Variations of Community: The Kommunalka and Gated Communities

The following was originally presented at the International Summer School “Comparative Research in the Social Sciences: Operationalizations” in Sofia, Bulgaria, September 2004, organized by UNESCO and the International Social Sciences Council. 

For presenting two variations of community, I would like to use asynchronous comparative analysis in order to highlight similarities, differences and ambivalences within the context of (post)modernity. The two types of living arrangements in question here are: 1) the Kommunalka, or communal apartment (in Russian kommunalnaja kvartira, short Kommunalka), which was the prevalent living arrangement in the urban spaces of the Soviet Union,[1] where a number of families lived together in common living quarters sharing a kitchen, toilet and bathroom and 2) gated communities, a widespread phenomenon on the current American real estate landscape,[2] where groups of homeowners share common facilities and are subject to stringent rules and regulations behind walls often protected by security guards. While these two variations of community on different continents, in different cultures, at different times in history with different backgrounds and reasons for existing might at first seem unrelated and thus, unfit for comparison, they do have some common denominators that make comparison a nonetheless interesting and valuable exercise.

The relevant variables for comparing these two types of communities are: common space, common values and goals that unite the community, a common public domain within the physical borders of the living arrangement, common infrastructure and “anonymous” external forces that dictate the moral code of the community. Based on these commonalities, I will briefly introduce both types of communities within their historical setting and in conclusion will analyze them considering their present-day implications. The focus will be on the peculiar sets of rules and regulations that dictate everyday conduct and help establish the psychological and actual physical borders between the public and the private sphere within a living arrangement, ordering personal and social experiences as well as the relationship between the state, society and the individual.

The Peculiar Residential Public Square called “Kommunalka

Immediately after the Russian revolution, in the fall of 1918, kvartirny peredel or the repartition or redistribution of the aristocratic apartments and manor houses confiscated by the newly established state began in Petrograd in order to accommodate workers from the surrounding areas that were flooding the city. Initially intended to serve as a temporary solution to the imminent housing crisis, the Bolshevik leadership synchronized its resolution with ideological aspirations, redefining the boundaries between the public and the private sphere and fundamentally changing the spatial structures of housing and with it society. While the post-revolution years of the 20’s were, on the one hand, a high time for dreaming about creating a better society via a collection of socialist communities based on experimentation in culture, religion and egalitarianism, the stark realities of the post-revolutionary economic crisis as well as the lack of concrete plans and resources for the construction of housing projects and the precedence of other paramount tasks in building the newly established Soviet state,[3] on the other hand, gave birth to the Soviet residential public square – a.k.a. the kommunalka. Within this context of economizing resources and simultaneously promoting an ethic of cooperation within a “new mode of existence called ‘communal’ living,”[4] the communal apartment was hailed as an “advanced laboratory of future communism.”[5]

Even though in the 1930s there was a general rhetorical retreat form these socialist ideals of communal living toward the promotion of the family, the kommunalka nonetheless remained the primary living space for a majority of urban Soviet citizens, gaining a status of normalcy in the 40s and 50s and experiencing a great exodus in the 1960s as the Khrushchoby[6] were made available. The communal living arrangements still exist today and act as reminders of the Soviet past, yet for the purposes of this paper I will concentrate on the early phase of the communal apartment, namely the 1920s and early 1930s, which is the time that the complex, intertwined and often contradictory rules of life together in tight communal quarters were codified and later formed the Soviet everyday.

Common Space: The communal apartments greatly varied in size and social make-up, yet the general layout, definition and organization of common space was similar. There could be as little and two and as many as thirteen families that generally shared the minimal living space. Each family, sometimes consisting of two to three generations, was allotted a single room for cohabitation along a dark hallway. Within their “private” space, the families resorted to a great amount of creativity in order to respect each other’s privacy, ranging from symbolic and actual barriers to ad hoc arrangements and fixed schedules. A similar practice was also applied in the common spaces outside of the rooms. At one end of the long, dark corridor the entrance door is generally located and at the other end a telephone, equipped with a telephone table and chair. Following the corridor around the corner from the telephone, the remaining places of common use, i.e., the kitchen, the toilet and the bathroom are usually located.

