choice and *limited* availability in exchange for more consistent quality. Having to stand in line doesn’t seem like a high price to me, as long as I can be sure I’m not getting an “empty box” for my money.

  • Luis - 3 years ago

    My vote goes for the first option!

  • Robert - 3 years ago

    Excellent blog!! I have a question about Russian attitudes about family antiques and heirlooms. I am not talking about Faberge or high-end furniture collected by the rich. I was thinking about pre-revolutionary furniture and folk art that was made before the revolution for middle to lower income families. Do Russians collect such pieces, or keep them in their homes? Are they valued pieces, or are they considered “old junk.”

    • Tanya Golubeva - 3 years ago

      Hi Robert!
      Many thanks for your kind words about my blog!
      Antique furniture is very rare in Russian homes. I do not know whether it is because people did throw away the old furniture at some point (considering it “old junk”), or they did not have really beautiful furniture at that time. In my family we have couple of pieces, such as an antique arm-chair, but not much really. My family used to have a fantastic big piano, before I was born,because my grand-grandmother was a musician. But they sold it, when they were moving to another apartment, where it did not fit. People usually do keep smaller things though – porcelain etc. I doubt that these things are expensive, but for the family, they are memorabilia items. Great topic, I will try to research it more!

  • Andrey - 3 years ago

    I watched the movie. It was pretty funny, and Zhenga must be the Soviet version of Woody Allen (they really look similar). I’m glad to see that Soviet fashions from the 1970s look at out-of-date as American fashions from the 1970s. Maybe we aren’t that different after all :)

  • Indraja Gugle - 2 years ago

    Great insightful blog! Starkly opposite to India where there is different structure, furniture and design to be found in each individual state.

  • Anonymous - 7 months ago

    When a westerner is writing something about Soviet Union it is always far from reality. Second sentence: Everything was standardized, including residential buildings, apartment plans and furniture.
    Now tell me wise men what IKEA sells? Answer: standartized furniture for standartized apartments. What is so called Scandinavian aka interior and furniture? the same good old soviet style.
    The thing is that everything what bares the tag soviet is always portaid negatively and the same thing becomes positive or even more stylish and trendy when the key tag “Soviet” is left out.
    I lived in Soviet Union and soviet times were and still remains great age.

  • Albinas - 7 months ago

    When a westerner is writing something about Soviet Union it is always far from reality. Second sentence: Everything was standardized, including residential buildings, apartment plans and furniture.
    Now tell me wise men what IKEA sells? Answer: standartized furniture for standartized apartments. What is so called Scandinavian aka interior and furniture? the same good old soviet style.
    The thing is that everything what bares the tag soviet is always portaid negatively and the same thing becomes positive or even more stylish and trendy when the key tag “Soviet” is left out.
    I lived in Soviet Union and soviet times were and still remains great age.

    • Tanya Golubeva - 7 months ago

      Hello! I am actually a Muscovite, born in Moscow and still live there.
      But it’s a good discussion. IKEA does sell standardized furniture indeed (and my own apartment is almost solely furnished from IKEA).
      The difference is that there is still a very big selection of sofas, tables, chairs etc. And all that is always available and affordable.
      I did not hunt for furniture in Soviet time, because I was a child then, but I remember my mom hunting for the “stenka” – a wall of cabinets, cupboards etc.
      There was not so much variety, hence identical looking apartments. Earlier this year I was in Berlin and visited DDR museum. In this museum there is a typical DDR apartment. It was extremely interesting to see it and, I noticed many familiar things – furniture and decorations. In the Soviet time things that were displayed in this museum apartment were considered to be the most desirable.
      Finally – I don’t think I portray all the things from Soviet time negatively. I am trying to be objective, to share personal stories.
      I also do have some fond memories of my childhood in the Soviet Union. In the same time, I cannot say I would’ve wanted Soviet Union and the Communist system to stay. Why? I am writing to you now from Galapagos islands. If it still were Soviet time, it would be very rare to have an opportunity to travel to such and exotic place. Best, Tanya

    • Tanya Golubeva - 5 months ago

      Hi Albinas,

      I am not sure, whom you call a westener :-)
      I am Russian, born in Moscow and lived most of my life here.
      IKEA does sell standardised furniture, but this company employs great designers and provides ok quality products, that also look modern, at affordable prices.
      The biggest difference from IKEA and “soviet time standartisation” is that in IKEA one has dozens of beds, tables, chairs etc. And you can choose, what works for you. In the Soviet time there was a shortage of supply, and you were lucky to get western goods even if you could afford them.
      I do understand, why you think Soviet Union time was good – first of all – time of our youth is always fondly remembered, secondly – there were positive things in the USSR, I do not doubt that.

      Best,
      Tanya

  • Sergey - 7 months ago

    Nonsense! I am Russian and I live in Moscow since my birth, and I must assure you THOSE ARE NOT typical soviet (or russian) appartments. In almost every case as it comes to movies they use special constructions made for making movies – that’s it. The main reason is that real russian (soviet) appartments are so small that it’s just impossible to make a movie in there. Typical russian flats are extremely small! And God bless you to visit Russia one day and to stay in a typical russian ap!))

    p.s. By the way, on “Typical Buildings In Typical Surroundings” pic four high square buildings standing in a row belong to German embassy territory (DDR back in those days) and were made for especial project. They are kind of luxury diplomatic level and they are great, of course.)) You can trust me ’cause I was born and raise in a next door slam and even studied in school you can see next to those “German houses” as we called them…))

    • Tanya Golubeva - 5 months ago

      Hi Sergey,

      I am also a Russian and a Muscovite. Of course movies are filmed at the studio lots, not in the real apartments.
      But apartments, shown in Soviet films quite accurately reflect how typical Soviet apartments looked like.

      Best,
      Tanya

  • alayna - 5 months ago

    I would love to know more about these russian apartments….