Sunday, October 3, 2010

Welcome to Russian Dormitory-True essence of Perestroika Part 1

Chekhov is one of my favorite Russian writer. He now lives in my room.

Oh no, I am aging, strands of white hair fighting for their space, but I am aging with happiness.

My sanctuary, spiritual and physical. Besides Chekhov, my nephew Robbie's picture keeps me company too. Will get one of Reuben's printed too.

The room in twilight. Tranquil and comfortable.

Still short of a sofa. My Afghanistan neighbour next door said he will give one to me from his home. I took the side table from him too.

Second-hand fridge that I brought from a Uzbekistan, works very well so far. I brought the little rice-cooker from Singapore.

My window. Opposite my dorm is FSB office, the former KGB. I am in the safest place in Kaliningrad.

Apples from a Russian friend who gives them to me on weekly basis from her garden. A Chinese friend runs business here selling beautiful porcelain and gives me unbelievable discount all the time. How lucky I am!

Typical Russian scenery, yes, the real nature is exactly where the artists draw inspiration from. The birch tree forest, the lake with swans. We live in bliss with nature.

I am always either doing homework or housework. Russian language brings me great happiness.

Not that I was not warned about the deplorable state of Russian dormitory, Russian friends themselves even find it shameful to talk about it. Is it really all that bad?

Despite all odds, I had long decided to move in, and I did and I am not looking back. The matter of fact is, I gain so much more than I lose. First of foremost, the experience was a true perestroika in every sense of the word. In Russia, perestroika carries many meaning, it permeates all aspects of life here. When things are not moving, you have to lift a finger, albeit metaphorically, Russians sometimes do listen. When they do move, they could change the world.

I have studied in Taiwan and UK, and lived in respective dormitories, I also visited and stayed in dorms in Malaysia and Singapore. Russian dorm exists in its own time and space that defies definition, a product of a bygone age or mentality, which from time to time brings shock and distress to students alike. It is truly a mirror to understand Russian mentality at its worst and its best. I am glad I am on this path.

Indeed, Russian dormitory is really quite a class of its own. It is different in many ways, in terms of:


It is as good as free. I pay SGD 120 for 12 months’ stay. No other hidden costs, all paid for. I get a room the size of two HDB flat and live with a roommate from Brazil. This must be cheapest in the world, a ringing reminder of its socialist past, hard to be done away with. Instead of fighting it, live with it.


Am I too old to remember my distant past, or I really did not need to do anything, that I immediately could live in the dorm on the very day I arrived as a foreign student in Taiwan and the UK? I have a different story here.

The room that was given to me was vacant for quite some time. It was used by some students for cooking. The door key led me to this sight: bottles of cooking oil lying on the floor, oil spilled and spreaded across wide area. The wallpaper and cement floor were stinking from its core. Flies had made it their nest of comfort. Unwashed clothes were lying on the bed. No chairs were seen. A shaky table was lying in the corner. An old Russian lady came to clean up the place but it was not habitable on the first day. She was cursing the guys next door who treated this room as their own backyard. The guys came to remove their things from the room or else the fragile lady will bulldoze everything with her bare hands. Her name is Alexsandra Petrovna, she is a very dedicated worker.

Many days later, I realised no tables and chairs were sent here. Then I was told I need to order for it from the dorm warden. Patiently waited for two weeks, finally I was told to follow a staff to search for the table lying in some obscure corner of the university, forlorn and dusty, as if waiting all its life to be adopted again. Escaped the fate of being thrown away, I got help from my Nepalese and Blangadeshi friend to help carry it back.


It is totally unheard of in my life. In Russia, you could renovate your dorm room in any measure, in any style -- realising perestroika in micro-scale. You can use any wallpaper you like, you can choose carpet or floor mat according to seasonal needs. You can change the lightings. I believe if you like you could get a toilet built inside your room.

My Chinese friends helped me with almost everything for the next one week, we went to DIY shop to choose floor mat, curtains, and next day buy bed sheet, pots and pans, cutlery. Subsequently I also bought a second-hand fridge at SGD 100. Later on when my laziness to cook everyday set in: micro-oven, and today, an oil-heater. Central heating would not warm up till mid October, already I was feeling cold in the room in middle September.

