Author Archives: Heejae Park

How Many Rooms Do You Have In Your Apartment?

It was fascinating to read Jane Zavisca’s piece on Housing the New Russia. This reading includes a number of interesting stories, such as the great desire of Russian people to have their own space, Russians’ opinions on house rentals, mortgage, and legal property rights. In addition, it was interesting to see how contemporary Russian people think there were only pluses with regard to housing in the Soviet era and how they feel disappointed in the current housing policy and situation.

However, throughout the reading there was one thing that grabbed my attention. Though it might have seemed trivial to other readers, the expression that the author used to describe the apartments, such as “two-room apartments” or “three-room apartments” piqued my curiosity. For example, on page 107 the author says that “Mikhail was living with his mother in a two-room apartment” and on page 109 “Svelana was living with her children, her mother, and two adult sisters in a four-room house.”

People in the US usually say a “two bedroom apartment” instead of “two-room apartment.” Even if they say two-room apartment, it usually implies two bedrooms plus some kind of communal space, like a living room. It is the same in Korea, too. When we say “three bedroom apartment, it is common to imagine that there are three bedrooms and a living room.

However, in Russia a living room is also regarded as a room (комната) and it is included in the two or three room count.

In fact, it drew my attention because I have an experience regarding this when I was in Russia. It was a basic Russian conversation class with a Russian professor. There were some exercises in the textbook where I had to answer the question, “How many rooms do you have in your apartment?” However, it turned out that I had to add one more room because the living room is also counted! The professor even looked surprised when I asked why the living room is regarded as a separate room in Russia.

However, it actually makes sense because there are many cases in which Russian citizens, who are neither wealthy nor poor, live in apartments which do not have a living room. For example, in the reading on page 108, the author talks about a young couple living with their parents and their child in a two-room apartment, where the grandparents live in one room  and the couple and their baby live in the other. Considering that the author says the couple and in-laws only meet in the corridor and the kitchen, there is no living room in this apartment.

It reminds me of my experience in Novosibirsk, Russia. I rented one of the rooms in a three-room apartment. There was a kitchen that we shared together and a bathroom. However, there was no such space that could be classified as a living room. Of course, there are many better apartments with living rooms in Russia, but I want to emphasize that the apartment I lived in was just an average apartment located near Lenin Square (the center of the city) and the rent was not much cheaper than that of the other apartments in that area. In fact, I paid 8,400 roubles which was equivalent to around 350 dollars, cheap by DC standards but reasonable by Novosibirsk standards.

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                                                                My room in Novosibirsk

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               Apartment that I lived in                                     Apartment door in the winter


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Of course, there is living room in expensive apartments (My friend’s place)  

Considering that there are many apartments without living rooms in Russia, it is understandable to count a living room as a bedroom, since it can provide extra space to an apartment. However, if we think about the Soviet Union period, communal space was always prioritized. How did Russia, which emphasized the communal life style for decades (in the Soviet Union era), not build the living room in average Russian apartments?

Residents in a communal apartment

The answer is simple. As we read in the previous reading, the space that one person can have in Russia was only 7 (?) square feet, which is much smaller than in any other country. In this kind of situation, it might have been a luxury to build living rooms in all the average apartments in Russia.


Photo Credit

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A playground in the apartment complex that I lived in

It just reminded me of the previous class discussion on playgrounds in Russia.

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A metro station in Novosibirsk

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The Importance of Blats in Soviet Everyday Life

This week’s readings covered Soviet and post-Soviet citizens’ various difficulties in everyday life. The materials include people’s trouble in obtaining necessary goods in Soviet era and the emergence of New Russians such as entrepreneurs, who threatened people in the ill-structured market economy due to the rapid privatization after the fall of the Soviet Union. Here, I would like to focus on the difficulties in obtaining food and goods in the late Soviet era and how people reacted to this situation.

