Soviet Dormitories as a Prism for Interpreting Cultural Ties Between the Soviet Union and the World

A Workshop Report by Ewa Dabrowska and Margaret Litvin

Student dormitories are a setting of numerous Soviet artworks and a quintessential “common place” of the post-Soviet collective imagination. In contrast to the komunalka (communal apartment), which embodied semi-permanent enforced domesticity and strife, the Soviet obshchiaga (dormitory) was a transient space, offering opportunities for same-gender solidarity, a modicum of freedom, and contact (through international students) with the wider world. The PRISMA UKRAÏNA workshop “Soviet Student Dormitories: Structures and Legacies,” convened by Alexander von Humboldt Foundation/EUME fellow Margaret Litvin and by Humboldt University Professor of East Slavic Literatures Susanne Frank, revisited some literary oeuvres and films set in the dormitory, asking what kinds of knowledge they offer about Soviet life-worlds and cultural politics. The workshop took place on January 16, 2018 at the Forum Transregionale Studien and asked, among other questions, what roles “representatives” of the non-Soviet East played in the dormitory microcosm and in Soviet life in general. Could the international dormitory, in fact, function productively as a metaphor for the structures, limitations, and unexpected outcomes of Soviet internationalism?

Impression form the Workshop,16 January 2018. Photo: FTS

Literature is central to this inquiry. Anthropologist Caroline Humphrey’s work provided a helpful literature-based theorization of dormitory dynamics. The mock-epic novella Moskoviada, penned in Ukrainian by poet and novelist Juri Andrukhovych, satirizes a late-Soviet writer’s experience of the Gorky Institute for World Literature dormitory in Moscow. Soviet student communal life also entered the plots of Turkish, Albanian, Arab and African literature: novels such as Nazim Hikmet’s Life’s Good, Brother (1964), Ismail Kadare’s Twilight of the Eastern Gods (1978), and Sonallah Ibrahim’s Ice (2011) or memoirs such as William Anti-Taylor’s Moscow Diary (1967) are all products of Soviet cultural and political ties with the non-Soviet East.

The microcosm of Soviet dormitories, whether experienced by foreign or Soviet students, embodied contradictory patterns of Soviet life. Although offering a few “corners” and a dark corridor allowing for moments of privacy, dormitories were a product of Soviet life itself and as such involved many experiences of forced communality and mutual control. Tsypylma Darieva from the Center for East European and International Studies (ZOiS) drew on her own experience and offered a thick description of this place of “excessive communality,” as Caroline Humphrey (2005) put it, coming in two variants: “joyful-aggressive” and “repressive.” Dormitories for workers were seen as a transient and unprestigious place to live, yet classic Soviet films such as “The Girls” (1961) or “Moscow does not believe in tears” (1980) depicted their communality as nearly utopian, as showed by Shamma Shahadat from the University of Tübingen. Dormitories attached to universities and institutes, by contrast, carried more prestige, a certain promise of social mobility, and an opportunity for youthful freedom. It is this freedom—from her parents, from her stultifying social context—that attracts the protagonist of the late Soviet film “Little Vera” (1988), as pointed out by Gesine Drews-Sylla from the University of Tübingen. However, Drews-Sylla showed, the dormitory was still a place filled with rules and confining social structures; several scenes with foreign students underscored that their presence (linked in the film to a festive and playful atmosphere) offered no real escape from Soviet social space.

Soviet-era dormitory in Tallinn, Estonia. Photo: Dmitry G, Wikimedia Commons.

Students from both the Soviet and the foreign East offered an additional layer to collective imagination of dormitories. Especially those coming from the global East (or South) represented many things which average Soviet students were excluded from: freedom to travel, opportunities to establish a transnational business and to obtain foreign consumption goods. Svetlana Boltovskaja from the Herder Institute in Marburg showed in her presentation how African students in Moscow became agents of the Western lifestyle during the Soviet time. The consequence of it was, however, that, being a symbol of places and objects Soviet people longed for, international students were often treated with mistrust. This perception was exacerbated by the fact that contacts with foreign people were regarded with suspicion by Soviet state institutions.

A set of presentations on the Communist University of the Toilers of the East (KUTV) in the 1920s and 1930s illuminated an earlier period marked by scarcity and idealism, when foreign students came to Soviet Union to learn how to conduct or continue the revolution in their respective countries or to study Soviet culture and literature. Even those with a pragmatic motivation had certain representations of the Soviet Union and of the Soviet utopia, and some reported their first actual experience of the Soviet Union as a shock. During this time the Soviet Union struggled with immense food shortages, which strongly challenged the Soviet utopia. Treated as a sort of delegates from their respective countries, they often received better rations and accommodations than their Soviet counterparts but demanded still more, both due to their notion of Soviet welfare and due to their expectations related to their status as foreign students. This was the case of foreign students at KUTV in the 1930s, as documented by some letters of complaint examined by Masha Kirasirova from the New York University in Abu Dhabi. Elizabeth Bishop from Texas State University showed how the “Arab circle” at KUTV (actually comprising students from the Middle East from various ethnic origins) studied classics of revolution, such as Bukharin, making the Comintern archives a rich source on Arab leftist political thought of the period. Thomas Lahusen from the Toronto University, reporting on a new book by Elizabeth McGuire, detailed how Chinese students at KUTV who were to transmit the revolution to China engaged in their function with much enthusiasm.

Overall, the workshop was a productive experience of rethinking a prominent yet undertheorized form of Soviet communality. Furthermore, it turned attention to actors who were at the fringes of Soviet culture, but at the same time were crucial for constructing the Soviet Union in its international dimension. The participants of the workshop expressed their wish to continue exploring those vast new perspectives in further events and publications.

Bibliographical notes

Yuri Andrukhovych (2008 [2003]), The Moscoviad, New York City: Spuyten Duyvil.

William Anti-Taylor (1967), Moscow Diary, London: Hale.

Svetlana Boltovskaja (2014), Bildungsmigranten aus dem subsaharischen Afrika in Moskau und St. Petersburg: Selbst- und Fremdbilder, Centaurus Verlag & Media UG.

Svetlana Boym (1994), Common Places. Mythologies of Everyday Life in Russia, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Nazim Hikmet (2013 [1964]), Life’s Good, Brother, Persea Books Inc.

Caroline Humphrey (2005), Ideology in Infrastructure: Architecture and Soviet Imagination, in: Royal Anthropological Institute 11, pp. 39-58.

Sonallah Ibrahim (2018 [2011]), Ice, Seagull Press.

Ismail Kadare (2014 [1978]), Twilight of the Eastern Gods, Grove Press.

Elizabeth McGuire (2017), Red at Heart: How Chinese Communists Fell in Love with the Russian Revolution, Oxford University Press.

Citation: Soviet Dormitories as a Prism for Interpreting Cultural Ties Between the Soviet Union and the World. A Workshop Report by Ewa Dabrowska and Margaret Litvin, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 21.02.2018,

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Forum Transregionale Studien (2018, 21. Februar). Soviet Dormitories as a Prism for Interpreting Cultural Ties Between the Soviet Union and the World. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 16. April 2024, von

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