In such a dense and overwhelming setting of communality that was common during this time,[7] one needed to maintain a separateness in order to distinguish oneself from the others. This need expressed itself, in contrast to what would be assumed in a communal setting, in the complete separation and labeling of everything in common places; hardly anything was shared and everything was claimed by somebody. Even if the items claimed were not useful or broken, they would nonetheless serve as a marker of virtual territory, representative of a person’s right to a private sphere and symbolic of common rules and regulations.[8] In the kitchen, separate tables were used by each family for food preparation, the burners on the stove-tops were assigned and with an extra light switch in the room, one could control a separate light bulb in the toilet, just to name a few examples. Other rules were of practical nature like a cleaning schedule (the number of weeks a family would clean the common areas was equal to the number of family members), timetables for the bathroom and other popular areas regulating traffic and even a sort of Morse code was devised for the doorbell (two short rings for Nadezhda, one short and two long rings for the Kabenchikovs), relieving inhabitants of the decision-making process of whether to answer the door.

Common Public Domain: Before the revolution, the term mesto obshchego pol’zovania (places of common use) was used by the municipal administration to indicate streets, alley ways and other municipal spaces. In the 1920s this term represented the kitchen, toilet, bathroom and corridor of the communal apartment,[9] which had in effect turned into public spaces for random meetings with quasi-strangers and fluid sociability.[10] One could consider the kommunalka an important tool within a sophisticated system of social engineering and control in the Soviet Union and as such, it served as the domestic collective, i.e., as a tool for social and moral control as well as a source for informants.[11] Essentially, the communal apartment was not a place where the individual could retreat to his private space, but rather it was overall a very public space and hence ideologically charged.

Housing emerged as an important arena where the virtual relationship between the state and the individual was defined and staged, either in support or in defiance. Every item, rule and behavior was representative of this relationship. Because it was such a scarce commodity, living space signified power and the entity in control of the living space was thus in power. In the case of the kommunalka, the public sphere changed in accordance with the individuals conducting and, implicitly or explicitly, negotiating the public and private sphere. Here the private and the public are not opposing concepts with concrete borders, but fluid – one determines the other and thus, the two categories are dynamic. Obertreis verified a similar point in her dissertation where she emphasized that the public space in each of the communal apartments had its own dynamic and was determined by inhabitants who used the official political line only when it furthered their own interests.[12] Thus, the public domain in the communal apartments was fragmented, hybrid and polymorphous.

Common Values and ‘Anonymous’ External Forces: With the intent of building Soviet Civilization, official common values were stipulated from above and served as a guide for appropriate self-fashioning and interaction with others in Soviet society. As indicated above, policies with regard to housing and communal living developed a specific internal logic and dynamism, which were interconnected not only with the institution of political and social structures from above, but also from below in a search for practical solutions to issues concerning communal living. Beginning in 1925, a peculiar micro model of social hierarchy in the communal living space began to form, intensified by selected persons in the apartment affiliated with the NKVD (which later became the KGB) acting as moral beacon of Soviet policies. Here is where the usually private and intimate space of the home became politicized and the feeling of Soviet collectivization of the everyday took shape. Moreover, collectivism arose in the kommunalka owing to the needs of the everyday, which leveled any personal differences and was conducive to the development of not only specific socialist conformism,[13] but also social control. Neighbors made sure that others were following the rules and if not, took it upon themselves to convict and sentence the violator as they deemed necessary.

Gated Communities

As for gated communities, one could travel back through time as far back as the Romans and find gated settlements in the lands the Romans had conquered and later ruled. However, the distinct character and features of the US-style gated settlements or common interest developments, as they are also referred to, can be more adequately traced back to the turn of the last century, back to England and to Ebenezer Howard with his utopian community called the “Garden City.”[14] Howard’s idea for a new perfect community arose in response to the evils of industrialization, which was part of a general European sentiment at that time. The two main elements contained in his concept that are crucial for the purposes of discussing issues related to US-style gated communities are comprehensive physical planning as well as political and economic organization. Howard’s idea was adapted to the American context at the beginning of last century[15] and a new kind of residential construction was established, ultimately evolving into something distinct in its private organization and stringent control by deeds and regulations. Powerful real estate interests in the US took over Howard’s idea and applied the concept of economies of scale to property development – property developers used common ownership and strict deed regulations as an instrument of land planning.

