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
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
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.
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))
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”.
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!
© 2016 Tatiana Golubeva. All rights reserved.