Justice & Equality
Exploration of Human Nature Through Rituals
Text by Ujal Gorchu
"Nearly allied to the idea of impartiality, is that of equality; which often enters as a component part both into the conception of justice and into the practice of it, and, in the eyes of many persons, constitutes its essence." 1
John Stuart Mill
As Stuart Mill noted more than 150 years ago, we tend to have a hard time defining the relationship between justice and equality, and it is still the case now. In most capitalist societies, equality is seen as having equal rights and opportunities. How people use these assets, though, is completely up to them. So ultimately, equality does not mean sameness or equal outcome. However, this is not the only way these terms have been related to each other, and the differences in interpretation usually stem from different understandings of human nature. In communism, one could hardly differentiate between justice, equality and sameness. The notion of justice was built upon the idea of equal redistribution of wealth, and in order to sustain justice, this paradigm had to be maintained. This kind of ideology constitutes the way we deal with national problems but also forms our day-to-day habits. What this essay will dwell on is the way Leninist ideology and understanding of human nature related concepts of justice and sameness and how it formed the collective identity of the Soviet people. There are many ways to tackle this issue, however, one of the fascinating phenomena is how these communist paradigms and ideologies shaped the domestic rituals in Soviet communes—коммуналка [kommunalka]—as incarnations of distinct local belief systems.
In a broad sense, rituals are behavioral patterns that are used to reinforce a specific belief system shared in a given society. They tend to be organic or externally imposed and almost always start as tools serving an end goal. However, as we will see with the kommunalkas, sometimes rituals stop being mere tools and become an end in themselves. Rituals go through their metamorphosis, and some of them die without ever becoming prominent while others become independent cornerstones of collective identity.
The idea of the kommunalka is pretty simple: After the 1917 revolution, Bolsheviks, facing a housing shortage, confiscated huge apartments that belonged to the former Russian bourgeoisie and reconfigured them into smaller units redistributing them among the working class, who could only afford to live in the outskirts before the revolution. This, in turn, created demographically diverse groups of several families (up to ten families at times) living together and sharing amenities like bathrooms, kitchens, and circulation spaces. For someone living in the West, this would have sounded like madness, but ironically after almost a hundred years, it is kommunalkas, rebranded as “co-living” spaces in Europe and the U.S.A, that are reaching a noteworthy height of fashionability within the context of contemporary architectural and social utopias.
In theory, the “equality” in resource distribution observed in the kommunalkas was meant to free people from their greedy, materialistic instincts and encourage a more collective spirit. Heyran Gorchu, who spent a considerable part of her adult live in USSR recalls:
So how were the rituals based on conformity manifested in the built environment of kommunalkas?
One encounters the first signs of this even before entering the kommunalka. The door is populated with self-made doorbells that belong to each of the residents. Sometimes though, instead of having separate ones, the doorbell is shared between several people, in which case a different protocol emerges. Ring once for Alexey in room number one, twice for Akhmed in number two, three times for Daria, etc. One can imagine having a guest-friendly neighbor living in room number six.
Then, one had to proceed through a long corridor, littered with old cabinets embedded in the wall, some chairs, bicycles, garments, knots, and bales of old wrapping paper hanging on the walls. The corridor is a place for all and a place for no one. Since it was rarely lit, nobody dared to walk to the bathroom that was at the end of the corridor at night, and everybody used specific vessels to satisfy their bathroom needs. The fun part began in the morning when those families all had to use the bathroom to empty their vessels and bladders. Using the bathroom was a particular ritual because residents had to negotiate and agree upon a schedule for the bathroom in terms of who will use the bathroom at what hours and for how long based on their working schedules. Even though most residents tried to be considerate, there would always be an elderly person whose main joy in life would be to play the “bad cop.”
"Living conditions were not the best, but you could not complain because it was not about the individual, but about the nation. The nation had a big agenda, and we all were tiny workers doing our best to make the far-fetched dreams come true. When you are subjected to the national propaganda for that long, one of the two things happens: you either start believing in the things that once seemed absurd or you just learn to go on with your daily life in partial apathy." 2
The commune was a particular type of a family, everyone knew everything about others, and nobody shied away from articulating their dissatisfaction when necessary. When you failed to stick to the bathroom routine, others made sure to remind you that “the bathroom is not for enjoying it.”
Calculation of maintenance expenses was an exciting part of the commune life as well. Since the bill was prescribed to the whole commune, representatives of families would periodically get together in order to decide on quotas. Some things were more straightforward, like splitting the electricity bill between everybody in the house. "But what if someone had an iron and they cook pancakes on them?"3 Ilya Utekhin, professor at the Faculty of Anthropology at the European University of St. Petersburg asks jokingly. Then, the rituals of negotiation became more subjective and rules were bent if the commune as a whole fancied the person.
Kommunalkas had a high density of social interactions, and despite a certain romantic and utopian appeal among architects today, this tightly knit social fabric had its panoptic implications. Everyone was constantly on a stage and under a spotlight. Everyone was a part of this play, both as an actor and as a spectator. It was almost impossible to readjust to a kommunalka lifestyle later on in life. For people moving into the kommunalkas, it was hell on earth, while others that were fortunate enough to be born and raised there tended to gradually develop a specific type of immunity in order to stay sane throughout the decades.
Kommunalkas were initially meant to be temporary solutions while the government dealt with more significant issues. So in the end, all of the rituals described earlier, revolved around a grand cause: a far fetched goal that was never attained. This is also one of the reasons why people living in the kommunalkas barely complained about the horrible living conditions but once the “big promise” was gone most of the people did not have a hard time moving on.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, most of the rituals coined with kommunalkas were forgotten, however, it would be naive to call it a failed experiment as kommunalkas were complex social fabrics that involved numerous agents and agencies intertwined in ways we still do not understand holistically. They definitely did not create the exemplary living conditions for Soviet people, and most of the rituals are long forgotten now as they were sustained by idealized promises of better days. However, there are some specific things that can still be observed in Post-USSR societies, Andrei Barbje, an architect from Moscow recalls:
"We would always visit each other’s rooms for small get-togethers on weekends and holidays. It was like a ritual; it still is. It was always customary when you visited to bring a small gift, so it was all very friendly. Living in a kommunalka really shapes you. Before I do something, I always think about whether this will bother someone else. It is about self-control, and learning to take responsibility for your actions from a very young age, simply because you're surrounded by so many people." 4
Most of the people moving to newer high-rises still suffer from alienation simply because they do not know any of their neighbors. The feeling of home, with all of its quirks and imperfections is still something people look back at.
The kommunalka rituals that were meant to support the Soviet idea of justice through equality ended up forming a different dynamic within the community. This dense social fabric created a unique environment for the exploration of different kinds of kinship. While our ancient predecessors intentionally used rituals to create ties of kinship necessary for survival, in the case of kommunalkas these rituals, even though initially designed for something different, led to a subconscious exploration of human nature with all its beauties and horrors.
The Russian poet and Nobel Prize winner Joseph Brodsky, who grew up in a communal apartment in Leningrad, wrote:
"For all of the despicable aspects of this mode of existence, a communal apartment has its redeeming side as well. It bares life to its basics; it strips off any illusions about human nature." 5