Making sense of Noah’s Ark: Life in a Moscow university dormitory

'I was about to start studying Russian, without any signs of Russophilia, or any Russian ancestry, or any particular love for Russian literature, or any utopian vision.'

'I was about to start studying Russian, without any signs of Russophilia, or any Russian ancestry, or any particular love for Russian literature, or any utopian vision.'

Alena Repkina
For a young man from the former Yugoslavia, moving to Moscow to become a teacher becomes a personal voyage of discovery through the intense experience of living cheek by jowl with neighbors from various countries and ethnic backgrounds in a university dormitory.

A young man coming of age in the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, I was about to start studying Russian, without any signs of Russophilia, or any Russian ancestry, or any particular love for Russian literature, or any utopian vision.

Dad just couldn’t wrap his head around it. He wondered what I would become after I graduated, if I would be able to provide for myself, and if I would indeed be of any use to my family, society, and the evolution of our species. I had the same concerns.

One day we met someone in the street in Skopje, and Dad started telling him of our predicament. Completely bewildered by the news, the poor fellow didn’t know what to say. And since Dad understood he was to blame for engineering what became an awkward situation, he blurted out the first thing that came to his mind:

“Hey, and what if the Russians come here?”

“There! Now we’re talking,” said my father’s acquaintance, gleefully accepting such a turn to the realm of geopolitics.

Everyone smiled, patted each other on the back, and went their separate ways. Thus, Dad found the only logical explanation for that rash decision of mine, and finally came to accept it.

When the Russians just won’t come

I descend from the lead-colored sky. Two girls greet me. One is reasonably pretty, while the other drives an expensive car. I hear nothing but “yes” or “no” in reply to my questions.

They do not have any questions of their own. Nor do they try to make eye contact through the rear-view mirror. Nor do they even keep the conversation going about any topic I bring up.

I am positive they think I’m a dork. I’m wearing shoes almost two sizes too big, so that I could put on several pairs of socks at once if necessary. I’m drowning in my winter coat. Buying it was what my father’s advice to me when he was sending me forth into the Russian winter for the first time. The girls are clad in light, autumn clothing.

We stay silent for hours as we make our way through a traffic jam. It wasn’t until later that I learned my companions hated each other’s guts, and would have never stepped into the same vehicle unless specifically ordered to do so. That fact, however, does nothing to make me rethink my assumption that they thought I was a dork.

All the more so since right in front of the dorm’s entrance, there is a row of girls who haven’t been able to stop giggling since they saw me. I’m their new teacher. I am an assistant to an old female professor who solemnly hands me a bag packed full with all kinds of kitchen utensils and cutlery.

I follow them through the narrow passages. We all enter my abode. The air here is stale, the furnishings scanty. The professor is clearly embarrassed. The girls, conversely, are amused by the faces I make when I see all this.

They leave, and I open the windows. As November’s chill smog sweeps into the room, I make an estimation: No-one has been living in those rooms, those two upright matchboxes, since May of June.

I have never allowed Mum to pack me sandwiches for a trip. But I couldn’t say no to her when she offered me a bag of nuts. I sit down atop something creaky and start munching on them.

I don’t really know why I returned, or, at least, why it had to be a two-year stay now, when the magic of the student days is long gone, when I know for certain I shouldn’t have enrolled in the freaking department of Russian in the first place, when no-one was really expecting me or offering me anything special. The girls and their professor would do fine without me.

I can’t come up with an even remotely sensible explanation, so I remember that the Russians never came, and I came instead. Another issue is why I was needed for it. I miss having a concept of the future. I miss yesterday. And I miss today. I would so love to eat a huge sandwich right now. I’ve already eaten up the nuts. With no strength left in me to stand up and close the window, I fall asleep right here where I sit. I start my first morning off with a cold.

It’s all like one big ‘Ж’

That’s what the main building of the Moscow State University looks like if you get a bird’s eye view of it. If the middle “leg” of the letter were the main entrance, I’d be in the left one. Sector B, Block 752. On the inside, it’s a labyrinth, a sprawl. A mix of the eternal marble and rotten floorboards.

I want to make some coffee. There’s one common kitchen for everyone. There, the roaches call the shots. The clogged garbage chute is there, too. It stinks. Generally speaking, the dormitory is a realm of smells coming from badly-cooked food, which don’t do much for your appetite.

Enter a woman – flamboyant make-up, well-groomed appearance, a fancy fur coat, high heels. She is taller than me, and her shoulders are broader than mine, at least when she wears this coat. Her eyes are large, the kind people from the Caucasus region tend to have. Her makeup is so heavy, I am at a loss: Is she 28 or 38?

“Good morning,” I mumble.

She vouchsafes no reply. Her glance slides across me at the speed of a cockroach dashing along the tiles of the kitchen floor, and then she puts the trash bag she is carrying next to the waste disposal chute and leaves, her high heels all a-clatter.

I take a peek through the peephole: The nearest door opens, and a short, pudgy, bald-headed, mustached chap emerges. He is carrying a pot to the kitchen. Then he returns back to his room to take something to the kitchen again. Back and forth he goes.

I’d really like to eat something too. But I can’t cook, and I can’t afford the dining hall. At first, I don’t even get paid. I’ll never see the pay for the first three months. As I will figure out later, it is in fact exactly the amount my employers spent to book an open-ended return flight for me. It was never agreed that the flight would be booked at my expense.

