Snapshot from Enter through the Balcony documentary.
The visuals — frightening, ugly, yet still somehow charming monolith apartment blocks — are the key elements of Enter Through the Balcony. Though they may initially appear identical on the outside, filmmaker Roman Blazhan dives deep behind the facades of these balconies into the cultures and mindsets they represent.
“Our film is an ode to love for Ukraine and its people. And balconies can say much more about us and our time than we can,” the director Roman Blazhan says.
The iconic Soviet movie Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath! released in 1976, depicts the story of a Moscow man who, in a drunken stupor, flies to Saint Petersburg by mistake.
In Saint Petersburg, he takes a taxi to the exact street and building number of his apartment in Moscow — where he discovers a building and an apartment identical to his Moscow residence. The plausibility of this story was clear to all living in the Soviet Union: planned housing developments throughout the country ensured that all buildings constructed during this time were virtually identical — from the deserts of Uzbekistan to the streets of Kyiv.
In today’s world, however, the plot of Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath! seems far less believable. Since the movie’s release, much has changed with these grey buildings. To a large extent, this change has been caused by a transformation of the balconies.
These centrally-planned Soviet housing developments served an important purpose: small apartments allocated at no cost to citizens solved the housing shortages that plagued many Soviet cities. The identical construction of these buildings allowed for maximum efficiency in production and also served to limit manifestations of individual identity — in the Soviet Union everyone, and their homes, had to be identical.
Identity, however, began to push through the sameness, much like a flower in spring. This new sense of identity manifested in many areas of life, including balconies. In the documentary, Blazhan explores the varied uses of these balconies as home cafés, stores, pantries, meeting rooms, etc. In particular, as many people were forcibly relocated from their villages to the big cities, they brought their unique home identities to their balconies, which often resemble the balcony of a khata, a traditional village house.
In the film, Kyiv architect Oleksandr Burlaka explains that many citizens constructed their first balconies themselves — even though this type of entrepreneurship was strictly forbidden in the Soviet Union.
“All of these Soviet balconies were a sort of demonstration of the huge shadow economy that existed in the Soviet Union,” the architect says.
In fact, Dmytro Volik, Head Architect of the city Dnipro, recounts that in the 1970’s architects in Dnipro deliberately designed balconies in such a fashion that they could not be glazed. The residents, of course, found ways to overcome this obstacle.
These balconies are unattractive from the outside — there is plastic lining, wooden planks, and trash all visible from the street — yet each balcony looks unique.
For many years, even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, glazing a balcony required official permission. However, this never stopped the citizens from customizing the layout of their balconies — they brought warmth and additional space, and their ensuing benefits.
Enter Through the Balcony was filmed across eight Ukrainian cities: Kyiv, Odesa, Kharkiv, Lviv, Dnipro, Vinnytsia, Poltava, and Horishni Plavni. The stories of the film’s subjects reveal insights about Ukraine during the post-Soviet period through its architecture and urban development. This in-depth look at Ukrainian life through balconies attempts to understand where the public sphere ends and the personal sphere begins.
The film can be viewed on Takflix, an online platform for Ukrainian films, for UAH 39 ($1.50).
Next time you are in Ukraine, don’t disregard the grey buildings outside the city center. Take a look at the balconies and see what you can discover about Ukraine and Ukrainians.