Door bells

Couchsurfing is great, but every traveler can get burned out on being the perfect guest all the time and a grumpy voyager is welcome nowhere. But when you’re ready to throw down some bucksov for a place to call your own, where do you start? The Hyatt four star might be a bit out of your range but a room at the train station just won’t cut it. Or what if you’re a group of three or more that doesn’t want to split up? A good solution is to rent an apartment.

  • Story Daniel
  • Top photo credit Vincent Ducrey
  • All photo credits Daniel
  • Soundtrack of the report
  • Kalinka
  • Red Army Chorus
MAP CIS

In the majority of cities in the former U.S.S.R. (now known as the CIS), apartment housing is plentiful. During the Soviet Union, the state guaranteed every citizen a place to live, though practically speaking actually getting an apartment in the bigger cities took several years on a waiting list, the ability to pay good bribes, or good connections. The richest and most comfortably connected were often able to secure more than one, but mostly everyone else had to stay with their parents until their number came up. When the Union collapsed, everything changed.

Americans sleeping

Apartments, now the only possession of any value flooded the market. Currencies devalued, real estate prices plummeted, and banks began offering something that had been unavailable for the previous 70 years: credit. Because it was completely new financial product, banks offered loans at fantastic rates, which allowed anyone with a bit of capital to acquire a lot of real estate. One colleague of mine had a cousin who, gathering money from his relatives to get a line of credit, bought 10 apartments in the center of Almaty, gave three of them away, then five years later sold the remaining seven, easily repaying his loan completely. Many landlords continue to hold onto their apartments and rent them out for short term periods, comfortably earning three times as much as they would from a standard monthly tenant.

Not all landlords are cutthroat biznesmen however. For some people renting out their apartment while living in their dacha or with relatives is the only way to augment the paltry salaries they receive from their real jobs. Most teachers, doctors, or even professors at the university level often earn only $300-$400 per month—hardly enough to support even a family of two. By renting you may be helping someone out who really needs it.

Buildings Almaty
Building

So, in almost every city in the former Soviet Union apartments can be rented by the hour, the night, or the month. It’s best not to think about who stayed in the apartment before you but many of the landlords renting these places do it professionally and so many have the place cleaned after each guest (once I even got clean sheets in sealed vacuum wrap). There is usually cable TV, a few pots and pans, and often a washing machine. So where to start? If you’re a couple or solo go to the bold points below. If you’re a group pick your two most presentable (male and female, or even better two females) to be the approachers. Set a price you want to pay (in large cities in Kazakhstan perhaps up to $50, in smaller ones you can get a decent place for around $30) and choose an area you like (walking distance from your daytime or evening attractions), hand them some cash, and find a cafe nearby to sit tight. Then your renting couple should head to…

The Train station, Bus station, or Bazaar

Depending on the city, often when you leave the train or bus station you will find a clutch of babushkas milling around with signs around their necks that say “квартира.” These are your gals. Also look near the city’s central bazaar or tourist strip. (On Gogol street in Almaty every day you will find at least 50 people offering apartments near the green bazaar). Some of these people do it as a job, others may just be trying to make a little extra money for their families. Ask them what they’ve got available and for what price and make sure they show you the place before you take it.

Bazaar Almaty 2

Realty Bureaus

Some places may have a kiosk or office that provides listings of available apartments. Again, more expensive, but definitely more legit. They may even provide some official documentation. If you’re traveling for work or any other reason that requires a receipt, this is your best choice.

Sign rental

The Interweb

Some parts of the world use craigslist.org, if you can’t find the country you’re visiting on there try www.krysha.kz, www.rent54.ru, www.sdam66.ru, or www.flatroom.ru. Here you can search by monthly (помеcячно), nightly (поcyточно), and sometimes even hourly (почаcовый, по чаcам) rentals. Be warned, almost all of the listings on krysha and other sites are by “professional” landlords or realtors, so their prices (but also standards) are usually higher.

The Newspaper

Ask at a newspaper kiosk about apartment listings, or “обьявление”. This variant will require a SIM card with lots of units and a basic knowledge of the streets (as they were called in soviet times and what they are called now) in the area in which you want to stay. You also will be dealing a bit more locally.

Important things to remember

– Landlords will most likely demand some sort of official identification from you for the period you are in their apartment. While they will ask for a passport, try to get away with a drivers’ license or local ID from wherever you came from. As long as it looks official it will probably be accepted.
– If it feels sketchy when you’re checking out the place don’t be afraid to bail.
– Set a time to meet the landlord on the day you want to leave, but don’t make your schedule too tight. Make sure you allow plenty of time for your landlord to be late.
– Prices may be flexible; If you start looking at the end of the day there will be fewer apartments available, but also everyone will be anxious to go home. This may be the time for a little bargaining.
– If you are staying for more than one night try to bargain for a lower nightly price. Most landlords prefer to have their apartments occupied. Similarly if you want to stay 12 hours but not a full 24 try to work something out.
– Never tell anyone you’ve got a group coming in, and make sure if more people do show up they do so after the landlord has left (and leave before the landlord arrives in the morning).
– If you stay during the evening you may get a call offering “female company.” Best to decline—you won’t need it anyway since once you hit the bars you can say you’ve got your own place!

The communal flats back in the days

The shared apartment in the CIS are called kommunalka (in Russian : коммуналка) and were instituted after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. That’s where two (or often more) families would live and share the kitchen and the bathroom. And as they notice is the very good Virtual Museum of Soviet Everyday Life : “The communal apartment is unusual because it brought together families of vastly different educational backgrounds, attitudes, ethnicities, and life habits.” This would often lead to funny situation, conflicts or intense negociations. The common rooms were the territories you had sometime to fight for and establish your authority. And like in a game of Risk, you never knew what would be the other families next move.

Lexicon

– Квартира
[kvartira]
> apartment
– снимать квартиру
[sneemat] > to rent an apartment
– аренда
[arenda] > rent
– Cдам Квартирy
[sdam kvartiru] > “I have an apartment to rent”
– я хочy снимать квартирy за…
[Ya hochu snimat kvartiru za..] > I want to rent an apartment for..
– cyтки
[sutki] > one 24 hour period
– Два, три, четырье cyток
[Dva, tree, chitiree sutok] > two, three, four days
– обьявление
[Obyavleniye] > announcements, classified ads

Note

The note says : “Please do not hang intimate items (underwear and so forth) on the line. You can dry them in your rooms on pipes or on the radiator. This is not a factory dormitory or a collective farm; it’s an apartment in the center of St. Petersburg.”

We also highly recommend that you watch the classic movie, Ninotchka by Ernst Lubitsch, that features an hilarious parody of the kommunalkas.

Daniel M-F (edited by Alex)
Live from Almaty