Collective Strategy for Solving Problems of Housing and Communal Services in the Context of an “Old Neighborhood” in a Russian Metropolis: Can Sand Be Dissolved in Water?

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Elena Bogdanova


How Do Russian people prefer to solve problems of public services—together or separately? Do the institutional conditions, determined by private property rights, the specifics of privatization carried out in the 1990s, the structure of the housing and communal services system, or the memory of the Soviet model of communal services play any role in the emergence of sustainable forms of solidarity among neighbors? This article considers these questions through the prism of a case study conducted in the historical part of Saint Petersburg, in a residential building built in 1905. The study is based on two years of ethnographic observations of the everyday life in the apartment building and the practices of everyday interactions among neighbors, investigation of the history of the house, the analysis of the correspondence between residents and service companies about the residents’ complaints, and 10 in-depth, semistructured interviews with inhabitants of the apartment building.
The study was triggered by the real-life situation of the establishment of a neighbor association in the form of the house council (domovoi sovet), in accordance with the 2011 amendment to the Russian Housing Code. This became the first experience of cooperation in an “old neighborhood,” as well as the first attempt of collective care for the building’s common areas. Efforts, achievements, and failures of the house council are analyzed through the prism of collective action theory and the concept of materiality.
The article demonstrates that a collective strategy of care for the common areas of a multiunit residential building can be successfully implemented, although institutional conditions make it compete with individual strategies for improving living spaces. Alternative solutions—such as calling helplines or informally contacting local officials— may lead to positive changes for individual households or groups of neighbors. Yet, such uncoordinated individual efforts disrupt the common schedule for repairs and other improvements in the building, as approved by the house council, and redirect financing from common to individual needs. The overall conclusion is that in the conditions of contemporary Russian society, an association of neighbors of a democratic type turns into a risky project, which can serve as an extended metaphor for democratic initiatives in the country and resembles a futile attempt to “dissolve sand in water.”

Article in Russian


old neighborhood, association of neighbors, house council, collective action, privatization, property, solidarity, materiality, care about the common good

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