Storing the Past

Storage huts, or I should probably call them storage sheds – are sarai in Russian.  I mentioned them earlier, these remnants of the past.  Either solid brick ones …


… or dressed in pale grey of the weathered wood …


… these storage sheds are still a staple of courtyards of many Soviet apartment buildings in Tula.


You walk by a charming old house in the city’s center, a very good, quiet and green area.  You notice that many apartments have been repaired recently (there are new windows everywhere)…

small dom u parka

… the courtyard looks very nice, too, clean and quiet…

inner yard dom u parka

…and here they are — these old storage sheds, rickety but still standing.

garazhi sarai dom u parka

Storage sheds existed always in Russian towns, but in 1950s and 1960s and probably earlier they were officially considered “household buildings” and built with the development of apartment houses.  Each apartment was entitled to its own storage shed; people used them for storage but many, especially in smaller cities and towns, kept some small livestock there.  A family could keep a pig and a couple of chickens in their sarai, as well as use it for storage of potatoes and other vegetables for the winter.  Barrels with pickled cucumbers and apples, sauerkraut, jars of preserves – all very helpful and often indispensable items in a Soviet family’s diet.  It seems that the fight against keeping the livestock in these storage sheds was initiated by Nikita Khrushchev in the 1960s but was not always successful.  

I remember such sarai from my childhood – a rusty metal bar across, a big key for the lock.


Now there exists a number of issues associated with the sarai; for one, their legal (cadastral) status may not always be clear.  (This is the reason, probably, why apartment owners of the adjacent buildings cannot tear them down on their own.) Besides being the thorn in the side of aesthetically attuned citizens storage sheds may also be a real fire threat.  Once in a while you read about these fires, many of them probably arsons.  This is one of the reasons city and towns’ administrations decide to raze storage sheds down, an act that sometimes receives a mixed reaction from the citizens.


One of my favorite Soviet movies is Eldar Riazanov’s “Garage”.  Out in 1979 this satirical comedy has a seemingly uneventful plot: a meeting of members of a garage cooperative in a research institute.  A new highway construction will be going through the territory allocated for the cooperative thus reducing its space by four garages.  Whose future garage will have to be sacrificed is for the members of the cooperative to decide.  The subtleties of human nature depicted in the film are universal and a-temporal (this is precisely the reason this movie remains so popular) but are, nevertheless, based on Soviet realities.  It is a fact well known that the script is based on the real story that happened to Riazanov in his own quest for a garage.

A garage, similar to a car, was a coveted, very costly and often unattainable possession in the Soviet Union.  Leaving in a city you could not just get a garage for your personal car, you could either be eligible for one (being a war veteran or handicapped) or you could become a member of a garage cooperative.  Urban garages transcended their main purpose of protecting lucky citizens’ cars from the elements and thieves.  In the land of no private property it was a quasi-private territory for a Soviet man, a strange substitute for a man’s study and even a club.  You could use it for storage – starting with vegetables and preserves for the winter and parts for your car.  You could spend numerous weekends there in peace working on your car or mingling with other lucky owners of neighboring garages.

Large garage cooperatives were located in non-developed areas of cities and towns.  It was not unusual to first put your car in the garage and then spend some considerable amount of time getting home.  Those “garage towns” stand there now mostly unpopulated; they will eventually be engulfed by the growing city.  But there are also plenty of garages within the city’s central areas.  Like storage sheds, in Tula you see  garages in courtyards of houses everywhere –

…single garages …

…and rows of garages.



Today these metal rusty boxes look ugly, their status often lowered to that of storage sheds (sarai).  I can only imagine what sarai and garages keep nowadays – old furniture, old toys, probably a lot of glass jars used for pickling which, in its own turn, became so much less popular.  Anything but not chickens or pigs!  And moreover, probably not cars either.  It is strange but you seldom see an open garage or a car pulling out; and I know many people who own a garage but prefer to keep their cars in parking lots.

Storage sheds and garages will undoubtedly be gone soon.  But now they are storing the past.


Janus, God of Time

Janus, in Roman mythology is the god of transitions, beginnings, endings and time.  His two faces look to the future and to the past.

I recalled Janus recently when passing a building in Tula’s center.  A regular residential stalinka, e. g. typical of Stalinist architecture and probably built in late 40s or early 50s, this house is no different than a dozen of other such buildings that adorn this quiet street.  The building’s ground floor houses an office of a law firm and a recently opened cosmetics shop.


I have to add that remodeling first (ground) floor apartments of residential buildings into offices and shops became one of features of architectural design in Russia in the last decade or so.  So this building is no different.  It faces now a row of newly developed townhouses made of brick (or imitation brick) …

cottages cropped

and plastic siding.

town houses white pervomaiskaia

The back yard, though nice and quiet, has a different feeling altogether.  It overlooks an old but still stout town house, a more frail-looking five-story khrushchevka (an apartment building typical of Khrushchev’s era city planning) …

inner yard house and khrushch

… along with a usual set of dilapidated wooden storage huts (sarai) …

back yard sarai

… and metal boxes of private garages.


Each of these constructions represents an epoch in itself.  I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the old white house survives from the beginning of 20th century when the street had a different name and was not in the center of the city as it is now but on the outskirts…

I can imagine how happy people were to get new apartments in that khrushchevka…  At that time, in the 60s or probably 70s this was already a great city area – near the park, in the center.  In fact, a family friend, herself in her sixties now, still lives there with her mother, a general’s widow, whose husband was given one of the apartments here when he retired…

I can still enumerate hurdles one had to go through in 1980s in order to get a permission to build or install private garages…

And those sarai, storage huts, where people kept everything from boxes of New Year tree ornaments and empty jars in the summer to potatoes – in basements – and rows of self-made preserves in the winter!  Sometimes, at least in provincial towns, people kept pigs or rabbits there, too.  But this was the time of deficit.

If sarai and garages are noticeable right away, then a small sign on the back wall of this apartment house is not.

ubezhishche dom

The sign is rusty and covered by different paper flyers advertising moving companies or plastic ceilings.  But one can still read “Shelter No. 3” on it.

ubezhishche table

Another era.  That of the pre-WWII or the beginning of cold war when bomb shelters were built in basements of newly built residential buildings.  Buildings typical of Stalinist architecture were constructed from 1930s until the end of 1950s.  Looking at this house now I wonder when exactly it was built.  My main question is, of course, whether this inner yard with its fancy SUVs parked here now, saw black NKVD’s, secret police’s cars, rolling in the night and quietly stopping to pick up some or other resident of this prestigious house and unleash yet another personal tragedy?

History often hides behind modern facades.  Universally true this fact is even more obvious in Russia.  Walking in Tula I am constantly aware of these overlapping layers of time, of beginnings and endings, and of transitions.  Looking into the future I hope that bomb shelters and storage huts will remain in “inner yards” of our collective memory but in our present we'll be accompanied by more peaceful, though mundane, cosmetic shops and town houses instead.