April 8, 2008 Soviet Elevators Are Different

Posted in Rodger's Russia Book | Posted by rodger |

aptblodkIt has to be that there is an old American-hating Communist Party die-hard in the plumbing department. No one else would do such dirty trick. This morning there was hot water – or at least sort of hot water after it ran for 10 or 15 minutes. I got wet and started to soap up when I noticed a drop in the water pressure. Within less than a minute the hot water disappeared and left me with soap in my eyes, holding a cold water spray. Oh, well. At least a cold water rinse isn’t quite as painful as an entire cold water shower.

Soviet elevators are different. Note: that is “Soviet”. New elevators here, as elsewhere, are built by Otis and similar companies and have more brains than the average inner city student. However, my building, like most others with elevators, has soviet elevators.

In a Western elevator, you call the elevator by pushing as button that tells it what direction you want to go in. When the elevator comes, you and all of the other passengers push buttons for the floors that you want and the elevator delivers all of you to the proper floors, stopping to pick up other passengers going in the same direction. When it has delivered all the passengers, it does the same thing in reverse.

As the original Soviet designers must have said, “Who needs such decadent Western nonsense? We don’t waste money on extra buttons! We play ‘find the elevator’!!” On each floor, there is only one button. No capitalist nonsense about which direction you are going. The button is a simple call button and it is “first called, first served”. When the elevator stops, it will start again toward the next button push. It doesn’t matter where you are, how long you have been waiting, or what direction you are going in, NEXT PUSH WINS! Push too soon, you lose. Push too late, you wait.

People wait by the elevator doors, ears pressed to the elevator shaft, listening for the doors to open and close on another floor, and timing their pushes. My wife has learned that if she pushes the elevator button three times slowly starting at the moment the door closes on another floor, she usually wins.

Getting in is the same thing. This is a nine story building and there are eight buttons. There were nine buttons, but in the years since button number 5 broke off, residents of the fifth floor have had a choice of going to the fourth floor and walking up one flight, or going to the sixth floor and walking down the stairs. If there is more than one person in the elevator, everyone asks “what floor?” before any buttons are pushed – because first button wins. The person with the shortest trip pushes first, and when they reach his floor, the next person up pushes for his. If you are going to the second floor and the person ahead of you pushes for nine, have a good trip.

Of course, there isn’t much competition for which button is pushed when you get in, as the elevator is about 3 feet wide by four feet deep, big enough for three good friends to use.

If you purchase furniture, or anything else, that doesn’t fit in the elevator, delivery services charge about one hundred rubles ($4.00) per floor to bring it up. Larisa and I purchased a table one inch too wide to fit into the elevator. It took a long time for a fat man and a cute woman to carry it up nine floors.

I should mention that, with all of the bad things that I have said about this building, this apartment is no longer the standard in Russia. Most are better, and some are a lot worse.

We are living in an “unimproved” apartment. These are getting rarer as Russians make more money. With money, you can have an apartment or house here that would past muster in any California neighborhood. Furniture stores are everywhere and doing a hot business. Two of the most common business signs in Russia are “Mabele” and “Okna”, furniture and windows.

From the bottom up, the worst living is the communal apartment. They’re gone from major centers like Moscow and St. Petersburg as speculators purchased them all and converted them into million dollar multi room apartments, but they still exist here in the smaller cities and towns. You saw these in the American movies of the 50’s and 60’s and, for once, Hollywood got it right. As recently as 1980, twenty percent of the urban population lived in these nightmares.

A communal apartment consists of a kitchen, bathroom and from 4 to 20 individual “apartments” normally consisting of one room apiece. It’s sort of the college dorm from Hell. Your roommates are often full families living in their one room, and no matter how obnoxious, dangerous, or dirty they are, you can’t get them out. They own it as much as you do. I’ve heard a few nightmare tales about drunken and dangerous co-owners that would be a real downer to repeat here.

The best simple picture of what it’s like living in one of these was shown by my wife’s lack of concern when the cheap Chinese toilet seat I bought broke the other day. I went to use the facilities and found the seat leaning on the wall. Larisa normally tells me about such things and asks me to fix them. Turns out that she thought this was perfectly normal, as she lived for a few years in communal apartments. There, she says, everyone has their own toilet seat that they take with them to the bathroom.

These, thankfully, are going away, even here. There are perhaps 3 or 4 large buildings left in Nalchick that are communal apartments. They are mostly inhabited by immigrants and the largest has 20 rooms per apartment.

