Not Told to Share, Russians Don't

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THE entrance looks abandoned. The doors are battered and the tiles chipped off. The air smells of vodka. People bustle past, their shadows cast upon grafittied walls.

This could be nearly any of thousands of high-rise apartment buildings around Moscow - or almost anywhere in the former Soviet Union.

To visit the apartment of a working Russian physicist, a noted artist, or even a successful businessman, one must first enter a building that gives all the danger signals of the worst housing projects in Miami's Liberty City or Los Angeles's Watts.

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But the signals are mostly wrong. Behind closed doors, many middle-class Russians lead orderly lives with VCRs and computers, while outside their doors lies no man's land.

Despite 70 years of Soviet collectivism - which glorified shared property and scorned the private - today's public spaces have been left in shambles in a rush to gain personal wealth.

A free-for-all rush to capitalism in Russia has eroded any lingering sense of keeping public space neat and clean.

The disheveled hallway, says Yevgeny Pronin, a professor at the Moscow Architectural Institute, ''is our inheritance. What's owned by everyone is owned by no one.''

''It's hostile,'' says Ted Liebman, an American architect working on a World Bank-funded program to develop more livable housing in Russia.

One reason public space is in such bad shape is that Russia is poor. Not far outside Moscow, housing still often lacks indoor plumbing of any kind.

But Russians also blame lazy and corrupt bureaucracies, the anonymity of high-rises, the Russian practice of pouring energy into their weekend dachas, and the Soviet custom of mixing social classes cheek by jowl.

The responsibility for public spaces belongs to municipal agencies. ''They just don't have money,'' says Sergei Sitar, deputy editor of Project Russia, an architectural magazine. Many officials seek bribes from residents for basic services. Several friends of Mr. Sitar have begun to clean the common areas outside their apartments themselves. But this ''rather heroic'' effort was difficult to sustain, he says.

One Russian woman recalls another in her building who decided to clean the hall and stairwell. Instead of nods of appreciation, the industrious woman drew derisive hoots from neighbors.

Part of the problem may lie in the practice, begun under Stalin, of putting families of all backgrounds together, sometimes forcing them to share a kitchen and bathroom. Only the elite escaped being lumped with the lumpen proletariat.

''So an accomplished musician would live with an old alcoholic,'' says Alexander Bevz, director of the Civil Society Foundation in Moscow. The habits and housekeeping of one would drive the other into whatever private space he could claim. The width of a hallway might represent a wide social chasm rather than an extension of personal space.

Prosperous ''new Russians'' still live next door to poor elderly people scratching out sustenance. Communal apartments still house unrelated families together. Often a new light bulb in the landing lasts only a day or two before someone grabs it.

The sheer number of people in one building - up to 1,000 - may contribute to the anonymity. On Professor Pronin's floor, five families in five apartments share one hallway. ''I don't know their names,'' he confesses.

Also, unlike Western apartment buildings that typically have a single entrance, most Russian buildings have as many as 12. These are much harder to monitor by a doorman or concierge.

And the closing of public toilets in Moscow a few years ago has caused what Mr. Bevz calls a ''really serious problem.''

In the 1960s and 1970s, many Russians began forming tenants' associations, a practice adapted from rural collectivism. But these are seldom active today. ''Most people don't want to get involved,'' says Bevz. ''They don't have the time and energy to fight battles.''

For many urban Russians, the apartment is just a place to eat and sleep during the week. Their hearts are in their dachas, where they spend weekends and grow vegetables in garden plots.

Wealthy Russians, who can afford it, now close their buildings' entryways to the public, install a security system, and hire a doorman. The idea of a single, grand entrance is also catching on.

Yet those steps may not solve the problem if vandalism is an inside job. When Mr. Pronin moved into a building for young families, graffiti appeared almost immediately and climbed the walls over the years as the children grew.

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