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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Upstairs, Downstairs

Life inside a Russian dormitory is more than cramped quarters, weeklong orgies and foul-smelling toilets. It is a place where cultures may meet, may clash, or may just drink endless cups of tea. Bryon MacWilliams spent some time inside the obshchaga, a Russian slang term for dorm. What he found was a world of its own.


A metal bell shrilly rings out, twice, and Sergei Pererva, a third-year student, rises to get the door. A list instructs visitors how many times to depress the doorbell to reach residents of Block 28, where 18 adults and two infants share eight bedrooms, four sinks, two toilets and a kitchen.

Between the ages of 18 and 23, or perhaps longer, they will sleep, wake, cook, clean, eat, do laundry, use the bathroom, study, entertain guests and fall in and out of love on the seventh floor of Dormitory 12 on the main campus of St. Petersburg State Technical University.

The well-regarded institution has changed its name from the Leningrad Polytechnic Institute. It has strode into the free market with a staggered, increasingly fee-based system of education that prepares students not for the military-industrial complex, but for car manufacturing, the environmental sciences and even finance and economics. Still, its housing continues to stress the collective over the individual.

The state system of higher education would collapse without these dilapidated buildings, the monthly rental of which often fails to cover the costs of state-subsidized gas, electricity and water. Thirty rubles per month, or less than $13 per year, will usually secure a small room and a cot for students anywhere fromArkhangelsk to Vladivostok.

"We've been living here a long time. We're already used to it. It suits us in the fullest sense," says Kirill Uvarov, a third-year student specializing in semiconductors from the Tyumen region in Siberia.

"We don't pay attention to the deficiencies," adds Mikhail Klyukvin, also a third-year student and computer specialist from Cherepovets. "We don't think about what we have. We simply have it. ? It's a typical communal apartment. As it always was, it still is. It is part of the Russian soul."

While tuition, for many, is free, students still have to pay for food and transportation out of their own pockets. Good students at the technical university may receive a 40-ruble discount ticket on all forms of mass transportation, plus monthly stipends ranging from 160 to 240 rubles ($5.50 to $8.50). "It's a symbolic gesture, though. It's enough to buy beer, that's all," says Pererva.

On a recent Tuesday, Pererva is drinking Beseda, or conversation tea, with chocolate and strawberry waffle cookies in room 218. He and three friends are paging through photo albums that show a passage of time f hairstyles, fashions f common to a family. A lightbulb of unfrosted glass hangs bare from a black wire. A couple of pin-up girls reside in a bookcase. From the walls, which are covered by two styles of Soviet-era wallpaper, hang a game of Velcro ball darts, a tennis racket, a wall calendar, bright orange curtains and, on the window sill, a jump rope and pair of boxing gloves. The last item explains the black-and-blue bruise at the bridge of Pererva's nose.

The nearby kitchen, which is painted in a chalky green latex, has two gas stoves and a desk chair that is missing a leg. It is illuminated by a fluorescent light fixture that was trash-picked when the old exposed wiring went faulty. Five house plants grow here, one in an empty keg of Baltika 7.

There are toilets, but no bathrooms. Showers are located on the first floor, and are available daily from 7 a.m. to noon, and 6 p.m. to midnight f except for Thursdays, when they are open only from 6 p.m. to midnight, and Mondays, when they are closed altogether.

Conditions used to be better, the residents say. But three years ago their faculty lost its former dorm block to another faculty that caters to foreign students, who pay much, much more in tuition. Disparities in wealth engender disparities in living standards. A small minority of foreigners f especially Westerners f helps offset a meager state budget and a lesser ability to pay among an almost wholly Russian student body of 20,000.

They're pretty packed in down there," Tom Schauweker says of the lower floors, then dribbles through pursed lips a blend of saliva and Copenhagen tobacco into an empty bottle of Baltika 6, a porter. He sits with his back to the windows in the kitchen of the block of rooms on floor eight and a half. Pickles are piled on a white plate. A bottle of Laphroaig single malt scotch is on a counter nearby. Another American student with a goatee unloads a gym bag of Baltika 3 and Nevskoye beers.

Block 31 is relegated to foreign students of the university's Russian language department. Americans. Germans. Italians. The cost of a shared room exceeds $100 per month. Here there is a washing machine, albeit broken. Here there are showers.

And here there is a dezhurnaya, or a person on duty. At around 9:30 p.m. on a Monday, Lyudmila Nikolayevna f or simply Lyuda to her foreign wards f is on duty. The 62-year-old retired factory worker keeps watch for 24 hours every third day. "It's good work," she says. "The students are good. They don't drink f at least not compared to our [Russian] students."

There is little interaction among the students on the upper floors and those below. The students here tend to remain in their block, or venture out onto the fire escape or the stairwell that borders the elevator shaft and trash chute. Only occasionally the wails of infants, and the shouts of parents disciplining their children, penetrate the walls and scale the air ducts.

Below, Artyom Rusakov is picking a tune from Ingwie Malmsteen on a guitar, its blond veneer nicked and worn. In his third year from Kazakhstan, Rusakov lives in 197, where one wall of his room is papered with flattened packs of cigarettes: Pyotr I, Soyuz Apollon, Dallas, Marlboro, Lucky Strike, L&M, Camel, Salem. The door is a vivid mosaic of metal caps from beer bottles, the crimped edges pressed into the soft wood.

His wallet is linked to a chrome chain that, in turn, is linked to a loop on his black jeans. His black T-shirt depicts the heavy-metal group Satyricon. Tonight he is in Block 28, recounting how Uvarov helped him kick heroin after he had fallen into the habit for a month following a breakup with a girlfriend. "I consider Kirill my older brother," he says.

