How Dreams Come True

PS: this documentary is about a community in Siberia. I was a small part of this 30 000 people strong adventure in the 80s. There is a lot more to this story, but I had to fit everything in 1 hour, so not all the bits got a proper mention).

Please, overlook the poor quality of this presentation. The story is amazing and is worth knowing about. Most of the footage is archival, I was lifting it from bobbins in PAL system, so a lot of quality was lost. Plus, the editing is not very good, in 1993 I didn't know anything about making movies, I was simply driven by my desire to share this story with Americans when, upon my arrival to the US in 1989, I realized that they don't know anything about Russia that is even remotely positive. In spite of the poor quality of this video, the story still comes through.

Enjoy! ~ Elena

This is a story about Russian people, Common Russians, not famous politicians or sportsmen, or scientists. This story is about people you don't hear about on news reports. This community lives in the Ural Mountains and are known as "Molodyojney Jiloy Komplex", or "MJK", which means "Residential Complex for Youth." I want to share my admiration and compassion for the people who live there.

by Elena Tonetti, 1993

This is a story about Russian people, Common Russians, not famous politicians or sportsmen, or scientists. This story is about people you don't hear about on news reports.

I want to tell you about an amazing community in the Ural Mountains known as "Molodyojney Jiloy Komplex", or "MJK", which means "Residential Complex for Youth." I want to share my admiration and compassion for the people who live there.

Although it's residents are ordinary Russian families - engineers, teachers, bus drivers, factory workers, this community is one-of-a-kind; and it started a whole movement in Russia in the seventies. The very creation of this community is a saga about these young people's ingenuity, courage, innovation, guerrilla war with bureaucracy, their great use of humor, and their ability to turn every aspect of their dreams into reality.

Read the full script below.

This is a story about Russian people, Common Russians, not famous politicians or sportsmen, or scientists. This story is about people you don't hear about on news reports.​

I want to tell you about an amazing community in the Ural Mountains known as "Molodyojney Jiloy Komplex", or "MJK", which means "Residential Complex for Youth." I want to share my admiration and compassion for the people who live there.​

Although its residents are ordinary Russian families - engineers, teachers, bus drivers, factory workers, this community is one-of-a-kind; and it started a whole movement in Russia in the seventies. The very creation of this community is a saga about these young people's ingenuity, courage, innovation, guerrilla war with bureaucracy, their great use of humor, and their ability to turn every aspect of their dreams into reality. It may be hard for us to realize today but, during the time when Leonid Brezhnev was the President of the USSR, it was nearly impossible to do any creative project unless the initiative came from a high ranking member of the Communist Party. The country's economy was silently falling apart.

This story begins in 1977 with a bright idea shared by a small group of friends who were students at the Ural Polytechnic Institute in the city that was then know as Sverdlovsk and is now called Yekaterinburg. These young people were at the stage of life when they were marrying and wanting to have children, but they had no chance to get their own apartments in the foreseeable future. In Soviet Russia there was an enormous housing shortage. Since the 1917 Revolution all the apartments belonged to the government, and were allocated according to governmental priorities. For example, first in line were Communist Party members and labor veterans (people who had worked in the same factory for 25 years). Young college graduates had no hope of receiving an apartment of their own. Normally, young families shared their parents' small apartments, where space was already crowded because their grandparents also lived with them.

To escape this trap, the heroes of our story decided to make a historically impossible move:

instead of waiting a lifetime to receive an apartment from the government, they determined to build their own immediately! Amazingly the idea was greeted with approval by Boris Yeltsin, who was the Head of the Sverdlovsk Regional Government at the time. He found the project promising and took it under his wing, signing the necessary papers and supporting it at every stage. He even visited MJK during one of their festivals to present an achievement award.

What started as a brain-storming tea party in 1977, eventually grew into a 30,000 person urban community with 22 buildings, a House of Culture (what we would call a community center), the first sport and fitness center open to the public in the entire Soviet Union, a health center, a progressive school, playgrounds, the first Russian cable television station, a ham radio center, underground parking, a clubhouse for teenagers, and a rich communal life that encouraged the formation of dozens of clubs and interest groups for woman, teens, children and men, and even a special, innovative program for pregnant woman that prepared them for birthing under water.