But I am still unaware of that. Hopeful, I take a stroll to the ATM from time to time, and keep starving proudly. On the plus side, I try a new brand of cigarettes every day. I’m in a faraway land, so I’m searching for a brand that would be “mine.” I’m blowing my last money on smoke rings.

Feathers on our backs

I have two beds that go with two torn pillows. Down and feathers fly all over the rooms and pile up in the corners. My grooming ritual before I go out essentially involves nothing but removing all the fuzz from my sweater. I recognize foreigners, lecturers, and my neighbors at the department by the feathers on their backs.

Khamiz, an Iraqi Kurd (at the time of this story, Saddam Hussein is growing a beard sitting in a bunker somewhere), hauls his pots around all day long. A happy man, I think to myself. The common kitchen is also used by some sort of company of Chinese girls. One platoon brings things in, another platoon comes to stir things, and the third carries things out. Besides, there are roaches – but that completes the list. No-one else goes there ever. I get used to instant coffee in sachets.

All my closest neighbors except Khamiz have their own improvised kitchens. Some of them even have fridges. All I have is a small immersion water heater that I found in the bag that was presented to me. Late at night, when I am overcome by hunger, I put the heater inside a pot with some frozen vegetables. Every once in a while, I check the pot and discover nothing happens, until I forget about it altogether. In the morning, I cover up the traces of hunger by smoking and thank God there was no short circuit followed by my death.

Once in two or three days, Khamiz has a visitor. It’s some Russian lady who is young enough to be his daughter. She is unsightly, ungainly, and unattractive. Sister, you should find someone better, I think to myself. She doesn’t stay in his room for long. She smokes in the corridor, drinks tea, and asks every person she meets “what is up” with them. Khamiz doesn’t come out of the room. I conclude one of them is a tutor, and they give the other the time to repeat things.

One day, Khamiz decides not to let her in. She spends the better part of the day trying to unlock the door with her foot. She calls him out, she begs for him, and she curses him, but he doesn’t open the door. I have to admit to myself I am a terrible judge of character.

A League of Nations

The sessions of the League of Nations begin late at night right beside my door, near a windowsill wide enough to accommodate a bottle, several glasses and cups, an ashtray, and a couple of asses. We are separated by two closed doors (the entrance door and the room door), but there’s a gap three thumbs wide between the doors and the floor, so I can’t escape the feeling I’m right in the thick of it.

Representatives of all countries, continents, races, jawlines, and levels of articulatory skill come here to get tangled into Russian cases, tenses, concepts, and their own desire to express something that is inexpressible for them.

Khamiz and his fellow countryman Aladdin consider the dormitory a shelter. Others manage to catch a buzz by staying in a cheap hotel. Ricardo, my colleague from Italy, who one day sports medals for the defense of Stalingrad or the capture of Berlin, and another day dons the vatnik, the wool-padded jacket of Russian cons, spends a lot of money on tourist crap.

I can’t relate to a refugee, or a naive and enthusiastic young intellectual from the other side of the Iron Curtain, or a future ambassador of an African country. I’m in the midst of these people, but not really. I think I’m here because I can’t be anywhere else yet, like I’m at the door to a new life that has not yet begun.

I’m lying in bed and writing down the exquisite expletives uttered by Zuleikha. Cursing is as natural to her as breathing. It’s that big-eyed girl I met in the kitchen on my first day, and she is the only one here who really speaks Russian. She comes back to her burrow late in the afternoon, slips out of her expensive clothes, and comes out wearing flip flops, a washed-out tank top, torn sweatpants, and disheveled hair.

Zuleikha is the star of the corridor. She has a loud voice, and there can’t be any real merriment until she starts peppering all in attendance with obscenities. Most surprisingly, no-one gets offended. On the contrary, people in the corridor guffaw and seem like they are mesmerized. They probably think that this is a part of how life is here, that Zuleikha is saying stuff that is normal for this place.

I think she is like me in that she is nowhere. There’s a reason for all of this, it must be a way to alleviate stress, to escape from the everyday problems for her. They say she works in healthcare, that she is a relative of some head honcho from Dagestan, that she is an ex-judo champion. They say a lot of things, but no-one really knows anything about her.

During the first days of my stay, she would, as if accidentally, bang on my door with her hand or her foot. I never answered. In reply, she assumed rather loudly I was a coward and a virgin, to say the least of it. “Oh, we’ve got ourselves another Ricardo, a greased-up faggot, sheesh!”

Paper wads

In the dead of the night, they all disperse and go back to bed. Aladdin, that alpha male, drags with him another victim who did not heed his advice and did not eat something fatty before the feast.

I continue to scribble. I’ve been living behind door number 752, Sector B, for more than a month, and I still don’t use the wardrobe. I retrieve my clothes from my suitcase, and I put them back there for storage too. There isn’t a single book on my bookshelves. To make up for it, there is a lot of kitchenware, all pieces neatly arranged and completely useless to me. There’s nothing else to catch the eye.

I look at it and I stealthily nourish myself with the hope that I will once understand how to be of any use for my family, society, my own stomach, and everything else. For the time being, though, I just tear the writing-covered pages and make paper wads out of them. I feel the sensation of creating something tangible. My austere environment gets some new details. Paper wads on the floor is a solid start, I think.

Born in the former Yugoslavia to a Macedonian father and Serbian mother, Deyan Mitevski moved to Moscow to teach Macedonian at Moscow State University in 2003 and has been in Russia ever since. Nowhe is Editor for Serbia at RBTH.

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