The next step is what we are in. This is an un-repaired, original format Soviet Apartment. The city owns and supposedly maintains the exterior and hallways, but nothing has been maintained since before the fall of the Soviet Union. Internally, the apartment is solid – plaster walls and wood floors over a concrete structure, but the workmanship and materials are pathetic. The bathroom sink is attached to wall tiles and is slowly falling off, and the bathtub doesn’t drain right because the installer carelessly installed it with the foot about an inch lower than the drain area, and none of the doors or windows works right. The hardware was cheap to begin with and there are now multiple layers of thick paint on every wood surface. Windows don’t lock, doors don’t work right. Originally there were no cabinets on the kitchen walls, and what we have now is scrounged.

These apartments are purchased by two groups of people, those too poor to afford anything else, and speculators attempting to make a profit. We’re in the second group.

The next step up is where most of our friends are. These crappy concrete boxes are sturdy, so people on the way up purchase and gut them. They replace the bathrooms and kitchens with western standard equipment, tear out the windows and doors and replace them with modern equivalents, close in the balconies with insulated walls and hardwood floors, install washing machines and hot water heaters, and end up with modern apartments. It works. Our friend’s 42 inch flat screen television with its two satellite boxes looks just fine in their refurbished apartment, and he runs his business from a professional looking office that sits where the open balcony used to be.

From there, we get into the “New Russian” housing. New apartment buildings all built to Western standards and huge crazily designed houses. No one seems to build a small house and no two people build anything even remotely alike.

You see construction patterns here that are similar to things done America about 100 years ago. Between here and Larisa’s work, the bus passes at least three places where the owners had small 800 or 900 square foot businesses at the sidewalk, and where they are now building 3000-4000 square foot mansions attached to the back of the businesses.

In all cases, there is NO concept of lawn here, so the new mega homes are built right up to the property lines, protected by 6 foot high stainless steel fences with expensive marble trim. The homes are large for a couple of reasons. Just plain old vanity and pride play a large part, but the reaction to the very crowded conditions these people lived in before is also important. Even with all of the building that has been done in recent years, the average housing space per person in Russia is still only 170 square feet, much less than half of what we have in the states. Our apartment is just over 360 square feet and we purchased it from a family of four.

In any case, when you build, square footage is relatively cheap here. The homes are all built from concrete, brick, block, and stainless steel – all cheap commodities in Russia. It’s also real brick or block construction, not a wooden framework with a brick facing and wallboard on the inside like we do in the States. It’s cheap to build, warm in the winter, cool in the summer, and damned near immortal.

Of course, in this newly rich segment of society, homes are built with the same subtle sense of style that effects woman’s clothing. Therefore, the term “garish” often applies to these huge buildings with oversized Greek or Roman columned porches, oddly shaped floor plans and seemingly random roof lines. I know from friends’ experiences that getting a building permit in a Russian city requires that you submit plans drawn by a licensed architect, so I can only surmise that a Russian architectural degree requires both creativity and dyslexia.

Actually, after living in Southern California’s cookie cutter subdivisions, these unique homes are a breath of fresh air, garish or not.

Of course, not everyone is a New Russian. Ira and Uri and a lot of others are still plugging along as Old Russians.

I talked about Cousin Ira and Uri’s house before. Uri works as a prison guard and Ira works in a school. Between them they make about $600 a month. When I first met them about 4 years ago, it was less than $400. Four years ago, they were just moving into their partially completed home. Uri, a little hired help, his family and friends had put the house up for very little money. The land was free, and the house was concrete, concrete block, clay, and a little plaster. All of the rooms were usable, but the only finished room was the kitchen and the bathroom was a little brick house on the end of the walk. As we used to advertise in Indiana, it had a “Path to bath.” If you missed the letter where I described how the house was built, it’s worth asking for a copy.

Bottom line then and now is no mortgage, no financing, and pay as you go. I was out there last weekend and the house is now about 90% done and it looks good. The living room is wallpapered and carpeted and the ceiling there is covered with a foam tile that I have never seen in the states, and wish I could get there. Russian wallpaper, by the way, is much fancier and a lot nicer that any you can get in the States. All of the bedrooms are wallpapered and have rugs or wood floors finished in them. Ira was particularly proud of the new bathroom and laundry rooms. Just a few weekends ago, Uri and Ira’s father tiled the wet rooms and permanently installed the indoor toilet. They did an impressive job and it looks as good as any tile I’ve ever seen.

Of course, there are some strange effects of this pay-as-you go technique. If you walk into the front door of the house, the front foyer and the hallway look like an unfinished concrete cave, and the door trim is still missing from the bedroom doors. You don’t see the nice stuff until you get into one of the rooms. However, I am certain that those areas will look as good as the rest of the place as soon as Uri and Ira can afford the plaster and paint and time. And they will never have to make a mortgage payment.

That’s how you do it on $600 a month.

Think about when you are sweating your house payment.

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