All of these things were dream-like for the common Russian citizen. The entire city of Yekaterinburg, with a population of 1.5 million, for example, had only five community centers yet MJK created its own center for a population of 5,000, as that was the expected amount of residents at that time. In contrast to the rest of the population, for whom basic survival was the major goal, MJK people were creating a quality of life in which happiness and self-realization were goals. This was entirely new concept for Soviet reality.

There was another innovation that attracted the entire country's attention to MJK:

the grassroots democracy which developed as the way of self-governance and decision-making within the community. The 'revolutionary' idea of electing a Community Council that actually cared about enhancing the quality of life of in the community and sought input from its residents, which gave them a sense of social security and emotional comfort that had probably never before existed in Russia. Each important Council meeting was broadcast by their cable television station. MJK residents could call in during the meetings and take part in the decision-making as a matter of course. Those elected to the Council had earned the respect of the residents during the construction phase of the first building. These people were their natural leaders, well-know in the new community. The success of the whole idea, in fact, had depended a great deal on the effective teamwork of this group of young people.

Truly the accomplishment of creating this new community during the Brezhnev era is still considered a miracle today by many. The first building, completed on New Year's Eve in 1980, would have cost about $1,000,000 if money had exchanged hands. However, our heroes didn't have anything necessary to accomplish the task except their ambition, energy, determination and ingenuity. They created a barter system based on trading future apartments for materials, equipment, signatures of bureaucrats, and occasional expert labor, including, demolition specialists, electricians, plumbers.

This story's theme is one of overcoming seemingly impossible obstacles. In the process, people were transformed from their status of ordinary citizens to operating at heroic levels, - stretching their own capacities far beyond what had been their normal limits. The original group of friends became the core Organizing Committee.

In order to gain the critical mass and to recruit people who were willing to work hard to become the future residents, they approached many plants and factories in the city. As everywhere in Russia, each of these employers had a long waiting list of workers who needed apartments. Those interested could apply to participle. The condition was that they would have to part with their jobs for two years to work on the construction. Only after that would they receive an apartment. For this duration they would be out of their careers, perhaps missing opportunities for advancement, and there was no guaranty of success. After all, this was an unheard of, untried experiment--the first such undertaking in Soviet history.

The people who applied were all risk-takers with a strong pioneer spirit, and a very active approach to life. Recruiting the future residents, however, was only one of the many initial tasks. The Organizing Committee had to gain credibility. This it did through hard work. Everyone who was part of the MJK Project achieved such efficient, high quality results that they rapidly earned respect throughout the city. Another initial task was finding seed money for the Project. In Russia, the fiscal year is the same as the calendar year. Unspent funds are not carried forward, but are lost to the recipient organization.

The Organizing Committee identified a few organizations with unspent funds, and persuaded them to give a total of 100,000 rubles (worth about $100,000 at that time) to the MJK Project. They used some of the money to hire architects, who designed a gorgeous "Town of the 21st Century" in record time. But the city bureaucrats could not allow some young graduates to have anything like that. Instead, they advised them to settle for something normal. The plan was changed to a standard huge, nine-story apartment building.

There are only a few types of buildings in Russia; they are the same all over the country. The Committee selected the most modern design. But they found out right away that there weren't enough factories to build the necessary parts. The construction they chose is basically a metal frame with huge concrete panels between sections of the frame. They went to a huge factory that produced this metal construction, and they arranged to add a special shop to the factory to produce the metal frames for MJK. The factory managers allowed the workers to teach the MJK teams all the operations. It is documented that they learned about 20 times faster than normal trainees.

Initially, when they approached the factory manager with their idea, they were given a little task which should have taken two days to complete. They were told, if you can handle this, come back in two days and we'll give you a new assignment. They returned with the completed job in four hours. Next, the factory people gave them a job expected to take two months. The MJK teams, highly motivated and enthusiastic, wasted no time and finished it in just 17 days!

These first MJK teams soon dubbed themselves "fighters".