Certainly I did not land in the dorm unprepared. Long before I decided to stay in the dorm, I frequented some friends’ dormitory and imagined its liveability. Most amazingly of all was this Chinese couple who helped me to paste wallpaper. They climbed on the chair placed on top of a table and both pasted on separate sides, and at one point, happily competing in speed and quality of workmanship. Only much later, they told me they never did this in their lives! The wallpapers are provided by the university, so that saved a little on cost.

Common amenities:

No matter how prepared I was, it still hit hard on me when I saw toilet bowls stained by animal-like behaviour of human being, who was brought up without learning how to flush the toilet. I avoided it by using one which is used entirely by Russian students who live upstairs, perfectly clean all the time. It pointed to bad management of resources by allowing too many people to use limited amenities.

Not sitting and doing nothing, I requested to lock up the toilet only for several residents. Really grateful to them, they came to install the lock the next day. But it appeared that other people still use some special key to gain access to it. That really caused me great anger, as they left some undesirable substance behind…

I am really curious now, and am keenly tuned to an investigative mode. I really do not want to conclude that in such a great and beautiful country, people lack ability to do such a simple thing like flushing the toilet? And this to me, is the most human and considerable act on their part.

This is not the end of Russian surprises. Bathroom is unisex, located on the underground. And the greatest wonder is that it has no lock. So we rely on deep-seated virtue of courtesy, thoughtfulness, and gratefully, absence of animal instinct, that men would knock on the door when women are showering. When we hear women replying 'Ladies' or 'Yes', we will go in to shower. When we hear a deep 'Yes', we will wait. But a Chinese did experience once when a guy tried to come in, and this shocked her out of her life.


Not sure if reputation means anything here. A few years ago, some German students went straight to the top brass and wrote in details about the situation of the dormitory. Much had been done since but still it is too unique to be accepted by others from abroad. Imagine if I were to land alone without knowing anyone, in the flies-infested room? I would need a return ticket home straightaway.

Russians, it appears to me, have yet to understand that dorm is also part of the package of its competitiveness, although I am not sure if competition has much of a place in most people’s mentality or priority. I have great respect for the educational system, highly intelligent and dedicated people serving the nation despite its general lower income, is the key to the massive country's road to great heights in development. If the dorm management could be overhauled, it certainly will attract more students to the country.

However that doesn’t stop us to live in it, as middle-way doesn’t exist. Either you spend at least USD 500 on a single room flat a month, or you spend USD 8 on a dorm room, and allow you to pick up the language in the most conducive way! I chose the latter. The comfort of living alone in a private flat is not very helpful in learning Russian, one of the most complex language I have encountered so far. Even conflicts and dismay in dorm life is part of the learning process, not to mention how it saves me money and time.

Despite the anger, frustration and little lack of privacy in dorm life, it demonstrated how people will help each other in times of need. The beauty of all outweighs the bearable unpleasantness. The mood is always happy along our corridor. Enterprisng Syrians happily singing, smoking sishas, youngish Afghanistan experiments new ways of cooking, Vietnamese PhDs gathered around to cook exotic meals. Russians too, cooking their plimemeni, or dumplings in the most traditional way.

I am grateful to the university that I am able to experience this aspect of Russian-ness, and I believe the perestroika of mind and life in general is ongoing.

Thank you too,

The mild-mannered, always sweetly-smiling Narendra from Nepal, for helping me to look for fridge in a faraway village and shop for heater and what-not, from time to time helping me to fix the shelves and wardrobe.

Nasir from Blangadesh, the hardworking student who speaks Russian language with me all the time, for helping me to bring the heavy desk from the university to the dorm, in slippers!

Sajjad, who is forever kind but dreamy, is not quite decided on where he is originally from, India or Blangadesh, Blangadesh or India, for sourcing for a good used fridge, and from time to time giving me the heavy bottled mineral water. Saved me from carrying it all the way from the supermarket.

Faruk from Blangadesh too, the most ferocious learner who spends more time on the streets than at dorm in order to have good grasp of the difficult language, for helping me to twist dry the unbelievably heavy blanket.

Gu li-ya and Cui wen-hao, for the delicious duck soup, fish soup, braised pork, and most of all, helping me to paste the wallpaper! You are the best!!

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