sitting on the edge of the sandbox, biting my tongue

November 8, 2011

A Soviet Romance

Filed under: Soviet Union — Tags: , , — edge of the sandbox @ 5:21 pm

My great uncle and his wife recently celebrated their 50th anniversary.  At the anniversary party they shared their love stories with friends and family.

They both lived in communal apartments before they met.  A communal apartment is the kind where the government sends you a roommate.  They were typically overcrowded.  This kind of living arrangement was pretty common throughout Soviet history.  After WW2 in particular single family apartments were rare because so many housing units were destroyed.  Even though shoddily made high-rises nicknamed khrushchevkas were slapped on Soviet cities in the Khrushchev era, the housing problem wasn’t solved.


A khrushchevka in Saint Petersburg. Could be anywhere from Ulan Bator to East Berlin.

When I was leaving the country in the late 80s, many still lived in communal apartments with random roommates.  Think of your first college roommate.  Well, it’s kind of similar, but you had not even your choice of school in common, and weren’t necessarily young and adventurous.  Add poverty to it and the fact that the roommate is there to stay.  Here is a joke (not a very funny one) that I heard from my auntie:

A young woman is  taking a shower in her communal bathroom.  Once she’s done, she drys herself with a towel and gets dressed.  But when she opens the door, she sees that her 5 roommates were watching her through the keyhole.

“How could you!” She blushes and screams.

“Like we need you,” they answer. “We were watching whose soap you were using.”

So the relationships in communal apartments were strained.  My great-aunt’s roommate was spreading rumors that she was plotting to kill Stalin.  Luckily the roommate didn’t go to the authorities with that one.

My great aunt didn’t have a lot of amenities.  She didn’t have a refrigerator, and those were rationed.  She had to go to the government office and fill out a card for them to notify her when refrigerators arrive.  She went there, stood in line and filled out her card.  When she was done, a man standing right behind her asked her to fill out the card for him.  She filled it out as they talked.  She put his name and address on the card, they finished talking and the man left.  My great aunt looked at him walking away and thought that he’s dressed rather neatly.

A few years later my great aunt, then married to my great uncle, receives not one but two refrigerator cards, both in her handwriting.  My great aunt and great uncle looked at each other and said:

“So that was you!”

Being an astute student of economics and an astute student of history (all self-taught, mind you) DH wanted to know if my great uncle and his wife sold their extra refrigerator card.  Although the answer to this question is unknown, I’m pretty sure they did.  There is something about scarcity that brings up the practical side in people.



  1. Good soap joke.

    I have an article about Russia coming up. Love the humor thanks for the laugh.

    Comment by Harrison — November 8, 2011 @ 9:36 pm

    • Curious to see your post on Russia… although I don’t follow Russian politics that close.

      Comment by edge of the sandbox — November 9, 2011 @ 9:07 am

      • Nothing specific on Russia, but you might like it since it is in the vein of your soap joke.

        Comment by Harrison — November 9, 2011 @ 8:28 pm

  2. I LOVED that story, and shared it with my parents. They have been married 50 years too. What a different sort of story from theirs, though.

    the joke was funnier to me than it should have been. but then I have a very dark sense of humor.


    Comment by nooneofanyimport — November 13, 2011 @ 7:46 am

    • Happy anniversary to your parents.
      I like my great-uncle’s story because it’s so human, and it really shows what life was like.
      I don’t have a problem with nudity in that joke, it’s just that, I think, there isn’t much of a punchline, at least not to me.

      Comment by edge of the sandbox — November 13, 2011 @ 5:30 pm

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