Bukovskii, who had been freed from Soviet camp and reached the West (Zurich), shares his instant feeling, “You see, Soviet people spend a great part of their lives in endless cares, how to get hold of, how to obtain, how to dig out the most elementary things. What trickery, what resourcefulness is needed to do things that over here take only five minutes.” (Cited in Humphrey’s article, p. 43)

This represents the clear difference between the capitalist city and socialist city. The life in socialist cities was much harder in terms of obtaining necessary goods. Kotkin describes it well in his book ‘Steeltown.’ In Magnitogorsk in the fall of 1989, there was always a gigantic queue of people waiting for hours in hope to buy sausages or cheese. Kotkin further provides a vivid picture of this, citing one of the customers in the queue, “My friend advised me, get what you can, soon there won’t be any. / Why am I buying so much? Because there will be none.”


(A long queue for food,


(A long queue for food 2,

In the Soviet era, as the centralized economy failed to meet the needs of the people, there were constant shortages of goods, which led to the difficulty for people to obtain even very necessary goods, mainly food. Therefore, many people had to rely on networks of acquaintances, family and friends to obtain goods. As Alison Stenning and Adrian Smith describe in “Domesticating Neo-Liberalism,” in the city Nowa Huta since shopping was commonly characterized as an unrewarding and difficult practice, many households received food produced by friends and family “through friendship we help each other, simply.”

In fact, especially during the Soviet era (and also in post-Socialist era) using networks of acquaintances and back doors were very popular to respond to this situation of having difficulties in obtaining goods. Humphrey very briefly mentions the term “blat” (p.44) and it is a useful term for describing this phenomenon.

Here, I present the definition of blat by Ledeneva, the author of a book “Russia’s Economy of Favours,” which is devoted to the concept of the blat throughout the book. According to Ledeneva, blat is the use of personal networks and informal contacts to obtain goods and services in short supply. In Soviet era, when there were constant food shortages, blat flourished and it became vital to the population and to the functioning of the Soviet system.

This photo is Natalia’s blat network from Ledeneva’s book (p.118). Due to the shortage of goods, she used her blat network to meet her various types of needs from food to having an access to the healthcare clinic. It clearly represents how Soviet people used blat to get things done where it was almost impossible to do so by oneself due to the dysfunctional system.


(A photo from “Russia’s Economy of Favours” by Alena Ledeneva, p. 118)

Similarly, this chart below is a weekly blat chores of a Soviet person from Ledeneva’s book as well. The left-hand column is the list of chores to be accomplished and on the right are the names of the people who helped the author of this blat list to circumvent the immense complexities presented in Moscow by each one. Similar to Natalia, this person used his blat networking to obtain goods.


(A photo from “Russia’s Economy of Favours” by Alena Ledeneva, p. 45)

As I presented, in the Soviet era, blat networking flourished and it was an essential way to get through all the difficulties to get tasks done. However, some people might argue that even though the purpose of blat is to help people, by doing so it deprives others of rations and opportunities. The next person who is waiting to obtain that certain good can be deprived his turn only because he does not have an access to the blat circle. Therefore, it cannot be regarded as only a positive cultural phenomenon.

However, as Ledeneva argued, I believe that blat is kind of white corruption. It is different from just bribery or corruption because decades of centralized economic systems made it almost impossible to obtain goods or food at the needed time. In addition, as you might have noticed in the weekly blat chores above, the author of that blat list rewarded Dostoevsky with a candy and flowers with a bottle, which cannot be considered as bribery. This shows that the network operates “through friendship [as people] help each other, simply.” The blat was how the society worked in that period and it made a positive contribution to the society and people’s lives. When everything was out of stock and it was almost impossible to get done, only the blat allowed individuals to help each other.

Lastly, I would like to end this blog with a cartoon from Ledeneva’s book. The blat was deeply submerged in the life of people in Soviet times. The one man who is packing clothes in the photo does not worry about starting his new life in Moscow because he will have his family (blat network) who can help him obtain permission for him to stay in Moscow. Although blats might have disadvantaged some people out of blat circles, they look like they operated as one of the best few options.

blat image

(A photo from “Russia’s Economy of Favours” by Alena Ledeneva, p. 126)


p.s. Thanks to “Law and Disorder” class by prof. Smith last year!


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How did Stalin build cities?


Bolsheviks seized power after the October revolution and formed the Soviet Union with the dream of constructing the first socialist country in the world. As Stalin took power following the death of Lenin, there was a national plan to build cities, which could realize socialist ideas and utopian dreams. During the early 1930s, a number of cities across the country were built from scratch. Two books, Khrushchev: The Man and his Era by Taubman and Magnetic Mountain by Kotkin describe vividly how the cities were constructed through the eyes of people and their lived experiences.

