Engineer Maxim Kosmin became a blogger by chance after he discovered the hidden beauty of St. Petersburg's historic flats. He shows a side of the city's life that is never seen by tourists, but which is quite common for many locals.
Maxim, tell us your story.
I was raised in Kirovsky District, which is far from the city center. I lived on Prospect Veteranov [south-west of St. Petersburg] until I was 25, and now I’m 31. I can’t say that my neighborhood developed my interest in history. The same goes for my friends and family, nobody was really into краеведение [study of regional history]. Honestly, I still don’t completely understand the origins of my interest. These days I live on Izmailovsky Prospect, which is a historic part of the city. The house dates to the early twentieth century, but we don’t have old artifacts, as there was a complete renovation during the Soviet era.
I studied finance at St. Petersburg State University of Economics and later worked as an engineer-economist in shipbuilding. I spent 10 years at that, and last fall I quit my job and moved completely into krayevedenie.
How did St. Petersburg flats appear in your life?
I was looking for an apartment, the one I live in now. So I was spending a lot of time on real estate websites. After I’d found my flat, I still kept looking on the Internet, simply for curiosity's sake. I was quite surprised to find apartments with artifacts from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. So I began saving all the photos on my computer and then thought: “If this is interesting to me, maybe it’s worth of sharing with others?”
In 2015 I created a page on Vkontakte [Russia’s leading social network] and named it Stary fond [Old Fund]. I started posting photos there, got some followers, and among them were some professional historians. We got acquainted and I plunged deeper into the topic. Occasionally, followers of my page invited me to their apartments, so I photographed them and made the first publications with my own shots.
In the summer of 2016 I launched my Instagram account, where I posted just my own photographs. In the beginning, I would be to be allowed to visit, would enter some apartments by chance, or act through realtors. Of course, today people know about my blog and invite me to visit, but in the beginning it was rather complicated.
If you look at my blog, you’ll see that it’s only 50-60% about communal apartments, so the rest are private flats. The tenants reacted differently, but of course at the early stage it was easier for me to get into communal apartments, because people there are used to strangers. There are some flats that are constantly open. And if you get into the paradnaya [entrance hall], you can easily sneak into an apartment. On the other hand, how is ethical is that, to enter the flats of unknown people? But it’s highly unlikely that anyone will pay attention to you, because if the kommunalka is big, the neighbors often don’t know each other very well.
There were cases when I stood on the staircase and some tenants passed by, so I started asking questions. Once, I was very interested to get into a certain flat, because it was round. It was a huge communal apartment and it stretched all around the yard. Surprisingly, they let me in, went into their own room, and told me I could walk around freely. But of course this rarely happens. Usually, people watch you carefully when you visit them. So, if we are talking about private flats, there is almost no chance you can get in without a prior agreement, but it has happened!
What is the most amazing apartment that you've featured on your blog?
It is a former studio, and it is actually just one room – 50 square meters (540 square feet). There is a kitchen, a bathroom separated by a curtain, a ceiling that is 6 meters (20 feet) high, and a huge window. So it is typical for an artist's studio. An old lady lives there alone, surrounded by a ton of different antiques: pieces of furniture, paintings, statues, lots of things! You won't feel that the atmosphere is messy; everything seems to be in its appointed place, but still there are lots of things.
There is a contrast of things belonging to different epochs. In the middle of the room, there is a cast-iron stove built during the Siege of Leningrad. It’s big – 3 meters (10 feet) high – and connected to the flue, so this lady burns there something from time to time.
What would you recommend foreign tourists see when visiting St. Petersburg?
My favorite house is a Complex Basseynovo Tovarishchestva [a public company named after Basseynaya street]. First, it was built as a cooperative, so it’s not a for-profit house [the most typical form of the housing in pre-revolutionary St. Petersburg]. It was one of a few houses where tenants actually could buy an apartment, not just rent it. It is quite severe, gloomy, but at the same time beautiful.
Also, you must include Kamenny Island, with its pre-revolutionary dachas, on your itinerary. It’s good for a long stroll, and you can see how people lived in the early twentieth century (back then it was then a suburb). I would especially highlight Hauswald Dacha, which was recently restored. Of course, you can’t get inside, as it’s privately owned, but it’s worth seeing. It’s especially good during the period of golden autumn.
I would also say Petrovsky Island, which attracts me with its contrasts. But I must warn readers that it’s not a place of the greatest beauty. It has several interesting spots: old mansions, a new bridge, built very close to a house, and abandoned brewery and a retirement home for actors.
Maxim and two co-authors have compiled a book on pre-revolutionary life. Check it out here.
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