Life in a Russian home

One of the biggest factors in Moscow’s high cost of living is the cost of rent, which can easily be anywhere from $2000 to $3500 for foreign residents. After the fall of communism many citizens received ownership of their apartments which had formerly been owned by the state or their employer.  This allows many Muscovites to live rent free and pay only building maintenance and the utilities.

So, do you really need to pay high rates for rent? No, especially not after becoming acclimated to the area and conversant in the language you’ll discover legitimate rentals, just as nice, for half those rates.

The Soviet policy of providing mandatory housing for every citizen and the rapid growth of the city during these times led to the construction of enormous, plain housing blocks. Many of these buildings have been poorly maintained and are fairly unattractive in both style and function.

See our section on Lodging and Restaurants for excellent sources on apartment rentals. The concept of “single homes” per family is not something easily found in Russia. Under the old Soviet system everyone was housed in apartments that were amazingly similar.

The idea of your own “personal space” was considered anti-revolutionary and Soviet authorities worked hard to make life to be the same from block to block, city to city. Suffice it to say that you’ll live, like everyone else, in a large apartment building…and probably not as nice as the new houses in the next photo:

Apts 4

Russian apartments are quite small on the inside. As Russians don’t count the kitchen and bath areas as “rooms,” you must get used to how apartments are listed. A 2 room apartment for example is an apartment with a kitchen, bath area, and 2 rooms for living/sleeping. Thats right, you don’t get a separate “living room.” Each of your rooms will be multi-purpose. Usually the largest room in an apartment is considered to be the “living room” by day, dining room in evening, and bedroom at night.

As to that concept of living area by day and bedroom by night, don’t bring bed linens or pillows with you from America. Your sofa by day is your bed at night–and thank goodness Europeans do a much better job of making sofa beds than American sofa makers!

These sofa beds are actually comfy. You’ll sleep well. But your fitted bedsheets from the USA wont’ fit on a fold out sofa bed (thankfully they’re sofa living bestnot the sagging cheap sofa beds you think of back home). Your top sheets will be too wide (forget about king and queen sizes) and unless your pillow cases are square, they won’t fit European pillows either.

Don’t worry, things like linens are easy to purchase here, are of good quality, and generally in designs that are much prettier than you’re used to back home.

This is a very typical living bedroom. Its the living room by day and near the opposite wall is a small table (unseen here) which can be folded over from both ends to create a nice size dining room table. Don’t forget, this room is also the dining room where the family will gather for a meal and you’ll entertain guests in the evenings.

See that cloth loop handle at the front of the sofa? At night just pull that out. It has no sagging box springs, in fact it’s empty underneath because that is where you store your blankets and linens by day. Pull the handle and the sofa moves out to meet the L part of the sofa and form a very comfortable full size bed. In the morning linens are stored underneath and you push the back upright and it becomes a sofa for the daytime.

Russia is a very modern country and 95% of the stuff you bring because someone told you it wasn’t available in Russia will likely be sitting on the shelf of a market just around the corner from your Russian home.

Bathrooms are generally split into two very small separate rooms and usually located near the entry and kitchen. Toilet by itself

The “toilet” (that is the name of the room) is very small, just enough room for one very necessary appliance.

Next door is the “bathroom” which houses only the sink and the tub or shower. Most showers are handheld while standing in the tub.

Tip: Here is one of the rare items you should bring with you. Western shower curtains are usually longer and more convenient (thereby more waterproof) should you decide to take hand showers in your tub.

Entry

Russian entryways can look very rundown yet the apartments inside could be very nice. Often that is done on purpose to foil burglars, etc.

You’d never know that older, yet very nice looking apartments are behind that entry.

So recently we decided to get one of those new electronic locking mechanisms. They’re a tad expensive at first but no more bulk keys, and since most apartments have either double or triple deadbolts, the keys add up in a hurry!

So far, so good and we’re enjoying the installation on a new door of solid wood and then a metal plate covered by an attractive wood veneer , a standard feature of doors here.

The key to Home Sweet Home is a secure and strong door.

Perhaps you didn’t notice but it is a keyless entry system. Instead of carrying around a bulky key ring you must either carry the combination carefully written somewhere in a wallet or committed to memory.

It even has a feature that shuts the system down if someone attempts to enter with the wrong combination–which is how I locked myself out recently. I nearly panicked until remembering that we had set a 5 minute reset, so I sat on the concrete stairs and waited for some minutes to pass after which time I had remembered the correct sequence for our 9 digit combination.

So, how does it work?

Electronic keyless entry door lock.

Part of the mystery is that unless you know how to operate the door, you can’t even enter a combinations. That can be a minus as well for forgetful folk like me. Okay, it is a multiple deadbolt system made by Samsung. There is battery backup and God knows what will happen someday when both the electricity is off and the batteries dead!

