Thursday, 17 October 2013

Blocks of flats, the beehives of 'equal' post-soviet citizens

A concrete block of flats monster at Lyulin residential district on the outskirts of Sofia.  

Blocks of flats. Tall, grey buildings with multiple entrances; small, graffiti-covered elevator cabins (unsuitable for claustrophobic people) that take you to the upper ninth / twelfth / sixteenth floor; two- and three- digit flat numbers. The swarm of people who live there.

In Edinburgh, UK, where I stayed for several years, such type of high-rise buildings was uniformly associated with a certain stratum of society: people of working class and those living off state benefits. Typically, the housing was provided by the council, and the areas where they were standing were known as rather rough, violent parts of the city.      

In soviet and early post-soviet Eastern Europe that I knew as a child the tall concrete housing did not have the stigma associated with them in the UK. In soviet times all people were meant to be equal* so doctors and teachers lived side to side with factory workers, writers, musicians, plumbers, shop assistants and trolleybus drivers.

The houses had yards with trees and playgrounds where pensioners spent time siting on benches, gossipping & discussing each others' disease; children were playing in sand boxes, swinging on playground constructions and running around playing hide-and-seek games; parents walking around pushing prams; dog owners walking their pets, etc. Neighbours knew things about each others and often formed symbiotic relationships such as watering each others' house plants and keeping a watchful eye on each others' doors for burglars when one of the sides was on holidays. 

Typically, ceilings in such housing were low, the flats were connected to the central heating and hot/cold water system. Kitchens** were small, assuming that in the end the soviet citizens won't need kitchens at all as they all would be eating out in public canteens. The lucky ones had additional storage space in the basements where they kept apples, potatoes and other supplies brought over from farming relatives.

The occupants normally were also the owners of their flats. According to the 'bright future' plans, every soviet citizen had to be provided with accommodation.

All started to change during the 1990s, after the fail of the Soviet Union. People with more money and/or love for beauty started moving out to historical parts of towns; to the nature; or to private suburban houses. The process, however, takes time, and in Eastern Europe the populations of concrete high-rise buildings still remain rather motley. 

Not the biggest fan of living in high-rise blocks myself, I, however, have an anthropological interest in them and will try, one day, to introduce you to the famous Mladost, Lyulin and Nadezhda residential districts of Sofia. Meanwhile, here is how you address a letter to someone living in a block of flats in Bulgaria:    
After the street name goes house number first; then the number of the entrance to the house (if applicable); then the floor number; then, finally, the number of the apartment/flat. For example, 'ул.София No.105, вх.B, ет.6, ап.79'. Photo from a Bulgarian language class at the Galaxy School, Sofia.  

* as we know, in practice it was not necessarily the case, and some soviets, as Geoge Orwell proclaims in his 'Animal Farm', were 'more equal than others'.

** the topic of soviet kitchens is broad requires a post or a book on its own. In my native Lithuania, for example, the kitchen was a popular place for meetings of underground intellectuals and anti-soviet dissidents. Perhaps from those times there is a term 'kitchen politician' meaning someone who only criticises the government sitting in his own or a friend's kitchen but does not declare his/her views publicly.

Watch a video: a post-socialist landscape, train Sofia - Plovdiv.

Text and the top photo (c) Agne Drumelyte, 2013.


  1. Well this is familliar view for me as a lithuanian. Sometimes it's uncomfortabile to look at endless series of these flats and imagine how many people are living in few square meters.

  2. Hi! This raised a smile as I also spent my childhood in Sofia in the 90s. I've always been fascinated by these buildings, and I also lived in Edinburgh for a while. There's a complex of similar grey buildings in Leith. But for some reason I find these estates in the UK more depressing than in Bulgaria, even though the buildings in the UK are better kept. Maybe it's because of the weather, or the lack of green least in Sofia you have the play parks.