Sneaking Into the Secured Squalor of Moscow’s Student Dorms

Low-income residents sacrifice privacy and freedom for a life in the Russian capitol


Ah dorm life, a time when newly emancipated teens test the waters of adulthood. Piles of dirty laundry stop washing and folding themselves. Dishes never put themselves away. Complete strangers negotiate hygiene and flailing hormones in cramped, shared quarters.

Collegiate Americans usually move into private lodgings as quickly as they can convince their parents to co-sign a lease. Their Muscovite counterparts, however, endure the dorms for years. High rents make the cheap shared rooms of an obshaga (“living together” in Russian) the only option for thousands of students.

These melting pots of convenience piqued the curiosity of photographer Pascal Dumont. Once a dorm-dweller himself in the Siberian city of Tomsk, he visited a dozen of these housing blocks to see how others lived.

He knew that gaining access to the daily life of a privacy-starved people wouldn’t be easy. Dumont was introduced to students through friends and acquaintances, then slowly built trust with his subjects. Many in the obshagas started out camera shy, but over time they began to open up.

“The fun began once they let me in,” says Dumont. “We walked around, hung out in the kitchen, snuck into various rooms and knocked on different doors. But the communal showers were off-limits.”

The buildings are tightly controlled environments which impose curfews and restrictions on visitors. Dumont usually tagged along with residents but remained wary of security guards.

Obshaga attendants make the rounds, checking in with students and the cleanliness of their rooms, and can report frequent absences to parents. Rules, regulations, and babysitting surveillance are all reasons why Dumont would never consider living in a dorm again, but they also lead to creative solutions by residents.

“I was fascinated at how they adapted to the dormitory’s rules: how they managed to slip out night, have a relationship, smoke, drink and do other forbidden things,” he says. “All shocking revelations were off the record because students were afraid they would be kicked out. A student once told me he would lift his girlfriend from a second-floor window into his room every night.”

Housing, and the intersection of personalities found under roofs, hold a personal significance for Dumont. He’s stayed in communes, squats, tents, cabins and on the street. One day he hopes to call a van home, but for now he’s splitting an apartment with roommates.

Raised in the South Shore suburbs of Montreal, Dumont spent time in France before finally making Moscow his home. He’s hitchhiked through more than 40 countries, a means of getting around which eventually brought him to his own tenure in an obshaga.

“I used my thumb to travel from London to the Siberian city of Tomsk, battling biting temperatures reaching lows of -40º Celsius,” Dumont says. “Those were probably the two most challenging weeks of my life.”

Travel sparked an interest in photography. While living in France Dumont met the photojournalist Reza, and was impressed by the storytelling power of the medium. After returning to Canada he began to shoot in earnest, cutting his teeth covering the explosive 2012 student protests which shut down Montreal.

A chance to finish his degree through an internship with The Moscow Times brought him to the Russian capitol, and a staff position offered last summer keeps him there. Since becoming a multimedia editor for the paper he’s been grappling with balancing photography, which he prefers, and video.

Despite the omnipresent wanderlust he’s happy to stay in place and work on personal projects after hours, although he also wants to hitchhike to Vladivostok on the Pacific. Until that eastward road opens frequent trips to Budapest to photograph shantytowns serve as diversions from the daily grind. After a dozen trips Dumont thinks he could finally settle down somewhere along the banks of the Danube.

Back home he’s kept in touch with a Latvian student named Inese, and continues to visit the artists’ dorms every few months. And while he might find the restrictive nature of the obshagas too oppressive to live under the world of civic security has become another fascination.

“My next photo essay will depict the transformations Moscow has undergone after decades of terror attacks,” he says. “I will be focusing on the Moscow Metro, which recently introduced metal detectors and X-ray security machines in every one of its 196 stations.”

All photos by Pascal Dumont

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