A family obligates interdependence, and Uvarov is already recounting how, recently, a girl from a neighboring dorm broke up with him on the threshold to her room while he stood opposite, holding a bouquet of roses. They had fallen in love at first sight, he says, and separated just as suddenly after three months. "Afterward I began to think, and then I began to drink beer. I thought, and drank, thought and drank." By 3 a.m., he says, he was ascending and descending the dorm stairwell, knocking on doors, because sometimes even a big brother needs someone to talk to.

The Institute of International Educational Programs is a nine-story brick building that hugs the intersection of Grazhdansky Prospekt, or Civic Avenue, at Ulitsa Gidrotekhnikov, or Street of Hydrotechnics. It is exceptional not only in that it was built recently, in 1988, but in that it was the first in Russia to transform from a long-standing preparatory faculty by merging in 1996 with the university's Russian Language, Literature and Culture Center f gobbling up its share of the local market of foreign students, once up to 1,200 from 64 different countries, who each pay between $1,300 and $2,000 in annual tuition.

The institute's young director, Dmitry Arsenyev, tells guests that his institute is just another division of the university. But, clearly, it is not. Its autonomy and self-sufficiency set it almost wholly apart: slick, bilingual brochures, a trio of well-equipped computer labs, luxury apartments for visiting professors, a multilingual, smartly dressed marketing staff. The university's grand main building, in contrast, is beyond threadbare: dusty, stinky, graffiti-ridden, with cracked plaster and eroded marble.

"They call this the gostinitsa," says Caroline Hindley, as she gestures at the two-room apartments on the second floor of the institute's main dormitory. "The restoration was done specifically to accommodate European and American students," says Hindley, resident director of the American Institute for International Study. "The rest of the floors are awful."

Josh Gefroh, a sophomore majoring in psychology at the University of Minnesota, sits on the unkempt bed of a friend, Chris Rendo. "We were told that these were probably the nicest dorms in Russia. We had heard horror stories about [the dorms in] other universities," he says, adding that he declined an invitation to St. Petersburg State University specifically because he was told that their housing is "ratty."

Here, says Gefroh, sporting mutton chop sideburns and cropped hair, dyed black, the cleaning lady, Nina, will pick up a shopping bag full of dirty clothes and return them, clean, for 150 rubles. "She's awesome. She even irons our socks."

Rendo, who has been studying Russian for three years at the University of Missouri at Columbia, is a junior majoring in international business. He begged out of an apartment, or home stay, during his period of study here "because I don't want to go home and have someone yelling at me in Russian. I just want to go home and talk English, even if it's with someone with a British accent."

The fifth floor is something else entirely, a severe drop-off in a degradation of quality that runs from bottom to top f or, rather, in proportion to the amount paid. On this and upper floors, the ethnicity of students can be anticipated by the smells of spices in corridors whose plaster walls have been poorly patched, then slathered in pink pastel paint. The lounge is dark, frigid and bare of furniture. Voices echo as if in a parking garage.

"They guard and protect Americans, they guard and protect Germans. Yet they study in the very same programs, and use the very same books," says Malek Mahjoubi, a telecommunications major from Tunisia. "Maybe it's good that you have a lot of money and can live well. But here we live, well, without. ? We live catch as catch can."

Mahjoubi recently moved out of the $50-per-month room on the fifth floor, where his younger sister, Melek, who majors in dentistry, now lives with a female Chinese student. The paint in the kitchen drops from the ceiling in flakes the size of maple leafs. Bathroom tiles have yet to be replaced following repairs, and the toilet is in a state of constant flush. Clear packing tape has been layered over the air ducts to prevent the immigration of foul smells and cockroaches.

Without guards on duty on the upper floors, there is no one to warn students of the frequent arrival of police officers who routinely check the documents of minority, largely dark-skinned residents. Students say it is common for officers to steal cash and others items during their proverki, or verifications.

Students like the Mahjoubis who come from poorer countries say their lives would be more manageable if Russian law allowed them to work. This technicality does not seem to inhibit the Chinese students, however, many of whom have filled their rooms with double beds, computers, televisions and home-entertainment systems.

Those students who are allowed to work, namely the Russians, cannot claim a lifestyle nearly so luxurious. Take Uvarov, for example. He occasionally begs off classes to work as a laborer, hauling sand and cement at local construction sites, earning 100 rubles a day. Over a dinner of 2 liters of plain yogurt, a loaf of black bread and a cup of tea f costing him roughly a quarter of his daily wage f Uvarov explains how he carefully rations his 1,200 ruble-a-month income to ensure that he consumes enough vitamins and minerals to stay healthy.

Klyukvin says he can make do with between 300 and 600 rubles per month, while Pererva, who works as a chef at a nightclub, requires between 1,500 and 2,000 rubles.

Olga Lamanova, a third-year student from Kazakhstan, enters the room and sits at the end of the small table. She recently quit a job waiting tables at the nearby Eight Ball cafe and billiard hall, where she earned 30 rubles per shift. Customers there do not tip.

She is one of only a handful of women in Block 28, as Materials Technology and Study is a faculty that is more popular among men. "It isn't a bother at all, though. If it were a women's dorm, all the same boys would still come over all the time," Lamanova says. The disproportionate ratio has its advantages, she says, especially on International Women's Day.

She and Pererva have been dating on and off since 1998. He says that neither can recount precisely when or why they came together, only that, one evening, she had knocked on the wall that separated their rooms.

They once went for a period of two months f in the same block f without speaking to each other. "It was hard," he says, "when other guys used to come in and visit her at night."

But things are good now, they say. They are back in love.