In order to provide an overview of the issues surrounding the phenomenon of gated communities today, I will cite fragments from a BBC news service article with the headline “’Gated’ Community Warning.” The article’s first sentence warns:

The growth of US-style “gated” communities threatens to divide Britain’s cities into rich and poor ghettos…and continues, “Well-off city dwellers are increasingly shutting themselves away in high-security compounds, with surveillance cameras, electronic gates and even private security guards…The trend is being driven by fear of crime.[16]

This fragment of the article touched on most of the prevalent issues concerning gated communities or common interest developments (CID). The well-off shutting themselves away in high-security compounds implies social and ethnic segregation as well as fragmentation.  Surveillance cameras symbolize the strict and intrusive rules and regulations that are created and enforced by an elected private government: the Residential Community Association (RCA). Electronic gates stand for the shutting out the remainder of society in order to preserve real estate values of the property, which is considered a priority over communitarian principles of life in a community and goes as far as subordinating individual privacy and freedom to these principles. Private security guards refer to the privatization of public services, unique to the American system.[17] Furthermore, fear of crime represents the uncertainties created by an increasing plurality and complexity of society and the process of individualization (Bauman 1990, Giddens 1990 and Beck 1995).

Common Space: Interested homebuyers purchase real estate on developed property and with this purchase buy into a contract. This compulsory contract legally binds the property holder to the local community laws and regulations, which are generally interpreted and enforced by an elected board of directors, who are also residents of this community. Members of the RCA share ownership of and have access to common facilities like swimming pools and recreational facilities. Depending on the size and style of the community, additional amenities offered within the walls might for instance include garbage collection, parks and golf courses, the distribution of utilities, shops, churches, schools and even a police force. Some settlements take on the character and size of a city with the only difference of a wall following the boundary.

Common Values: The demographic makeup of the average association member is: 48 years of age, an annual income of $45,000 or more, the owner of a single family home, holding a professional/managerial position and has at least a basic college education.[18] Essentially, these community associations represent an exclusive segment of American society that is growing along with corporations and high-tech businesses. This trend and its large following does not only represent an economic incentive to buy a home within boundaries, but goes much deeper: the arrangements and conditions accepted with the signing of the contract ultimately reach deep inside the private sphere of residents and redefining the boundaries between the public and the private sphere. This private sphere does not only represent the domestic realm located inside of the second set of walls of the home, but also the intimate and personal boundaries of individuals.

With the vastly increasing number of members joining community associations,[19] a network has been established within which the Community Association Institute (CAI)[20] plays an important role. Essentially, the CAI serves the community of RCAs as a clearinghouse offering professional seminars and workshops, publishing a large collection of resources on RCAs, advocating and lobbying RCA interests before legislatures and in courts, conducting research on RCA practices and management and lastly, providing networking opportunities for its members. On their homepage they offer a list of best selling books within the national RCA community. The following is a summary of one:

Community First breaks new ground by reorienting associations toward a higher mission-enhancement of a sense of community. Some of the industry’s most respected leaders and visionaries describe how the “building community” concept can be adopted and put into practice by developers, lawyers, community association managers, homeowners, public officials, and others. Their perspectives on this growing and evolving industry (and suggestions for its improvement) offer a broader vision of these communities and much food for thought. Their thoughts will stir debate and, where appropriate, create a new standard – a new model – for this important segment of America’s future.[21]

Another function of the CAI is the organization of regional and national conferences. At these conferences RCA members have the opportunity to build professional skills during training seminars and workshops since most of the business activities tend to be conducted within RCA walls. For the welcoming and/or closing dinners famous speakers are invited to speak and instill the audience with, for instance, “inspiration as they address personal development issues including values, ethics and integrity,” and provide the participants “with practical ways to make innovation pay off for [their] community.”[22]

Common Public Domain and ‘Anonymous’ External Forces: As a common interest development is established, the original group of residents that buys into the property takes control of the board of directors, forming a community association by electing volunteer leaders from within the community that are responsible to the residents. One of the initial tasks is to create rules and regulations that order the life within the community; they are generally referred to as covenants, conditions and restrictions (CC&R).  CC&Rs are adjusted by the board according to community values and norms, turning this community association into a self-governing body, i.e. into a private government. Accordingly, one of the main functions is to essentially “help protect property values by ensuring compliance with rules and deed restrictions.” Depending on the community association, these rules can be very stringent and regulate every aspect of life within the community, which can impinge on very private and intimate aspects of individuals’ lives and turn the community association into a body with more or less authoritarian powers, although some claim that community associations are the most “representative and responsive form of democracy found in America today.”[23] People seem to situate themselves in structures with the intention of ordering and controlling their lives, creating their own certainty and stability opposed to the chaotic and dangerous outside.