These steps were necessary in order to get the building materials. Under the Soviet economic system, they could not just order what they needed. Everything that plant was producing was already designated for different developments for the next five years. In order to obtain anything extra, not in the five years plan, you had to make it yourself. Thus they built an entire shop at the factory. There were only five shops at the factory originally, and it was the only factory in a territory equal in size to France, where these metal frames were produced. To build the sixth shop was considered to be an 18 month task, but they completed the job in six months with excellent quality. And every step of the Project maintained this level of commitment, quality and efficiency, which was unprecedented in public construction in the USSR.

Now, the next step was procuring the concrete panels to insert in the metal framework.

The Committee sent a representative to a concrete plant, only to discover that the requisite panels were not being produced. Rather than settling for a poorer quality product and going to the end of the waiting list, an MJK team also quickly added an extra shop to the plant to produce exactly what they needed. It was like that at every single step. When they needed floors, the local wood-working factory didn't have the right materials, so a team of MJK workers built the floors themselves. Not only were they not given everything, but they had to start almost every step at the point of manufacture and fabrication.

In a country in which there is a total shortage of everything, you can't just ask for something and receive it. First you have to get permission to request it; then get permission to make it; then teach yourself to make it; and finally, make it!

Even the land that the City gave for the MJK community required heroic efforts to prepare as a construction site. It was a beautiful piece of land on the edge of a forest, near a large lake. It was on the outskirts of the city, and completely undeveloped. There were no roads and no utilities. A thin layer of soil hid a base of solid granite. "Negotiations" with the granite cost the Committee a few apartments, which were promised to a few demolition experts. They dynamited so thoroughly that everything was almost in sand! Next, the sand had to be removed by specialized machinery. Somebody remembered that a neighborhood nearby was under development, and it was on a marsh. Sand was needed to fill this swampland. The Committee offered the sand to their neighbors who needed it. Their workers, using all their equipment, trucks and excavators, arrived and removed the sand. They even helped MJK by using their machinery for some of the pre-construction steps. In exchange for their sand, the "fighters" obtained tools and training to do next steps.

Finally, everything was ready and the metal framework and concrete panels were put in place. By the middle of November, it was time to do the interior work to finish the actual apartments. This included installing kitchen and bathroom appliances and fixtures, flooring, windows, wallpaper, painting... There were 213 apartments in this building, and it usually takes about seven months to complete that much work. But MJK had less than seven weeks. The commissions that approve the complete buildings travel all over the country on December 31, approving all buildings that are finished. In order to meet this deadline, incredible, superhuman efforts were sustained for a month and a half.

Completion of the apartments became the entire life focus for those involved in the work.

They called this first structure their "newborn".

Possibly never in before Russia have so many people worked on one building at the same time. Everything was very organized. There was no chaos or disruption. The work went on 24 hours a day. It gets dark there in December around 3:30 p.m. And it's cold - this is the Russian winter! These people were working in just tee-shirts because they had to carry heavy cement and other materials and equipment, and bulky clothing would hinder them. The teams worked in ten-hour shifts.

Many of those who came to work on the first building weren't even supposed to be there because they were candidates for the second and third buildings. But they understood that if this building wasn't finished and approved by December 31st of that year, they couldn't get approval to occupy it until the end of the next fiscal year, and then the second and third building would be further delayed. Sometimes there were 500 people working in one section. It was a nine-story building with six sections. The professionals who knew how to do the inside work would have many people watching and helping. These helpers had one day to learn everything, then they would do the work themselves beginning the next day, in other apartments.

The quality of the work had to be totally professional. It was a source of special pride to do it with the best quality. To build that first building, "fighters" had to do nine days of work in one day. The Organizing Committee's schedule started at 8 a.m. with a meeting about tasks for the day. Then there was a full day of work, running around to different authorities, getting signatures, meeting the heads of the many different organizations involved. Many organizations around the city were putting a little bit of resources, or money, or people, or agreements, or something into MJK. The Organizing Committee had to connect all of them. There were no telephones or cars. This construction site was totally out in the middle of nowhere, and there were basically no roads. It took a lot of running around just to get agreements between a few people.

At 7:00 in the evening, there would be a second meeting, to discuss what had happened during the day, and brainstorm about the day's problems. At 10:00 there was a third meeting to plan the next day's work. After midnight they met again to plan tactics and strategies. You see, authorities were saying "no" at first; our heroes got "no's" at every level. They had to go home and re-do what they proposed, and go again and get another "no", and keep this up until they got a "yes". This story should be in the manuals on business success and psychology journals!

