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Soviet Real Life

Private ownership inspires a decorative revolution at home.

Soviet Real Life. House & Garden, June 1991.

In the spring of 1988, I met for the first time two extraordinary Moscow women, one a photographer and the other a conceptualist painter. Both of them lived in conditions of squalor that surpass the imagination of most Westerners. The painter was in a squat in a condemned building where the walls were literally falling down. Rats ran through the place by day and by night; there was hot water in only one of twenty-eight apartments in her building so that all the residents shared a single tub; she had no kitchen and made do with a single hot plate that never became warm enough to boil water. The photographer lived in what had once been a rather grand apartment in which she and a few randomly selected others had each been assigned a single room by the state; they shared a bathroom and kitchen. In the dark hallway, an unbearable stench hung like a curtain.

Just before Christmas 1990, I had dinner in Moscow with these two women. “I have a terrific carpenter,” the photographer told the painter. “If you can get the wood, he’ll do really top-notch built-in shelves and closets for your new apartment. But I’ve been having one hell of a time finding decent furniture.” The painter smiled. “I have a good source for furniture,” she said. “Maybe I’ll come see your apartment sometime next week and you can come and see mine, and we’ll see what we can work out.” The word for reconstruction in Russian is perestroika, and several of my friends in Moscow reported having made some “real perestroika” at home. “And thank God,” one of them said to me, “I’ve got someone better than Gorbachev for the job.”

To understand the attitude toward the home in the pre-Gorbachev USSR, you have to recognize the extent of people’s disdain for their government. There were almost no private residences in the cities of the Soviet Union until glasnost; with the exception of a few cooperative buildings organized largely by unions, apartments were the property of the state. People lived in unbelievably foul conditions because they refused to spend their limited money, time, and energy fixing up state property. I argued the point dozens of times. “If you live here,” I would say, “and will continue to live here for the rest of your life, then surely it’s worth trying to make things more comfortable.” This concept was absolutely lost on most of the people to whom I addressed it. Of course, it is important to bear in mind that getting paint brushes, plumbing supplies, or even household cleansers is not an easy job in the Soviet Union. It could take months of effort and vast expense to paint your walls, or even to scrub properly a filthy room.

People’s relationships to their apartments have been altogether transformed since the Soviet government announced in 1989 that it would sell state-owned apartments to residents who wished to buy them. “If it’s our government,” the smart alecks said, “then they are already our apartments. For us to buy them from ourselves is an absurd business.” Nonetheless, Soviet citizens started inquiring how they might negotiate with the bureaucracy for official ownership.

How to value an apartment that has never before been sold in a country in which there is no market? Official valuers were appointed. Various papers were drawn up to serve as title deeds and evidence of transfer of title, though who would recognize these deeds under what circumstances was anyone’s guess. A rule was instituted that said it was not possible to buy someone else’s apartment – where would the someone else go? – but allowed that if you bought your own apartment, you could then give it to someone else.

Chaos ensued. Official valuers visited those people who wished to buy their own apartments – but of course most people didn’t want to buy their own apartments; most people hated their own apartments. So the trick was to find someone else who would buy his apartment and then give it to you. This was, understandably, a tricky operation. The safest bet was to find people who were leaving the country and get them to buy their apartments and “give” them to you for Western currency that could be transferred to them after their emigration. This was illegal, of course, but it was negotiable.

All these operations fell into the hands of the inescapable Soviet Mafia. I assisted two Moscow friends with the purchase of their apartments. We would meet in an appointed place, and I would be introduced around the room: “This is Ivan, from whom I will buy my apartment, and this is his brother, who has come to witness our transaction, and this is Robert, from the Mafia who will deal with the papers and any complications, and this is Robert’s assistant.”

The price to buy an apartment from the state has been, by Western standards, very very low. Last autumn you could pick up a pretty good apartment for 4,000 rubles, about $200 at the universal black-market exchange rate. The apartment could then be turned over for payment in the West of $5,000 to $8,000 in hard currency, plus payments to the Mafia. Once you have your own apartment, you pay maintenance charges of 5 to 10 rubles a month (25 cents to 50 cents).

All these developments depend on a new wealthy class to whom $200 or $7,000 are affordable sums – a class that includes those painters, architects, designers, and writers who are lionized by the West (and paid in hard currency for their work) as well as the Mafia.

There is a new economy of the home created by these groups. Mafia members have lousy taste; to cater to them, cooperatives have been set up to supply badly made gilded baroque furniture, phony antiques, and fake Western household supplies. But a country in which artists and writers have suddenly become wealthy is a country in which house decoration has a chance to take off. To cater to the intelligentsia, antiques stores have started selling furniture – not available for export – at high ruble prices. One store by the Moscow River has been holding weekly auctions, and these have become more and more popular. Furniture that members of a vanished aristocracy had kept in dachas in the country since the revolution has been brought out of storage, dusted off, and sold. I saw a sale entirely of old clocks, some of them enameled and spectacular in the style of Fabergé. “Who knows where this stuff has come from?” one of the buyers said to me. “People had all kinds of secrets in the Stalin days.”

Contemporary design has also taken off. Yuriy Sluchevekiy is probably the top furniture designer in the USSR. “For years and years,” he told me, “I would design one-off prototypes. The factories would mutilate my designs when they tried to put them into production, and because I had built my prototypes with materials that I could get only from the Stroganov Institute of Design, where I was teaching, they belonged to the state. They would be exhibited and then they would disappear, I assume into official residences. I never saw them again.”

Sluchevskiy’s work shows strong modernist influences, sometimes skillfully reinterpreted and sometimes rendered in awkward pastiches. His designs for wall units, though spare and clean, recall mass-produced American furniture of the late 1960s and ‘70s. But his freestanding pieces mix the spatial delicacy of Josef Hoffmann with the endless spatial conceits of the constructivists, creating effects of depth against what is in fact shallow or conflating the scale of the various elements into a single piece. And Sluchevskiy’s feeling for materials gives his work great clarity.

Now Sluchevskiy is trying to make arrangements with a cooperative to build his designs so he can sell them. He faces various impediments. There are few skilled workmen; materials are in very short supply; and there is no way of advertising that he is in business, no way to inform people of his activity except by word of mouth. Still, Moscow society is used to functioning in terms of word of mouth.

Of course, it is still nearly impossible in the USSR to get a painter to do your walls. Construction supplies are almost unavailable, and most of the buildings are in horrendous structural condition. What could I say to a Moscow friend who asked me where I would begin on his apartment? I would get the plumbing and electrical systems redone; I would pull down the crumbling plaster and have new walls built; I would get the moldings stripped and restored; I would start from scratch with the kitchen and bathrooms; and then I would decorate. “I know someone who can help me to get enough paint to paint two walls of the living room,” he said. “Which two walls would you do to begin with?”

Soviet Real Life. House & Garden, June 1991.