Housing stories (Dissertation preface)

Preface to my Ph.D. dissertation “Engaging Neighbors: Housing Strategies and Political Mobilization in Moscow’s Renovation”

I grew up in an old apartment building in Saint Petersburg, where I was taught that good neighbors were quiet neighbors. Bad neighbors had loud parties throughout the night and invited crowds of people who abused alcohol or drugs; they smoked or left trash in the stairwell, parked their cars under someone’s window and left their engine running or blasted music, causing noise and odors to invade the flats facing the courtyard. All these sound and smell invasions were painful for “normal” families. My mom would sometimes count the “normal” flats versus the “abnormal” ones in our building. The balance started shifting in the late 2000s: problematic kommunalkas were gradually transformed into separate flats, and the new owners were people whose economic well-being allowed them to purchase a flat.

I always enjoyed my mom’s recounting the trajectories of the apartments in our building; stories about neighbors “receiving” and exchanging flats, going to great lengths to improve their housing conditions, and about acquaintances whose spouses turned out to be propiska predators – they married to get the official registration in the city. All these stories were about accumulation or losses, about gaining an advantage or losing it. My family was lucky: in the 1960s, my strategic and proactive grandmother made sure that her family received a room in a communal apartment in a good part of the city, in a decent building. This room became a foundation of our family’s housing well-being: before the USSR collapsed, my parents participated in the program aimed at eliminating communal apartments. As their neighbors moved out to new flats in other parts of the city, my parents’ status of life-long residents of Saint Petersburg entitled them to claim the emptying rooms for free. By the beginning of the 1990s, they had accumulated the whole flat. The timing worked well for us: after the country transitioned to market capitalism, the only way to acquire neighbors’ rooms in a communal apartment was to buy them.

My family benefitted from the socialist-era housing policies and achieved a separate apartment. In the 2000s, we privatized it. But throughout my childhood, I remember my parents discussing that someone could come and relocate us (nas rasselyat). They would not perform any expensive repairs in the apartment. “We’d spend money – and the next week they would relocate us.” First, they said it with hope, and since the past decade or so – with fear. Over time, the building received the much-needed repairs, a small but reliable community of active neighbors emerged, and we valued our current home more and more as the prospect of getting a better apartment after a possible relocation diminished.

Having this experience of living under the Damocles’ sword of a possible relocation, I took it personally when Renovation created this reality for so many Muscovites. Most of them still don’t know whether or when their relocations will take place. They have to live with this uncertainty, not knowing whether it’s worth it to invest in improving their homes. When I was preparing for my first fieldwork visit to Moscow, I asked a Muscovite friend for advice. She was happy to help but laughed: “I already have an answer for you! Those who renovated their flats oppose Renovation, those who did not – support it!” It sounded sensible, but I knew that the reasons for renovating or not renovating one’s apartment could vary. Some people did not have the money for renovations; others might have lived in anticipation of relocations for decades and were reluctant to invest in something that might be taken from them tomorrow.

Coming from a different city, I could still recognize many sentiments of my interlocutors in Moscow. It was also clear to me that Moscow was a traditional experimental ground for policies and innovations, the good ones and the bad ones, that could eventually travel to other regions of the country. Muscovites get everything first.

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Posted in Dissertating, Housing

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