I have been studying at Moscow State University, the tallest educational building in the world. The university was founded in 1755 by Mikhail Lomonosov, who walked to Moscow from the far north in search of knowledge. The main building was completed in 1953, and at 240m it is the tallest of Stalin’s seven skyscrapers. It touches the sky, there really is no doubt about it, for the gold star on top often disappears into clouds of snow. At night the base vanishes and it looks like the illuminated gold spire has been cut adrift, all alone in the cold, dark void.
Carved wheat sheaves and barometers adorn the exterior and inspire students to ever greater achievements. This palace of knowledge proudly reaches for the sky, elegant and imposing, a real testament to the talents of the German slaves who built it. Apparently some tried to escape during construction using homemade hang gliders.
Living in MSU, you can see your home from miles away, and from your home you can survey the whole city. A concrete jungle of long grey rectangles waves back at you like seaweed. The first floor is a vast marble cavern, replete with gold chandeliers and graceful stone staircases. During the day this hall is a frenzy of motion. Heads fly in all directions like pin balls. The heads come in assorted sizes. Small and dainty to large and meaty. The large and meaty have right of way.
Some say it’s best to stop there and penetrate no further, since past this hall everything is broken and dirty. However, I would argue that broken things can be charming. The door in my last room had no handle and had to be opened with a fork. The fork goes in, the fork goes back and forth and the door pops open. A perfect start to the day. A friend had to live in the dark for a week because the light bulbs all blew and the maintenance office said her ceiling was too high. She said she felt like a cave girl and it was really quite pleasant. Eventually they brought in a specialist who could climb a ladder.
After 10pm, metal grates are pulled down and the building is cut in two. To get from one side to the other, you have to go underground through what is commonly known as the rat tunnel. Besides rats and darkness, there are broken chairs, springs and the odd scrap of food. In fact I feel like quite the rat myself as I scurry through and that’s not altogether unpleasant.
Some of the attention to detail is touching. In my room, the mint wall paper had been chosen to match the mint toilet seat, and I bought mint toilet paper accordingly. When you see the patterns everything comes together and the unpleasant comes to please you.
The staircases are the main social hub in MSU. You can smoke there you see, so people go there for cigarettes. But that’s only half the story. The staircases play host to a multi-cultural community who talk, share jokes and generally go about improving their lives. Boys go there to look at girls and try their luck. Girls go there to be tried on, or to talk through problems with close friends. New friends can be made, old relationships can be watered so they don’t wither and die. The friendly rumble of conversation rolls up and down the stairwells, blending with the stench of fish and fags in a heady human compound. The building is 36 stories tall, so you never really feel alone on the staircase. Even when you see no one, you hear many and this is a perennial comfort.
With 33km of corridors and 5000 rooms, this temple of learning is a battery farm for the brightest young brains in Russia. They used to give them a concentration camp, but now they give them a class room. It’s better to treat brains this way. As with most things in Russia, a place in the prestigious battery farm can be bought for the right money. According to UNESCO, in 2007 Russian students paid $520 million in bribes. In some cities, lecturers have informal fixed price lists depending on the subject and the exam. In such places, students can’t graduate unless they bribe their teachers. Corruption may account for some of the surprisingly simple students I’ve encountered in Russia’s most prestigious university. I saw one student boil an egg for forty minutes, carefully pushing it round and round the pot to ensure it was cooked on all sides.
This building is perfection- it captures everything that is beautiful about the human race and what we do. The outside is stunning, overwhelmingly so. The inside is messed up to a remarkable degree but that is the way it has to be. Beauty that is backed up by filth that is mucked up to an incredibly entertaining extent. The kind of place I want to be. When I lie in bed at night I know there are twenty people stacked on top of me, several more below and thousands all around. Beauty, dirt, life and learning- the Moscow student cocktail.