Sunday, August 28, 2016

Dorm life in Russia

Welcome to dorm life in Russia :)

I spent a month living in общежитие #4, dorm #4. Want to come in for a tour?

The foreigners were kept corralled on the second floor. The entire building was actually five floors- the first belonged to the administration, the second to us, the rest to Russian students. The Russian students had their own entrance on the other side of the building. They had a single вахта, angry desk lady, and охранник, security guard. We had our very own вахта but no охранник.

If you've never had a вахта before, your first вахта experience can be quite a shock. They want to know where you're going, when you'll be back, if you've taken your trash out, and basically everything else that your mom asks you when you're 15. Some of the students were shocked to come all the way to Russia and encounter this level of nosiness. Don't let this be you- be prepared!

Basic вахта rules:

1). You must leave your room key with the вахта when leaving the building. She'll shuffle out from her room and give it back to you when you return.

2). The вахта locks the door at 11 PM, so either be back before then, make arrangements with her, or be prepared to knock until you can wake her up. (She works a 24-hour shift.)

3). The вахта also locks up the kitchen at 11 PM.

4). Please be kind to your вахта. Their job sucks enough as it is. A little kindness (plus the occasional box of chocolate) will lessen the evil glares. Some вахтаs are actually pretty nice.

5). The вахта controls the power cable to the washing machine and the (un)cleaning supplies.

These вахта memes will give you an idea of Russia's legendary вахтаs and their cleaning counterparts.

You. Shall Not. Pass!... The floor is still wet.
Someone walking on the just-mopped floor.

It's hard to communicate with the вахта and understand what she wants when you're just starting out in the Russian language. I've never met a вахта who spoke English, but I've met tons who are fluent in angry miming. And just in case you can't get the rules from the вахта herself, they're all on the front door too.

The inside of the building is much nicer than the outside. There were a few real plants maintained by the вахтаs and lots of fake ones hanging on the walls.

That's the вахта desk by the front door.

I got super, super lucky with my room. Everyone was paired off by nationality and gender, and the other American woman in the program chose to do a homestay instead of living on campus. I was actually expecting two roommates, so it was strange to show up and be alone. It would have been really fun to share a room with my compatriot (let's just say, we both like wine!), but who can complain about a private room?

Another big surprise- some of the rooms had mini fridges! There didn't seem to be any logic behind which rooms had one and which didn't. (There was a terrifyingly-full large fridge in the kitchen for anyone who didn't have one in their room.) And pretty much every room had one of these TVs, which I think is genius for housing people learning a language. I never turned it on, though, so I'm not sure what was available to watch.

There wasn't supposed to be wifi in the dorms ("the walls are too thick", we were told), but sometimes you could pick up wifi in certain places. You could also arrange for a connection in your room... which is a whole other story for a different day. That's what I did for work, and it cost under $20 USD for the month.

Let's move on to the комната отдыха, rec room.

With two to three people in a room, there wasn't much space for studying. A lot of the rooms only had one desk, and it would be used for storing food or cooking equipment. The rec room was a place for studying and socializing, somewhere to get away from the confines of your room.

It also had this hilariously awesome artwork on the wall. Your interpretations, please?

For the hungry, the кухня, kitchen was just down the hall from the rec room. This was probably the most used- and most complained about- room in the hall.

The basic rules of the kitchen were this:

1. Clean up after yourself.
2. Provide your own cookware.
3. Clean up after yourself.

The reason everyone complained about the kitchen was because of the cockroaches. These little (and not-so-little) bugs were everywhere in the kitchen and often migrated into the student rooms. The biggest one in my room was named Maxim, after the city's former namesake ;)

For the unfortunate soul who cleaned the kitchen at 5 AM every morning, it must have been like the punishment of Sisyphus. She would mop and sprinkle roach killer over the cracks in the table and inside the stoves, sweep away the dead insects, and by the night, a fresh battalion of bugs would be roaming the walls and surfaces.

Early morning clean kitchen.

The biggest impediment to kitchen cleanliness was the garbage can. Or rather, the fact that there was no garbage can. I saw this tactic at work in other public places too (metro, park, etc). I guess the idea is that if there's nowhere to throw trash away, people will carry away their trash and dispose of it elsewhere. Does this really ever work?

