In the symbology of the modern home, the basement is a place of mystery and fear. It's in the basement that monsters lurk. Stairs creak. Pipes shudder. The basement doesn't get regular use like a kitchen or living room, so it's a space that always feels foreign, like it doesn't really belong to us. Institutionally-built buildings often have basements too, and for the dwellers of an Almaty apartment block, this place seems even creepier, I'd imagine, as it's not even clear whether one has permission to ever go there. So it goes that the basement stairs themselves evoke a certain curiosity or dread. Sometimes, they're hidden, the entrance being available only from the inside of a building's narrow stairwell, or podyezd [подъезд]. In many cases, though, Almaty's basements are accessed from the outside, like the classic shutter doors of a cellar, but here they have a distinct form, an angle that starts at door height and then slants down, sloughing off snow. This feature of architectural Almaty is mostly found in a certain series of three-story buildings, concentrated mostly around the old VDNKh exhibition center, and they are easily ignored, as they rarely concern us. Yet at the same time they're somehow inviting, and like every passageway, they puts certain questions in your head: whither and what for?
If we wanted to dive into these questions, there are three people who could be our guides, three characters who are connected with the basement in the history of Soviet buildings: the janitor, the stoker, and the plumber. The Russian word for janitor is dvornik [дворник], from the word that means courtyard, dvor [двор], because this was the man who kept an apartment block's inner courtyard tidy with his rake and his broom. In the early Soviet period, the janitor was notorious as an instrument of totalitarian snooping. He was that shady presence, always in earshot. If he kept his equipment down those stairs, maybe the passageway itself was seen with suspicion, guilty by association?
Old Russian apartment blocks were heated by their own boiler rooms, basement lairs tended to by kochegars [когечары], men who shoveled coal into ovens and stoked the flames, which is why they're called stokers in English. Being a stoker was the kind of low-profile job sought out by artistic types. These people were loathe to pick up a bureacratic job and weren't party members anyway, but if they just created and didn't work at all they'd be labeled "parasites", an actual crime. That's how highly-educated members of the intelligentsia ended up working filthy jobs in basements, scooping coal with sooty cheeks. Viktor Tsoi, the most legendary rock star the USSR ever produced, worked in such an underground boiler room. He named it Kamchatka and today it's a tourist attraction, maybe the world's most famous former boiler room. Seeing basement stairs in Almaty, you can think of Tsoi and his kochegar brethren, down in the dark, spinning wisdom.
Yet if kochegars and dvorniks ever controlled the basements in Almaty, they certainly don't now. Buildings are heated from afar by neighborhood substations, and the city is kept clean by a new municipal organ. If the basement these days has a master, it's the plumber. Aging water pipes and gas lines need frequent attention, and so plumbers are often on call to descend down these stairs and give the building a tweak. You can find their phone numbers on basement doors - "Santekhnik" [сантехник], or so they're called, "ring any time." The basement remains such a forbidden zone that there are news reports of plumbers living down there for years without notice, setting up bachelor pads in unclaimed space.
Unless you're a plumber, or a street sweeper, or an old-timey coal scooper, you've probably never been down these stairs, and that's why they have such power. The stairs are topped with a gate and a lock, secure like a secret clubhouse. We understand that this world below the ground is not for us to know, and it taunts us.