The handle only works after the combination has been entered and verified. The little round button below the “Samsung” name is the door bell. Press it and the door chimes. Option: Some units can be programmed to call cell phones when somebody rings the doorbell and can patch into the intercom to find out who is ringing the bell when away from home. We didn’t take that option but it sounds pretty cool.

Next, on the Samsung unit there is a digital screen, visible only after activation to frustrate unwanted visitors. To activate the digital screen with the keypad for combination entry one must press the little silver bar (almost unseen) located between the word SAMSUNG and the round doorbell button. Once the screen is visible then key in the combination, much like dialing a smartphone, and a series of noises and rings lets occupants inside know that the door is about to open as the lock disengages.

The door locks immediately upon shutting after entry. We could set it to lock after 15 or 30 or 60 seconds but we chose the immediate option. If the door doesn’t close properly or is stuck open an alarm sounds. On the door handle you’ll notice metal slits and those are speakers for the intercom. There is an eye peephole standard in the door and in addition to seeing the person ringing, you can use the intercom to find out who is knocking, and why.

The smartest thing I’ve done is keep the number of the installer hidden in my wallet along with the combination because this is modern technology and at some point, I’ll need his help at some weird hour in the middle of the early morning.

Until that time, we’re feeling very secure.

Heating/Plumbing

Government regimented heating can be quite frustrating in older buildings. The heat is turned on a set date in the autumn and turned off on a set date in the spring. Individual temperature is impossible to control. An electric heater is vital to control heat within your apartment.

Hot water can also be affected. In the summer, the hot water is turned off for three weeks while they do maintenance on the pipes. Residents are notified in advance, but it is inconvenient. Some people set-up a small electric water boiler or gas-powered water furnace. Modern houses do not undergo these cuts.

Apt kitchen 1

Electric service

Electricity throughout Russia is 220 volt/50 hz. The plug is the two-pin thin European standard. Bring your own converter as many places within Russia do not carry them.

Water

Costs associated with water consumption are almost always covered by the landlord.

Weather

весна = spring, “vyes-nah”
лето = summer, “leyh-tah”
осень = autumn, “OH-sen”
зима = winter, “ZEE-mah”

весна = usually arrives in April or if late in May
лето = late June to early September
осень = the shortest season, autumn comes mid September
зима = the first snows can come in late September but usually late October

Telephone Service

To call Russia, the country code is 7. Moscow’s area code is 095. To dial Moscow from outside of the country you must dial 7095 and then the individual number. Other area codes within Russia:

St. Petersburg 812

Novobirsk 383

Novgorod 831

Yekaterinburg 343

Vladivostok 423

If you are within Russia, you must dial 8 and wait for a second dial tone. Then dial 58, the country code, city code and telephone number. For example:
To dial the US: 8 58 1 + Area Code + Telephone Number
To dial England: 8 58 44 + Area Code + Telephone Number

For more information on how to dial and phone codes, forum.expat.ru/s_dialing_codes.

There are public, card-operated phones of the entrance halls of Moscow’s Metro stations. The cards are available in cashier windows at the Metro stations or at post offices. The credit left on the cards is shown on the phone’s digital display. You may also call from post offices, where an operator will connect you to the required number. It is always cheaper to call on weekends, international holidays, and weekday nights.

Television/Cable Service

There are several major cable and satellite TV operators in Moscow. There is a standard package of international channels (CNN, Euronews, Discovery, Eurosport, and MTV), as well as local channels. Some providers offer films upon demand, and all have a feature that allows to watch TV either in original language or in Russian. Usually there’s no long-term contracts and you can pay your bills through a bank.

Comcor-TV
Antenna, not all areas are well covered
Internet: www.comcor-tv.ru
Telephone: (095) 231-3333
Offers: 17 foreign channels for $13,4 / month, 10 channels for $9.1 / month, additionally internet packages for $33 / month (unlimited 256/128) or $15 / month (200Mb, 64/64) can be purchased. Installation fees vary from $20 to $50. They speak English.

Kosmos-TV Antenna, good coverage
Internet: www.kosmos-tv.ru
Telephone: (095) 730-0000
Offers: 23 foreign channels for $20 / month, installation fees start at $100. They speak English.

Divo TV Through a standard TV cable, simple installation, not all areas in Moscow are covered yet
Internet: www.divotv.ru
Telephone: (095) 787-0000
Offers: Installation fees are from $79 to $129, 21 channel package costs $10 / month, 32 channel package costs $18 / month. Film-on-demand feature is $2 one-time fee.

NTV Plus Satellite dish, available in all of Russia
Internet: www.ntvplus.ru/calculator
Telephone: (095) 755-5545
Offers: 40 channels (including Russian ones) for 19$ / month

See this link if you need more TV/Satellite options.

Internet access is fairly accessible within Moscow. There are various providers and speeds of internet connection available.