People didn't take their kitchen scraps back to their dorm room- they would leave eggshells and potato peels on the windowsill, wrappers next to the sink, etc. It was a total feast for Maxim and his friends, hence the ongoing battle with various insecticides in the kitchen.

Someone told me that the long-term students on the floor have to split up general cleaning duties during the school year. Some of those students were living with us during the summer break, mainly students from China, various African countries, and other places too far away to visit for a few weeks on a student budget. Supposedly it's impossible to enforce a cleaning rotation with short-term summer students.

Before we leave the kitchen, I want to show you the massive de-icing project the вахта brigade took one day. They had a fridge of their own in the kitchen (remember those 24 hour shifts?) and on this afternoon they were determined to reclaim the freezer space.

If you needed to do laundry, there was a 3 kg washing machine available in the men's washroom.

Laundry Control was enforced by having the washing machine on one side of the room... and the electrical outlet on the other. Thus, a student would have to ask the вахта for an extension cord in order to make the machine work. Technically, it seems a person could have pushed the machine to the opposite wall and plugged it in directly?, but it probably wouldn't be wise to cut the вахта out of the equation. Who knows what kind of ugly fate that would bring ;) After the washing cycle finished, you'd be summoned by the вахта to take your clothes to the drying room.

In the eyes of women, there's a general distrust of Russian washing machines + delicates. It's far better to wash your stuff by hand. Those round buckets (above) were a popular choice for this. Also common- a water jug cut in half. The girls' washroom would always have at least one half-water jug filled with soapy underwear at any given time.

Speaking of the washroom, this is one area we all bonded over. The men's shower "broke" after two weeks. Next, the water to the men's washroom was turned off. The guys still had working toilets, but no water to wash with. Then the women's shower door latch gave out. This cement block (below) was moved into the shower room, becoming the only thing keeping you from flashing the line of students waiting to shower after you.

90F weather
no air conditioning
living space for 60 people
one shower
lots of bonding.

Lots and lots of it.

The shower room was always jungle-strength steamy by the time it was my turn. It felt sooooo good. There was an all-around moment of panic once when this shower started leaking and the вахта turned the water off (leaving the floor with no shower at all), but one of the Iranian guys fixed it using a blunt pair of scissors. Phew!

You wouldn't get very far without your own private bathroom supplies (toilet paper and soap). There was a strange thing that would happen with these supplies. If you felt generous, as in "Oh, I'll buy a big bottle of handsoap and leave it for everyone to use"... wrong move. Someone would take it away, the whole bottle. You had to cart toilet paper and soap back and forth with you, or you wouldn't have any. I thought it was weird for a student to steal a bottle of soap (also, same story for dish detergent in the kitchen). What can they do with it in their room? Don't they have to bring it back to the washroom to use it? Ideas?

(Based on summer camp experience, D suspects it was administration taking supplies home. That still sounds like a big hassle to me.)

Someone is about to get their hand soap stolen...

Next stop, the bathroom.

When we moved in, there was this sign outside the girl's bathroom. The guys had a similar version.

"Are you women? How bad! You are very dirty!"

But the bathrooms were fine. They were clean. They worked. What else do you need? (And those cement blocks for squatting are killer as a thigh workout, haha!)

The men's toilets developed a little bit of a legend on our floor. Apparently they more resembled this scene? And there was also the Seat Czar- a Russian guy living on the floor temporarily who brought along his own toilet seat!

I only have one gross bathroom story and yeah, I'm totally going to tell it to you :p It's more of a cleaning story, really. One day I decided to mop the floor in my room. Okay, easy, right? First, go to the вахта and borrow the communal broom.

(And this is before I used it!)

We didn't have an actual mop to clean the floor, per se. The mop was actually the broom + an old cloth with a hole cut in it. I found the cloth hanging over the radiator in the washroom. It had dried stiff as a board but rinsing it out with hot water loosened it up. The final step was the mop bucket. The missing mop bucket. I didn't see it anywhere. The вахта stepped in again to help. She found it in a corner of the bathroom. Unfortunately, being left in the toilet meant people treated it as a waste bin, so before I mopped my floor I had to dump out the used feminine hygiene products and rinse the bucket a thousand times. It was clean enough then, right? Ugh.

As moms all over the world like to say- "You'll live."

So, what's the verdict on spending a month in общежитие #4, dorm #4?