Discourse: While the Kommunalka is a microcosm of the Soviet Union, the gated communities are a microcosm of the contemporary American dream, reflecting the social concerns and conflicts as well as the pleasures and desires of modern life.[24] The common interest of these common interest developments is the preservation of real estate values. Gated communities and their use of CID legal restrictions are both redefining and privatizing the political, social, and aesthetic dimensions of the suburban home. Formulated based on economic objectives, the covenants and regulations that dictate everyday conduct serve as moral codes and govern correct social behavior and relationships. The gates, restrictive covenants and homeowners associations create a limited sense of community based mainly on social, cultural and behavioral uniformity. For instance, the community can stipulate the kind of vegetation that can be planted, what color a house may be painted and where the mailbox placed.[25] Even the particulars of an individual’s living conditions can be stipulated: whether pets are allowed or how many non-RCA residents can spend the night. In some communities it is not allowed for visiting grandchildren to use the common playground facilities. Baumgartner maintains that upper-middle-class suburbs are physically and socially structured to provide privacy and separation. Residents monitor their environments “closely identifying those who do not belong,” yet at the same time they are sheltered by the privacy made possible by these loosely held relationships.[26] Although many residents complain about the sometimes petty and intruding regulations, the benefits of community living seem to override the drawbacks. Residents are willing to give up liberties in exchange for stability and a sense of security. (And choice is of course one of the most significant differences: gated community residents have the choice to move into a common interest development, kommunalka residents did not have a choice.) A number of residents are glad that the rules exist and welcome the discipline, feeling more comfortable with the prospect of having them applied to their neighbors.

In the Russian example, peculiar sets of rules and regulations were based on ideological and political values dictated by the government, yet the rules with regard to the everyday practices in the kommunalka developed out of necessity: the extreme overcrowding in the kitchen, the toilet and the bathroom at specific times of the day developed codes of behavior for ordering the immanent chaos. The space in the kommunalka is structured by architecture and a code of behavior in order to provide privacy and separation. For the most part, inhabitants tried to block the transparency of the communal space and respect the privacy of others, yet the borders became transparent once the rules of everyday conduct were violated. In the case that a fellow kommunalka inhabitant might overextend his/her time on the toilet, for example, s/he will hear through the door from affected persons waiting in line. They will verbally inform the violating person of their rights being impinged. However, when the rules are not broken, the neighbors abide by principled considerations and etiquette like for instance, not talking about the person occupying the toilet – unless it serves some purpose. These purposes might turn political, depending on the intentions of the initiator and his or her objective within in the given context. It was relatively easy to become an “enemy of the people,” especially as neighbors were eager to acquire more living space in the severely overcrowded conditions that dominated the 20s and 30s, regardless of what the costs may be.

By comparing these two living arrangements I do not want to belittle the circumstances of the kommunalka or place the kommunalka and gated communities at the same level. This comparison should function as an exercise to help look at social structures, social order and action from a different viewpoint highlighting similarities, differences and their relationship. While the fundamental goals that dictated the moral code in the above-mentioned communities differ (one was political and the other economic in nature) the rules and regulations however have been devised by anonymous forces that intend to order the immanent chaos in uncertain circumstances. The rules and regulations serve the purpose of regulating the conduct of behavior between interacting entities within a set of social and political circumstances, redefining the borders of the public and private spheres accordingly and thus, ordering personal and social experience. With this in mind, both the kommunalkaand gated communities touch on important issues regarding the relationship between subjectivity and housing. Further comparative exploration would give an important insight into and a better understanding of the interrelationship and interaction between the private and the public spheres within a living space and its relationship to the chaotic outside.


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[1] According to a 1926 census, 73% of the population in the city lived in communal and rental apartments and this percentage grew in the following years. In 1936 77% of the renters lived in communal apartments in old buildings and 84% in communal apartments in new buildings. Statistic taken from Obertreis, unpublished version of her doctoral dissertation.

