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This month we launched a new column called ‘House on Wheels’, which is dedicated to alternative places to live and alternative communities. 

Sonya has extensive hitchhiking experience and has lived in many different communes in her life. 

The ‘Not Today, Not Yesterday, Not Tomorrow’ team spoke to Sonya about the general rules of living in a community and how to travel hipster style.

Sonya, 20 years old

“The first communes I lived in were hippie communes…”

I started travelling to communes as a schoolgirl. I would run away from home, classes, and recess and find myself on the highway. I hitchhiked a lot. And in those moments, when you pass a new city, you don’t always have a sleepover, and I most often found shelter in shelters, communes, brothels, and squats.

When I hitchhiked, I wasn’t scared, although now I realise that it looked scary (a 15-year-old girl somewhere on the road hitchhiking across cities). 

Five years have passed since my first hitchhiking trip, and I think I am the only hitchhiker who has never had anything happen to me. I have had a lot of dangerous situations, but I just felt what to do, and so everything was solved safely.

The first communes I lived in were hippie communes. It’s a very large community of rainbow people, adherents of the principle of living by the rules of the Rainbow Festival. Then it was ‘Hitchhiker’s Guild’, ‘Home for All’. That is, they were communes created by people who travel to different countries and cities and build small communities that make life easier for hitchhikers. These communes are open access, but you won’t find this open access if you don’t know what to look for.

The second type of communes are the idea guys, not just travellers who were cool to stop and hitchhike with. Ideological young people who gathered to do something together. In such communes, creativity is constantly born, people teach each other, inspire one another and participate in anything. These are usually people who have read the same books and who are connected by the same idea, and unification is more about rebellion against the system, about showing that life can be organised differently.

The third type of commune is just large apartments or houses where 7-10 people live together. Although often such associations do not consider themselves a commune. That is, while the first and second types invite you to join them, they are ready to cooperate, and you can join them, the third type of commune is more closed. And you usually get into them when you approach a street musician and say, ‘Hi! I’ve been in Kyiv for 10 minutes, I have no place to live’. And he subsequently takes you to an apartment house like this.

Photos from the heroine’s personal archive

‘After a while, you start to notice this personal space…’

At first glance, in the communes where I lived, it may seem like there’s no privacy. But after spending some time there, you start to notice that personal space. Of course, it’s not your apartment, but you can find personal space. 

About food, in the communes where I lived, they were all freegans. One, it’s a cool activity; two, it’s an excuse for all the communards to get together and go on an adventure, and three, it creates a commons and doesn’t require spending money. 

Stuff? They were often brought from the street too, and they were shared. If an item belongs to someone, it is usually signed for and taken with the owner’s permission. 

I’ve only been to one political shelter where your signed stuff or the food on your shelf gets stolen. That’s a thrash. But usually everything is within the bounds of decency, but of course there are different freaks who quickly break into the communes and do not do all that, but they are also quickly removed. Mostly, nobody takes things without permission; they don’t steal your food. And personal boundaries need to be kept there, of course, but this issue is often solved by the atmosphere that exists within the community. I’ve never been uncomfortable, as a rule, in the places I’ve lived.

There are not many rules in communes. Probably the most popular one is not to use substances or drink alcohol

I agree with that, because that’s what brothels are for.

I liked communes where nobody worked, because it’s coliving when people work. They only meet in the evening; at night, everyone sleeps. I’ve been to very few places like that, and they were more of a forced communal life than a principled one. When no one is working, it feels like no one is sleeping. The kitchen is constantly buzzing; people are gathering there, everyone is talking, doing something together.

When any idea is supported instantly and you have 4, 5, 10 or 20 people who are ready to get involved. I remember one time we were watching a movie and a person came up to us and said, ‘I really like cinnabons, and I’ve only been to a cafe that serves these cinnabons twice in my life. Why don’t we all go together?’. So we ended up going, and so many people came, not only communards, but people who knew about the commune, friends of friends. And we took over the whole second floor of the place, moved all the tables, and still we couldn’t fit in. Those who had money bought a number of these buns and gave them to those who didn’t have them. And all of this was born out of one man’s dream to go out and eat cinnabons. 

And of course, the classic rule is to wash up after yourself. There is usually a cleaning schedule that is shared by all communards, where one communard or group cleans the common space.

In a commune, as in any community, there will be quarrels – quiet or loud conflicts. 

Since I’ve lived in communes before, I’ve had 3-4 years to observe how communities will grow. And almost all of them, apart from the hippie ones, had their revolutions and riots. Where they took over the premises, someone was kicked out by force, blocked kitchens and toilets, got their own rules, and strikes could last for weeks – it was fun. But I wasn’t involved in that because I lived more in the traveller communes. I lived there for a month, made friends with the communards, and then went on travelling; this format suited me.

I never lived alone for more than two weeks. I was from a large family, and we had crowds of people at home all the time: my brothers and sisters, their friends, friends of friends, friends of friends, friends of friends, and so on. Then I moved to Lithuania and lived in a dorm. For a long time, I slept on a single bed with my best friend, because there were a lot of people and no space. Then I rented big apartments, the company of ‘dormitory’ remained, but more people were added. You could say that my whole life experience has been living in communes; not everyone calls it that.

All the communes I’ve been to have been legal. But there is a fine line. For example, one commune in Russia has a 19th century water tower. And the guys rented it from some gangster for super low money. You couldn’t organise living quarters there, and if you look deep into the law, it’s illegal; if you look in terms of payment, it was all legal.

Hippie communes are usually set up for free, and no one pays there. It was a finished house or apartment that someone already owned. Another way to develop as it was with the ‘House for All’ is to look for donations or spend personal money on the project. You rent a room for a month and put everyone in it for free.

All these communes exist and operate. I don’t know how much of an open lifestyle they have now. 

Photos from the heroine’s personal archive

I was almost always the ‘street person’: I got there by finding information on the Internet; in rare cases, I was brought in. 

Usually, I surfed the internet and found all the addresses there. And I would just write to them, explain my situation, and they would let me in.

But the third type of communes, as I already mentioned, is when just a group of friends live together, you can’t find such a community format on the Internet. And when I came to an unfamiliar city where I was alone, I would look for freaky people. They could be musicians, or I could just see by their appearance that they were close to me in spirit.

I told them who I was and what I was, asked if there was a place to sleep, and I was already brought to closed communes. 

One commune in Moscow distributed leaflets about life in communities; that is, anyone could see it and come, and I think some people got there that way and later stayed there for life.

As I said above, my whole life is like living in one big commune because of the large number of people around me. But what the communes taught me is that everything is possible, and it’s cool to be different. When you see a 40-year-old woman living in one commune and a 16-year-old girl registering her on a dating site, you realise what a small percentage of it was that would happen. And it’s cool that communes allow different people with different backgrounds to come together.