Dial-up: Though slow, this connection can be very easy to set-up. If you have a computer and a modem, you can purchase an internet card from one of the many Moscow providers. Usually the cards are for $5, $10, $20, $50, you should login (as a guest) on the server of the provider and type in the serial number and the code of your card, and after that you can start using the internet.

Providers

MTU (dialup.mtu.ru), you can buy their internet card (sold almost everywhere, a card for $5, $10 or $50), one hour costs from $0.3 to $1.

Russia-on-Line (www.online.ru) is also one of the biggest providers and you can buy their card everywhere, they also provide access numbers in most Russian cities (1 hour $0.9).

High Speed Internet
LAN- Prices are comparable and service can be very fast (1Mb/sec), but there are connectivity issues.

ADSL (Broadband) - Almost as fast as LAN and also affordable. Installation can take around 2 weeks. Best for businesses. Guaranteed to have English-speaking operators. (Provides: MTU-Intel, Comstar (tel. (095) 956-0000), Combellga (tel. (095) 931-9950).

Stream - An excellent new source for home use. They offer 1GB for $30 / month, the connection speed is up to 1024 Kbit / sec, the setup costs wouldn’t be more than $100 (including equipment), and there’s no long-term commitments and you can pay your bills through the bank.

Some Cable TV providers offer internet in addition to their TV packages. Guaranteed to have English-speaking operators (Providers: Comcor-TV (tel.: (095) 231-3333) offers two options, $33 / month unlimited traffic at 256/128 kbit speed or $15 / month 200 Mb traffic at 64/64 speed; Kosmos-TV (tel. (095) 730-0000) Installation may take from 1 day to 1 week).

It costs about US$2500 per month to rent a 1-bedroom apartment and about US$1500 per month for a studio in the centre of Moscow. In the past, landlords have raised prices mercilessly year after year. This is being monitored now and is less likely to happen.

High city prices have driven some residents to cope by staying in dachas (country houses) outside the city and renting out their apartments for much of their time.

Typical prices for 1 person living in the city per month:

Telephone local – 10 EUR

Telephone long distance – 50 EUR

Mobile Telephone (only local calls) – 50 EUR

Internet (6 Mbit DSL – Stream.ru) – 30 EUR

Shopping/Groceries – 400 EUR

Taxi – 180 EUR

Car: Gas/Insurance/Driver – 250 EUR to 1000 EUR

Metro / Subway – 20 EUR

Health Insurance – 230 EUR

Clubbing (4 outings) – 400 EUR

Restaurants/Bars (4 outings) – 200 EUR

Rent – 2500 EUR

These are merely examples as prices vary widely depending on where people live and their individual choices.

BROKER: In general, using a broker is a great idea if you are arranging a rental from out-of-town, or have more money than time. A broker is responsible for finding apartments that fit your criteria and making appointments to fit your schedule. They save you the trouble of filing through expired listings, and “ghost” apartments that have been placed simply to entice to working with an expensive broker. For this convenience, the agency will usually take about 10% commission on the annual rent of the apartment. Rental Agencies work similarly and forum.expat.ru/phonedir offers a list of companies within Moscow.

You can save you thousands to have a good broker so pay attention to reviews by former customers and who recommends a company’s service. Ask your friends and family if they have used a broker they could recommend. If you are employed with a company they may have a broker they work with and you may be able to use them by contacting your human resources department to use the broker your company uses.

The Community Bulletin Board:

LiveJournal abounds and even CraigsList has come to Russia. But one of the easiest ways to look for an advertisement or service is just outside your building’s front door. It is the free community bulletin board.

This is the bulletin board located outside the front door of our apartment building.

ON-LINE LISTING: There are a variety of on-line forums and community listings in which people will list their places or larger companies offer their apartments. Most searches are free and the selection is massive.
Some examples are:

moscow.craigslist.org/apa/,

www.apartmentres.com,

www.apartmentsmoscow.com,

www.expat.ru/realestatelist,

and real-estate-moscow.com/en/arent/moscow-apartments.

CLASSIFIEDS: The Moscow Times offers both a printed classifieds with rental listings and an on-line site.

BULLETIN BOARDS: On college campuses, churches, grocery stores, schools, bus stops and outside community centres there are often boards available for posting local ads. This gives you an idea of the neighbourhood as well as some useful leads on apartments.

A typical one-bedroom apartment is about thirty square meters (323 sq ft), a typical two-bedroom apartment is forty-five square meters (485 sq ft), and a typical three-bedroom apartment is seventy square meters (753 sq ft).

To protect yourself when leasing, it is best to sign a written lease. Always try to read and understand every aspect of the lease because later misunderstandings can be costly. If it is in Russian and your understanding is not clear, get someone to translate the document for you. If your landlord does not provide a lease, here is a sample letter for your landlord to sign in the presence of a Russian notary as part of the expatriate visa registration process in Moscow.