Although the two stories are set in different cities – Moscow and Magnetagorsk – there are many features that they hold in common. Not only were the cities built in a chaotic and inefficient manner under weak leadership, but the city planning was also aimed towards satisfying and fulfilling the state’s purpose, not the people’s needs.

In the early 1930s, Khrushchev was in charge of supervising the construction of a new metro in Moscow. Kruschev recalls, “When we started building, we had only the vaguest idea of what the job would entail. We were unsophisticated. We thought of a subway as something almost supernatural” (Taubman, p 94). In many cases, not only was there not a single professional staff member, but one department was responsible for supervising hundreds of institutes. Magnitogorsk was not an exception. Staff were often ordered to build barracks just a couple of days before the arrival of approximately 40,000 people. (Kotkin, p 81) Additionally, in Magnitogorsk every amendment to the city design, no matter how ostensibly trivial, ultimately required approval from Moscow, which made city building inefficient and slow.

In addition to the weaknesses of the leadership hierarchy and system, the fact that city planning was aimed towards satisfying the state’s purpose, rather than the people’s needs, was noticeable in both of the two cities. Taubman describes that the metro, which was to be the most expensive construction in Moscow at that time, was not built because the people of Moscow needed it, but because it served larger state purposes. (p 94) Since the metro’s deep tunnels and stations could be used as bomb shelters in wartime, Stalin was excited to show the country’s advancements to the world. On the other hand, constructions, such as housing and sewage services, which were indeed needed for people, were neglected and they lagged badly behind.

московское метро 80 лет назад      Moscow, platform of the Dzerzhinski Square subway station (ca. 1935)

Moscovskaya metro station in 1935


The state’s purpose is the most important factor when it comes to city building in Magnitogorsk as well. However, here, the state’s purpose is more specific and more ideologically-oriented. Turning peasantry and ordinary workers into the new ‘Soviet man’ and initiating collectivization was one of the most important state aims in Stalin’s era during the 1930s. Stalin believed that it could be achieved through massive collective construction projects, such as building dams. According to Stalin, the “Magnitogorsk Dam” was a school where hundreds of youths could become loyal partisans and truly recognize the miracle of Bolshevism through labor. Therefore, “heroes” among workers were decorated, busts of Lenin and Stalin were made, and speeches were given after the dam was completed. The state’s purpose in assimilating the peasantry under the banner of socialism is well reflected in its city planning in Magnitogorsk.

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Concrete dam in Magnitogorsk              a statue in Magnitogorsk

However, again, other constructions, such as housing, sewage, heating, electricity, and other essentials for the population were neglected (p 129). For example, the majority of Magnitogorsk’s inhabitants took up residence in tents and waited their turn to move into one of the hundreds of barracks being built. However, the planned temporary barracks became the predominant form of shelter.

Палатки первостроителей Магнитогорска.

People sleep in tents in Magnitogorsk

Reading Khrushchev: The Man and his Era and Magnetic Mountain reminded me of the piece by Anna Litveiko, who described the Bolshevik revolution as a wonderful holiday and she felt completely free for the first time. (p 50) Litveiko was happy imagining a beautiful life under communism where workers would build a good proletariat life and there would be enormous public buildings, including huge cafeterias, laundromats, day care centers, and kindergartens. However, it seems like the new city planning in Stalin’s era was different from what she had expected.

If Litveiko was one of the people who was excited to move to the new “modern” city of Magnitogorsk (as it was advertised in press), where she was introduced to tent-life and the hard labor conditions. I am wondering how she could have responded. Would she still be happy to do all those things, while still dreaming of a better future? Or would she be disappointed with the new city, turning away from the state’s orders, and earn the label of class enemy? Or… since she was already one of the leaders of the Bolshevik revolutionary movement in the end of her piece, she might work as one of the weak bosses or one of those busy thinking  about how to transform the peasantry into better soviets in order to advance the socialist crusade. Though I have no exact answer for this, one thing I can say is that city building across the country in Stalin’s era was conducted in a chaotic way under weak management, while workers’ basic needs were neglected.



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