There was a problem about where the organizing Committee would meet.

At first it was downtown, in a little old room; but this place was too far from the construction site. They found an old, half-ruined village house, fairly close to the site, and they took it over for the month and a half that it took to construct first building. They all lived there for six weeks.

Evgeny Korolyov, chairman of the organizing Committee, deserves special attention. He has been the leader of this community from the very first day. His presence and charismatic personality inspired and energized the others. He kept them motivated and focused, and always had encouraging words for those who were fatigued. He was both the visionary and manger. While keeping the big picture in view, he also knew who was supposed to be doing what, and how it should fit all together. What this Organizing Committee of a dozen individuals accomplished was equal to the results of work of an entire research institute: they put together the plan and kept every step flowing, overcoming every single obstacle!

The harsh Russian winter provided many challenges.

The roof presented the first major problem. It was snowing continuously everyday. The workers had to put huge tents over a section at a time, dry up that section, install the roof, and then move the tent. They constantly worked in these severe weather conditions. That's why the workers called themselves "fighters" because all the obstacles made the project look like a war zone.

Another challenge, was the fact that only steam heat was installed. This system worked well when it was up and running but was insufficient to heat the new building. Not only did the water freeze in the pipes, but the walls bearing those pipes froze as well. Since wallpaper does not stick to frozen walls and peels right off, the workers had to go from apartment to apartment with portable heaters. They would heat up the apartment, do everything inside, close it with a key, go to the next apartment, heat it up inside, and keep going like that. Eventually they made a furnace with a huge fan. It sent hot air up to heat a whole section.

When the first building was finished, there was a forest on one side, and huge pile of broken rocks on the other side. They couldn't be leveled without using dynamite again - who knew what that would do to the finished building? So, they drew a picture of a beautiful playground with different levels. From one side it looked like a huge ocean ship with sails, and from another side it was like a fort with many levels. They built it out of snow at first to give the idea to the inspectors. The following summer, they built a real fort out of big rocks.

One apartment was reserved for a kids' club. It had beautiful paintings on the walls and even a playground gym. It was run by parents, and was available from 5:00 pm until 9:00 pm. This wasn't paid childcare - the families took turns providing the supervision. In view of the extreme housing shortage in Russia, the decision to turn one apartment into a childcare center was considered by most outsiders an unaffordable luxury. However, this decision was a great example of the MJK's ingenuity and forward thinking.

When the Inspectors came to approve the completion of the building at 3:00 pm on December 31, everything was "spic and span" ready. The inspectors were totally stunned. They couldn't believe that out of nothing, in the middle of nowhere, there was this nine-story, six-section building, erected in no time. It even had this incredible child care space, and the fort, and someone had placed a Christmas tree on the top of the fort!​

Everyone gathered for the triumphal moment.

The keys to the apartments were finally in their hands. Korolyov spoke to the gathering. His words were very warm and grateful and touching, and everyone's eyes were full of tears. Then they all went home to sleep, sleep, sleep... But by midnight, which was New Year's Eve, there was a crowd of a few hundred people by the building. They came just to touch it, to look at it. Yes, it's real. It's happened! It's here!

Next came the moving-in; all 213 apartments at once! It was highly organized, full of fun, excitement and creative cooperation. Everybody celebrated with a wonderful house-warming party. This festive atmosphere remained with them for years. On weekends they gathered for fun family games and competitions. They discovered that they could play as wholeheartedly as they worked.

What felt like the end of the story, however, turned out to be only the beginning.

The women wrote the next chapter.

They had become good friends. They began by organizing themselves into a woman's club, Ryabinushka. They set up classes for themselves: sewing, drawing, painting, macramé, cooking, aerobics, parenting and others. They taught each other, sharing freely without the exchange of money.

One of the women who emerged as a leader and organizer is Larisa Leonova. In 1988, Larisa organized the "Global Family" Center in MJK, which is dedicated to individual growth and to the spiritual and cultural development of families. Global family is part of an international network of Holistic Centers.