[2] The Community Association Institute estimates that an estimated 50 million Americans, i.e. one in six, live in homeowner associations. See

[3] Gerasimova, Ekaterina “Sovetskaja Kommunalnaja Kvartira kak Sozialnii Institut; Istoriko-Soziologicheskii Analiz“ Doctoral Dissertation at Euorpean University at St. Petersburg, 2000.

[4] Kotkin, Stephen, Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization. University of California Berkley, 1995, p. 158.

[5] Stites, Richard. Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution. Oxford University Press, 1989, p. 205.

[6] Khrushchev initiated a project for the construction of mass housing, which gave families to live in their own private apartment. These aparments were lovingly referred to as Khrushchoby.

[7] In a space where 40 years ago 56 people were trying to conduct the Soviet everyday, 15 years ago 33 people were trying to do the same and today only 20. See  Utekhin, Ilja. Ocherki Kommunal’nogo Byta. OGI, Moskva, 2001, p. 7.

[8] Gerasimova, Katerina. “Public Spaces in the Communal Apartment” in: Gabor T. Rittersporn, Malte Rolf and Jan Behrens (Hrgs.), Sphären von Öffentlichkeit in Gesellschaften sowjetischen Typs: Zwischen partei-staatlicher Selbstinszenierung und kirchlichen Gegenwelten, Peter Lang, Europäischer Verlag der Wissenschaften, 2003: 165-193, S. 174.

[9] Obertreis, Julia „Tränen und Sozialismus“. Wohnen in Petrograd/Leningrad zwischen revolutionären Entwürfen sowjetischer Wohnpolitik und der Beständigkeit häuslicher Lebenswelten, 1917 – 1937, unpublished doctoral dissertation.

[10] Jeff Weitraub has identified four main theories representing different aspects and levels of the public and the private distinction, whereby this theory of fluid sociability in a public space is represented in works by Richard Sennett and und Philippe Ariès. See  Weintraub, Jeffrey. “The Theory and Politics of the Public/Private Distinction,” in Jeff Weintraub and Krishan Kumar, eds., Public and Private in Thought and Practice, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997, p. 7.

[11] Boym, Svetlana. “Everyday Culture” in Russian Culture at the Crossroads: Paradoxes of Postcommunist Consciousness. Ed. Dmitri N. Shalin, Westview Press, 1996, p. 163.

[12] Obertreis, unpublished doctoral dissertation.

[13] Lebina, N.B. Povsednevnaja Zhizn Sovetskogo Goroda, 1920 –30 Gody, Sankt Peterburg, 1999, p. 19.

[14] Howard believed that the perfect society was within reach to humans and could be achieved by transforming a nation through rational planning.  At the turn of the century, a general surge for improving decaying industrial societies lead to similar responses and experiments internationally, most notably in the Soviet Union. His book “Garden Cities of Tomorrow” was basically a manual for the financing, building and operation of new kind of planned community.

[15] Howard’s ideas were initially adapted by the Regional Planning Association of America in their project of a planned community called Radburn, New Jersey in 1928.  The distinctive features of this particular community (which never was actualized as a consequence of the Depression), i.e. a form of private government, restrictive rules and regulations and a Residential Homeowner Association, were carried over and are still significant part of common interest developments today.

[16] See

[17] Unlike its European counterparts, America has not had many government assets that it can privatize and therefore, privatization in the US rather implies the enlistment of private entities in order to improve the provision tasks that would remain public to a certain degree. See McKenzie, McKenzie, Evan, Privatopia:  Homeowner Associations and the Rise of Residential Private Government.  Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1994, p. 179. This concept has been taken to the extreme in the US and especially within the framework of the RCA settlements.


[19]An approximated 30% of all new homes in suburban areas are behind gates. Moreover, gates are supposed to increase the real estate value by 15 to 20%. See http://www.

[20] For more information about the Community Association Institute see




[24] Low, Setha Behind the Gates: Life, Security, and the Pursuit of Happiness in Fortress America, Routledge, New York and London, 2003, p. 26


[26] Low, Setha Behind the Gates: Life, Security, and the Pursuit of Happiness in Fortress America, Routledge, New York and London, 2003, p. 182.

About the Author

Sandra Evens

Sandra Evens holds a Masters in Russian Studies from The European University of St. Petersburg, Russia. She is currently working on her dissertation and other scholarly projects.

View all posts by: Sandra Evens