Apartment Activism

Daniel Brooks

Many apartment owners in Moscow have title to air.  Most apartment buildings in Russia’s cities are owned by the city. Apartment owners own the space within the walls, floors and ceilings.  I own such an apartment. At one point, for some reason, the Russian Ministry of Defense owned our building, minus the space comprised of apartments. Over time, the physical structure was transferred to the city of Moscow whose balance sheet now shows our building as its asset with all the ancient pipes and electrical system thrown in for good measure. The gas pipes are owned by the gas ministry and cannot be tampered with, unless a gas man comes. The apartment space can be freely sold. It has a value. The concept of owning air is not much different from the belief that paper money has value. In this way I justify this Russian concept of ownership in my own mind, at least until the Bolsheviks come back.

In our building, the hallways, garbage chutes, parking areas and entrances are shared. The use of these communal facilities needs to be worked out among those living in the building. Such an arrangement causes disagreements to flare up. Looming in the distance is the city who needs to be coerced into fixing our ancient pipes and putting on a new roof when the wind blows it off, in a big storm. From time to time a “kaptalny remont” (capital repair) takes place.  One is scheduled to happen next year in our building, after many years of discussion. All the pipes will be replaced for the first time in several decades. Convincing a government ministry to undertake such work is no small task. It can go badly or not happen at all. Neither outcome should be left solely in the hands of fate or city government to decide.

To resolve how the shared facilities in an apartment building are used, how the pipes get fixed, and to fight city hall, more and more apartment buildings have set up a committee, run by a manager, or ‘upravliyuschi‘. Such people are activists (‘aktivisti’).  I imagine that in communist times they were members of the Young Pioneers who later on were active in The Party. These days, instead of fighting for the People (‘narod’), they struggle for trash removal.

In our apartment building, an activist manager replaced an older one who would disappear for long stretches of time on vacation. The previous manager was interested in collecting fees and little else. The new one has the energy of ten men. He campaigned for office by going door to door, wearing a grey suit and rumpled white shirt, day in and day out. His enthusiasm was infectious, as were the SMS messages he sent to everyone in the building while running for office. The new manager promised to improve garbage removal, clean up the entranceways and protect our parking area.  He defeated the old manager handily. As often happens in Russian elections, 100% of the residents voted him into office. I wonder who counted the votes.

The deposed manager believed his appointment to office was lifelong, in the manner of a despot. As a result, he didn’t bother to get much done. Under his rule, garbage removal, parking and the quality of entrances underwent little or no change. He had no ability to send SMS messages to a large number of people at once. He is an unhappy camper after being removed from office and refuses to cooperate with the new manager.  He wants every change in the status quo to be backed up by Russian law and notices displayed in the elevators, quoting such laws. The old manager refuses to pay any money for projects initiated by the new one. To fight back, the new manager sends SMS messages to everyone in the apartment building. He attacks the old manager, shaming him shamelessly.

After exchanging blows via SMS, some of the neighbors go outside and argue in the courtyard. Discussions take place between people who are walking their dogs. Sometimes the dogs bark, as well. The outcome of the barking by both species is inconsequential.

Our apartment building has a garbage chute that empties into the basement. When we first moved into the building in mid-90’s, the garbage sat in the basement for long periods of time. It would be burned up occasionally. Once, the garbage was lit on fire while I was away on a business trip and my wife was at home with our two small daughters. Big clouds of noxious smoke came up into the building. I thought I’d lost the family. As it turns out, our neighbors believed the building was designed back in the 1930’s to get rid of garbage by burning it in the basement. The smoke was expected to go up the garbage chute. Mostly, it didn’t. The garbage caused our entrance area, and especially the elevator, to smell of trash. We got used to it, a testimony to the ability of the human race to adapt. Hats off to our new activist manager. He shamed our neighbors into stopping the use of the garbage chute by sending out a barrage of SMS messages to everyone. He visited people individually and sent them letters, threatening to bring in sanitary inspectors and take legal action. Lists were posted in the elevators, shaming the malefactors who had used the garbage chute. It worked. Everyone carries their trash outside to the bin. Nowadays, our elevator smells great.

If our current manager is replaced and a third one is appointed, the outcome places two deposed property managers and a new one in the same building. This is a horrible thought. Perhaps a better option would be to bring in an outside manager who is not a neighbor, to run the place.

Many battles are taking place about parking in Moscow. While they might seem like a tempest in a teapot from the outside, for the apartment dwellers, parking is worth fighting for. We managed to block off our parking area and we now have two gates keeping the cars of outsiders out of our courtyard. Securing the parking area followed a long fight about fees and getting permission from the city. Our new manager was a Hero of Socialist Labor (‘geroi sotsialistcheskogo truda’), obtaining a large quantity of documents, each one stamped and signed by the right people in city government. The gates open using an app. It’s also possible to call a certain phone number or use a hand-held device similar to a garage door opener to open the gates. All the new technology makes me feel important while parking my car.

Parking often ends up being disputed. The building next to ours has sued our community organization, saying our blocked off parking lot is illegal. They are coveting our parking area which in the past, they had the ability to use. The apartment manager has sprung into action and soon we are going to court. I’m sure we will win and even if we don’t, I’ll enjoy reading blow by blow accounts of this upcoming battle in the many SMS messages to come.

Some have joined the movement for progress. Back in the 90’s, a mother and her daughter lived in the entranceway next to ours on our floor, in the adjacent apartment. They would let their cats and dogs run free in the hallways to do their business. No amount of shouting at these ladies could stop them or their animals from behaving badly in ways unsuitable to be written about. They used the garbage chute to throw away cigarette butts. It could be heard at all hours, banging open and shut. From time to time, the cigarettes would start the trash on fire. To block out the noise, we walled up the garbage chute in our kitchen, with bricks. This muffled the sound and soon, it became background nose. The mother has passed away and her daughter has one remaining dog who is taken to the park for periodic relief. The cats are gone. The daughter joined the human race just after her mother departed from it. After only 22 years, the daughter has been convinced to stop using the garbage chute. It was accomplished by our new apartment manager. Today the daughter is on the front line of change.  There is hope for mankind if such a regressive reprobate as this one can become progressive.

As a foreigner, my input into the apartment management wars is tolerated, at best. No one wants me actively involved. When I go to meetings with the apartment building collective, I’m allowed to make comments. After that, everyone ignores me. I’ve stopped going. Perhaps input from a foreigner isn’t wanted, no matter how Russianized the foreigner might be. I’ve learned to sit back and follow the disputes from a distance, on my phone. Perhaps soon, a new dispute will break out. It always does.

Daniel Brooks, copyright, 21 November 2018