I wouldn’t exaggerate if I say that barracks aren’t pretty. For me, as probably for any Russian of my generation, “barracks” are not associated with the army, as they are in English, or with the labor camps but designate a type of public housing. Despite my recollection of various camps barracks in the art of such Gulag survivors as Yury Dombrovsky or Varlam Shalamov, in a word association game, when asked about barracks, I would think about public housing first.
As public housing one or two-story barracks in Russia were incepted on the rise of the industrial revolution and were being built well into the first half of the 20th century. Wherever affordable and, what’s most important, fast housing was needed barracks were used. It is amazing how much comes to mind when I think about barracks despite my lack of special interest in the subject. I know about the efficiency of barracks for soldiers in the WWI and workers at various grandiose construction sites during the years of Soviet industrialization. I must have read many stories about the Soviet life and watched films in which barracks were a background against which protagonists’ stories developed. But most importantly, I saw whole settlements around factories and mines comprised solely of barracks. I realize that in my life I must have seen many of them since I can describe their various shapes and colors, construction materials used and atmosphere that comes to mind when the word itself, “barrack”, is uttered.
Here is a row of wooden barracks.
And barracks made of wooden frame with some cement/gravel mixture in the walls.
For somebody reading my posts it may probably appear that I find these various old houses, dilapidated storage huts and other such things on purpose. But in fact – and this is what I find interesting – they still exist in central areas of the city and one passes them every day. Compared to some other smaller towns, barracks in Tula are definitely not a prevalent trait of the landscape, neither are they terribly decrepit. They do exist, or rather, coexist with new luxury town houses and high-rises and I see them as remaining symbols of an epoch that soon will be gone forever.
It is amazing how people don’t really notice these barracks. I asked several of my acquaintances here whether they can tell me when some of these houses were built. The reaction I got surprised me, as some people couldn’t even recall the houses I mentioned. “It’s difficult to concentrate on anything else but the road while driving”, one friend explained to me. And he lived in the area since his Soviet childhood and used to pass many of these barracks even when he did not have a car.
I don’t know what happens. I guess your eye gets used to details that you find unimportant or uninteresting. Or, probably, you just don’t notice the familiar anymore. Or, rather, it is a habit of protecting yourself from ugliness by not noticing it, as another friend suggested when I brought it up.
But in fact barracks are not that ugly either. They may seem ugly to us now, but when some of them were built they were considered beautiful and an improvement of one’s housing conditions. It was some time in the beginning of the 1950s when the barracks seen on the following picture were built. “They had separate entrances and big windows, small terraces, flowers in front,” a grandmother, who used to be a girl back then recalled in our recent conversation. “We, the children, used to go there and look at such good, as we thought at the time, houses.”
If barracks had separate entrances they certainly did not have running water or toilets inside. Each room, on each side of a long hall would usually have a separate wood or coal stove, the main source of the warmth for the residents. Probably some barracks built later, not in the 1930s but in 1950s had improvements, but by the look of the water pump outside – still working and used, as seen in the following picture – there still is not any running water inside.