Feel free to ask questions like:
1) How long is the lease?
2) How much is the security deposit?
3) Are utilities included in the rent? If not, how much are they?
4) Are pets allowed?

Communal apartments:

Most Westerners won’t live in one, but it is nice to know about Communal apartments which remain a fixture of Russian life. A communal apartment is just as it sounds, with more than one family living in a single apartment. After the Communist revolution in 1917, the Soviets confiscated large apartments that were owned by Russian nobility and converted them into Коммуналка, communal apartments called “Kommunalkas” to hold multiple families. Today many Russians still live this way, some by choice and some of economic necessity.

Communal neighbors, photo by Aleksandr Hitrov.

In Soviet times apartments were assigned by state authorities in accordance with the standards of living space designed for one individual, regardless of marital status so often 2-3 or even 4 persons ended up living in a room really meant for one person.

My cousin Gherman and his wife Natasha live in a (Коммунальная квартира) communal apartment in the centre of Moscow. Aunt Lyuba lives in a communal, too. Their apartments have big rooms but the common living spaces such as the hallway, kitchen and bathroom are not as spacious as the apartment in the previous video and with just one stove in the kitchen, the 3 families which share Gherman & Natasha’s apartment have kitchen schedules so that each family gets a turn to prepare their own food.

Communal kitchen, photo by Aleksandr Hitrov.

Some things to remember when visiting a communal apartment:

- Be sure to hang your coat or jacket on the correct coat rack. Also, each family may have their own shoe rack for shoes so ask your host where to deposit your shoes when you are given slippers to wear. You’ll be given slippers to wear so make sure to take off your shoes. If you’d like, bring your own slippers as it is okay with most hosts.

- Not only should you wash up with the host family’s soap and dry with their towel, but toilet seats are separate too. Likely your host will have a coloured toilet seat that is different from the other families. It will be hanging on the wall so take it down for use and don’t forget to hang it back on the wall when you’re finished.

- Each door buzzer sounds slightly different so ring the right bell so as to not get your host in hot water with his close neighbors.

- When helping in the kitchen be sure to use the correct stove and refrigerator. In some smaller apartments those appliances are shared with neighbors. Cousin Gherman & Natasha also have a separate refrigerator in their bedroom in addition to the one shelf they are allotted in the communal kitchen fridge.

Perhaps you’re wondering about privacy?

You’re kidding, right?

Next question is likely about utilities. Who pays what and how is it determined?

Electricity for example can be calculated in several ways. Some communal apartments have one meter and each family pays their “share” based on the number of rooms they have (some families have more than one bedroom) and the number of persons in the family. Most remaining communal apartments have separate meters for each family bedroom and they split the expense of the common areas such as the hallway/entryway, bathroom and kitchen.

Communal shower space, photo by Aleksandr Hitrov.

Most communal bathrooms are split into two very small rooms which allows more than one person to be in the area, yet with maximum privacy. The first half of the bathroom area is the toilet–pretty obvious as to the use. Hardly larger than a telephone booth the only thing in the room is the toilet commode itself. The other half is a small separate but adjoining room called the bathroom, or Ванная (van-na-ya).  Also small, this room has a sink and a bathtub and that is all. Some older style bathrooms (as seen above) have just a shower and the sink is in a hallway near the bathroom.

Communal living room by day/bedroom by night for one family.

There is an excellent presentation of communal living by Colgate University at this site: http://kommunalka.colgate.edu/cfm/v_tours.cfm?ClipID=234&TourID=10

Drop-down menus at the bottom of each video allow you to move to the next short video in the series which is hosted by Professor Ilya Utekhin, an anthropologist from European University in St. Petersburg, who lived in the building for over 30 years. Today he and his family live elsewhere, but one of the rooms in a fifth-floor apartment still belongs to him. Ilya’s book, Studies in Communal Living, is the basis for this video tour.


7 Responses to “Life in a Russian home”

  1. Extremely interesting and very well documented. It has all the answers I was looking for. I was a turist in Russia almost a year ago and got enchanted by their culture. Congratulations for your site.

  2. This is fasinating!
    I never ever tought , people still living in that kind of condition in Russia…..

  3. I am doing a report. This was very helpful, especially your pictures.

  4. Oh god, I have a new respect and sympathy for Russians. Communal living looks like pure torture. I feel so bad for people who must live like this. No living space, and having to give up privacy, individuality, and even sharing a tiny toilet? How truly awful.

    • Hi Jackie, newer apartments are not shared with other families but the space still is small compared to most Western homes. During Soviet times it was the denial of individuality that was a government policy to force uniformity.

    • Well, honestly living in russia isnt that horrid… You just have to get used to the conditions

      • Actually it isn’t bad at all but a matter of perspective to be sure. :-)

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