A room and a half or even less

Going back to Kirsten Ghodsee’s New York Times article, Why Women Had Better Sex Under Socialism. It was probably a Times editor who came up with the title. As I’ve tried to explain, it’s a complicated subject that cannot be summed up in two words and requires differentiating by country, province and socioeconomic class (which did not disappear under socialism). As for the former USSR, any discussion of people’s private lives, including sex, risks slipping into irrelevance unless the infamously cramped housing is brought into the picture.

I would suggest Joseph Brodsky’s 1986 essay, In a Room and a Half, to get an idea of the communal apartments typical of post-WWII Soviet cities (Leningrad in Brodsky’s case). The essay is still behind a paywall but it’s probably worth paying for. You can read a Russian translation for free. You can also watch Andrei Khrzhanovsky’s 2009 pseudo-biopic, A Room and a Half, or a Sentimental Journey to the Old Country. I haven’t seen it but Alisa Freyndlikh (Freundlich) and Sergei Yursky, who play Joseph’s parents in the film, are both exceptionally gifted and accomplished theater actors. I’m also certain that Khrzhanovsky’s movie depicts the typical communal apartment faithfully.

If you wish to fast forward from the 1950s to Brezhnev years, 1964-82 or more loosely 1964-85, consider Yuri Trifonov’s 1969 novella The Exchange. The protagonist, Victor Dmitriyev, his wife Yelena (Lena), and their 10- or 12-year-old daughter all live in a room in a communal apartment. Pressured by his wife, Dmitriyev sells his soul to the devil, more or less, to move them into a separate flat. The two paragraphs below, from The Exchange, should provide some helpful context to the better sex under socialism debate:

They stopped talking and listened. Everything was quiet. Their daughter was sleeping behind the room divider, in the corner. Also behind the divider stood the daughter’s small desk where she did her homework in the evening. Dmitriyev had made a bookshelf and hung it above the small desk, and had laid the wiring for a desk lamp, setting up a separate roomlet behind the divider – a “solitary” as the family called it. Dmitriyev and Lena slept on a wide sofa bed made in Czechoslovakia, luckily bought three years earlier, an object of their friends’ envy. The sofa stood by the window, separated from the “solitary” by an oakwood cupboard…

In the evenings, reclining themselves on their Czechoslovak bed – which had turned out not so solid, soon going loose and creaking with every movement – Dmitriyev and Lena would listen up to every sound from behind the partition, for a long time, trying to determine if their daughter had fallen asleep or not. Dmitriyev would call in a half-whisper: “Natasha? Hey, Natasha?” Lena would tiptoe up and look in through a slit in the divider.

A side note, a follow-up as it were to Erik McDonald‘s recent posts on Muireann Maguire’s review of new English translations of Tolstoy. The third sentence in the excerpt above – “Their daughter was sleeping…” – refers, no doubt, to the moment when Dmitriyev and his wife stopped arguing to check if they hadn’t just woken up their daughter. The continuous tense is in order. However, one can also read it, in the original Russian, as a general statement: their daughter always slept behind the screen, not only that night. That would require the simple present in English. This seems a special case of the generic difficulty of translating from languages lacking the present progressive tense.


  1. I have the DVD of the film but I haven’t seen it for a while. It covers pretty much the whole of Brodsky’s life from WW2 onwards, focusing on his relationship with his parents and the cruelty of their separation from him when he went into exile. It ends with the poet’s imaginary return to St Petersburg in the 1990s. It’s inventive and uses a range of techniques, including whimsical animation sequences to illustrate Brodsky’s childhood fantasies. The episode where the teenage Brodsky tries to build a wall of books and other objects in the flat to give himself more privacy is played as realistic comedy.

    Khrzhanovsky’s name reminds me of the writer Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, whose fantasy story “Kvadraturin” is about Moscow’s cramped communal flats in the 1920s.

    • “Kvadraturin” is probably the best known of Krzhizhanovsky’s short stories, although they have never been widely read. The literati (and sci-fi fans) acknowledge Krzhizhanovsky as a first-rate, must-read author.

      A few years ago, Andrei Khrzhanovsky shot a film series on the life of Lev Landau with the conductor Theodor Currentzis playing “Dau” but it seems the film is stuck in post-production.

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