Soviet space project

December 16, 2005

A St Petersburg academic who developed a web-based virtual museum on the history and cultural impact of Russia's kommunalki - Soviet-era communal apartments - hopes to take it worldwide in collaboration with two US universities, writes Nick Holdsworth in Moscow.

Ilya Utekhin, dean of the department of ethnology at the European University at St Petersburg, a private college that teaches Russian and international postgraduates, wants to translate his communal apartment history website into English to facilitate its use in teaching worldwide.

Dr Utekhin, who is working with colleagues at Cornell University and Colgate University with the aim of developing the Kommunal'naya Kvartira site as a multimedia education resource, has several years' experience of using the site in postgraduate courses in St Petersburg.

He founded the virtual museum - illustrated with photographs and video clips of scruffily genuine St Petersburg communal flats - in 1999 with the help of a modest grant from the Open Society Institute after writing a book based on research with kommunalki residents, Essays on Communal Living .

"Anthropology has always been used to understand how housing reflects social models; my studies are about the anthropology of everyday life that aims to discover the dispositions that guide people in their everyday behaviour - areas not usually studied in traditional sociology," said Dr Utekhin, a philologist and expert in semiotics.

"Understanding the role communal apartments have played in Russian society through a close study of sociolinguistics and conversational analysis between neighbours and family members living in kommunalki can be very revealing."

Dr Utekhin, who grew up in a St Petersburg kommunalka - situated in an apartment once owned and exclusively occupied by his grandfather - says the heyday of communal apartments, introduced in the Soviet Union by the Bolsheviks, came in the mid- 1930s when some 68 per cent of the city's population were housed in such properties.

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