More than anything else, it was fun to live so closely with people from all different countries. The Korean girls taught everyone drinking games. The Dutch guys organized soccer competitions. The Singaporeans shared amazing food. The Czech girls smuggled in a bottle of booze for late-night toasts. The Malaysian girls didn't say much but always smiled at everyone.

This is the perfect environment for a polyglot to be born. Could you imagine how many languages you could learn from living on this floor? It would be mind-boggling!

Sure, some of the other things could wear on a person, like a вахта always asking where you're going, but that's not what I'll remember in a few years. I'll remember the people. And, well, maybe Maxim ;) He was a big insect!

This post is soooo long in case there's someone else out there going to общежитие #4 in the future. Seriously, the school tells you nothing about what to expect. If you find yourself getting ready to study in Nizhny next summer, here are a few other things you should know:

  • The school will give you a pillow, bedsheets, and a tiny towel. Once a week you'll exchange this for a fresh set. Unless you're completely germophobic, it's fine (holes but no bloodstains). The towel will only cover your face, so bring your own for showering.
  • There are three grocery stores nearby: 
    • A tiny, over-priced, 24/7 shop across the street from the campus.
    • Перекресток, a beautiful European grocery supermarket in the bottom floor of the небо shopping mall. An amazing (and expensive) selection of fruits and vegetables + home appliances.
    • Магнит is a short walk through a forested area, past the bowling alley and sauna. This is the absolute cheapest place to shop so you'll always see other students here. Plus there's local wildlife to watch- mice on the floor and birds in the rafters. 
  • The student cafeteria is open 10 AMish to 4 PMish. A full meal costs around $2 USD.
  • Bring your own plates and utensils for the kitchen, even if it's just one plate, one cup, one small frying pan, one wooden spatula, and one spork. This will save you at least $20 if you plan to cook in the dorm kitchen at all.
  • The campus gates get locked up at 11 PM. If you return later than that, you'll need to find a hole to wiggle through / gate to jump. There's also a way for student to climb up the outside of the building and sneak past the вахта, but I don't know exactly how it's done.
  • There's free wifi on campus. You can also get a wired connection if you have a few hours to spare for the IT department.
  • If you're afraid of large rats, don't take the trash out after 3 PM. (They're actually pretty cute, though!) 
Part of the campus dog pack.
  • No indoor gym that I found, but there's an outdoor track + parallel bars near the trash bins. This is a cool place to come in the mornings, because you'll see all different sorts of Russian men tackling the parallel bars.

If you've lived in dorms in another country, what was it like?

Would you do it again?

PS: Here's a really interesting set of photos on dorm life for foreign students in Moscow. Общежитие #4 looks much nicer than some of those dorms.


  1. I'll have to show my friend this. She worked for a university but stayed in the dorm for her year there.

    That's awesome you got your own room! I don't know if I could last that long there.

    Also, Moscow.. everything is nicer in Moscow. :)

    1. It would sure be interesting to get her take on living in the dorms for a year, wow!

  2. Hi! You made a very detailed survey of a russian-style dorm :) It's actually the first time I see this word - dorm, as I used to use a term "student hostel". Your photos reminded me my life in Ukrainian dorm in Kharkov in late 90s, it was terrible :) In addition to vahta old ladies (which were pretty nice people) we had a commendant (коммендант общежития), which was sort of a boss of the vahta ladies and she was a really angry woman! The only positive thing I remember about the dorm I lived in was its low price, almost for free.
    I also had a chance to live in a dorm in Finland. It was so different! Finnish people value silence and personal space so much that's why every student in their dorm has a separate room (with shared kitchen and bathroom). On the other hand the price was 160 eur per month :) I have mostly good memories about Finnish dorm if I just stop thinking about its high price.
    Cheers, Andrey.

    1. Glad you enjoyed the post, Andrey!

      That's funny that you hadn't heard "dorm" (it's short for dormitory) because I had never ever heard the word общага. A student taught me that word this summer. (Here are the other words she told me about: Maybe you know more?)

      We never saw any of the dorms in Kharkov, but I heard some stories. Can only imagine what they were like in the 90s.... :p especially with a коммендант общежития, wow!

      Finland must have been wonderful. Did you stay there a long time? It seems to be such a beautiful country, beautiful architecture, all that good stuff.