First of all, it was an overstatement to call the apartment yours. There was no private ownership of apartments in the Soviet Union (SU). There existed only personal possession of small land parcels with small (or not, depending on the size of a bribe) houses. In all other cases, the apartments belonged to the state, but people who lived in them had the right and an obligation to register in them (the so-called prapiska).
The register was, in fact, one of the ways of enslaving the population – it was to control any movement of the individuals. If one travelled, they could be asked any time where they were registered (prapiska), and could face severe punishment if being far from the registering place without the government’s permission. People had no right to move from one place to another without permission or registering in a new place.
Moreover, there was no private property, although nobody could come and pretend to live in an apartment without prapiska. To be registered in a new place, one needed to have permission from the government, but also from the family or the people living in the apartment one wanted to be registered in.
This situation also meant that the state was obliged to recognize the right of the new “flatmate” to ask for additional space, if the space in the apartment they was registered was not sufficient for a person to live by the Soviet standards and norms. As a result, as apartments and living spaces were in deficit, new registrations were almost impossible (or possible only in exchange for a huge bribe or the applicant being backed by the highest-level authorities.).
So, the apartment a family lived in was their own but not truly or fully. If a family decided to sell their apartment, it was only possible via natural exchanges. For instance, if a family had a three-room apartment:
- it could divide the apartment into two two-rooms and one one-room apartments by exchanging, adding, or discounting some money (of course, unofficially), depending on the quality of the apartments;
- upgrade their apartment to a four-room apartment by exchanging and adding some money.
After a change of any kind, it was necessary to register the family members in the new place, which was, again, available for a bribe (but a less significant one, as nobody demanded additional space during the exchange).
Furthermore, all the apartments were in state ownership. But let’s return to our major topic – if the apartment was not even truly yours, how could you renovate it? It was, of course, possible to get permission from the government for a renovation, though, again, though bribery or favoritism.
The SU was extremely bureaucratic – any movement of a person required permission and accompanied by a pile of necessary documents. With a substantial bribe it was possible to avoid any such procedures.
The major problem, however, was not the bribe but the money the family would need to pay it, and, later on, the renovation process itself. It was really a tough issue – many people would not be able to afford to renovate their apartments for decades. But let’s be more optimistic and assume that you were a Soviet citizen, you had an apartment and a high enough salary to pay for renovation. The real story started from there.
By the way, living only on salary was a kind of joke, frequently referenced in cinematography. However, in reality, it was not funny at all, and if anybody looks for reasons why the Soviet Union – a mystical giant, the biggest and richest in natural resources nation – collapsed, it was precisely for this reason: low performance of under-paid, demotivated, and demoralized workers.
Okay, but let’s go back to our main story. So you were a Soviet family and decided to renovate your apartment. You even received legal permission and you have money. But where could you get the materials or workers?
There operated shops dedicated to construction and renovation materials, but they were completely… empty. An ordinary citizen, however, had no chance to see the warehouses. Even if you had an access to them , it was made possible only in exchange for a bribe, again. Then, the warehouse servicemen would evaluate your personality and assess whether they could trust you – not because they were afraid of anybody, but only to keep the bribe (for the inspections) costs lower – and then might sell you what was available.
Here, it must be stated that the bribes customers paid to the shop service were, in fact, a kind of a substitute for a price system – the amounts of respective bribes revealed how much the available goods were worth to the customers in need.
Anyway, in most of the cases, these shops were unable to provide the renovating family with all the necessary things. Almost nothing they needed was in stock – no paints, wood, ceramic, plastic, nor metal materials, nothing for the kitchen nor bathroom (finding any quality bathroom appliances was a true nightmare).
So, what, would an ordinary Soviet citizen surrender? Would they start crying or complaining? Of course not – it was better to look for other options.
For instance, there was a slight chance of getting some of the imported better-quality bathroom appliances from Eastern Germany or Czechoslovakia (sometimes, from Yugoslavia too.). This was possible in of the three ways:
- You made a written request and were put on the waiting list; this required providing the shop with a document about your salary. The waiting could, however, take forever.
- You had a relative or a family friend holding a high office in the Central Committee of the Communist Party and with one call you would be instructed how to find a person from whom you could get the sought-after appliance.
- You “heard” the appliance was available for a bribe and paid a lot.
Then, you were advised to go to a construction site. You needed to find a special man, prarab, who was in charge of supplying and keeping the construction site in order. Once you visited the prarab, you would say: “I need some materials”.
After checking if you were the right person to trust (mostly by asking who recommended coming to see him, again, just to keep the inspection bribing costs lower), he would ask you about the list of the needed materials and then negotiate amounts and prices.
He would also send you to another prarab of another construction site if he didn’t have all your requested materials. Then, he also could offer renovation workers from his team who would unofficially work at your home in parallel to their main construction job.
It seems that so far everything works out just fine. But what about the materials and the workers that were also needed for the main construction work the prarab was employed to oversee? Good question!
The site manager was clever enough to get enough (or additional) resources in advance (this was the main function of the manager). For this, he needed to work with the authorities – the Ministry of Construction, the Ministry of Financ, among others. They would (for a bribe, of course) provide the construction with enough materials to construct the building, but also to enable selling part of them on the side.
The other players of the story could be: higher authorities (supervisors from the Central Committee of the Communist Party), state auditors and a number of other inspectorates, and, in some cases, local authorities. But there was also one key state agency – the Bureau of Constructors and Planners – which had the authority to create and approve a plan of the construction with the budget and estimations of the needed materials. With their approval, the materials and the financial funds were legally flowing to the construction site.
So, let’s assume that you got your funds and started your construction. Then you should expect that some individuals from underground businesses or families would ask the prarab to provide them with the materials they needed. The prarab sold as much as it was possible to keep the construction work still functioning. The collected bribes thus became the profit of the prarab, the site manager, as well as many other supervisors, inspectors, and authorities for their support and assistance.
And now, let’s return to the family – it was not that easy. They spent lots of energy, time, and money. The materials they got were (of course) of a very low quality, the workers were very inefficient. In the end, the family was not only exhausted, but also grew to hate the word remont (renovation). Still, they were happy that after several months of risky endeavors – it is all over. Well, for the time being.