Note: as I was finishing off chapter 3 I realised why it had taken me so long to complete it. I don't have an exact date for when I started working on chapter 3 but I know that it's been in progress for at least 6 months and I believe that it's been longer than that. For the longest time, I thought that this was a combination of procrastination and just being burned out from the process. When I write I tend to work in very intense "spurts" and then I don't write again for awhile. What I came to realise was that while this was part of the problem, it wasn't the only factor. I realised that another major factor was that I knew that after I had finished chapter 3 that I'd have to write this chapter. While this may sound inane at first (of course I need to write the next chapter after I've finished one), it has to do more with the subject matter of this chapter. The way I had outlined my story puts a certain part of the chronology entirely within chapter 4. Specifically, this chapter deals with what was quite possibly the worst 2 weeks of my life. The events of this chapter have been a large reason for why writing about my experiences in Russia has been such a difficult process not only because of this chapter but because of the way they coloured so much of the rest of my experiences. However, with the hope that writing about it might prove cathartic, I present chapter 4 of my travels in Russia.
The first week was pretty uneventful. Most of it revolved around getting used to the school schedule (had to be on a bus for 8:30, had classes Monday to Thursday that finished at 12:30 or 2:30). The only thing that really stands out in my mind was a growing tension about Natalie being our group leader. I don't think that the main issue was really her being group leader, it was more just that we hadn't been consulted about it or even told in advance that this was going to be the case. There were also some issues about her availability. A prime example of this was when Natalie, Lori, Steve, and me went out the day after we arrived. It wasn't an arranged tour by any stretch of the imagination but that was the point. A lot of people felt that there should have been something arranged (our professor David did give a tour the next day but he also wasn't around that day because he was off trying to get our luggage). The bone of contention was that she was good friends with Steve and Lori and would do stuff with them (I'd get invited along sometimes because I was around but it was only because I was in the same apartment so I was usually around) but she wasn't really accessible to the other people. The other big issue was that she was getting an apartment on the 5th floor. The issue here was that she had originally discussed living with her boyfriend David but now was getting a free place (at least from our understanding of the situation) to stay instead. It also came up that part of the reason that Natalie was given the group leader position was because of David as he was also familiar with the city (having been studying there since September) and a lot of us didn't like this either.
One day (I'm pretty sure it was early in the second week we were there) I was walking home from the metro. I don't think it was really late because it wasn't dark yet, so it was probably around 3 or 4 (I seem to remember it was starting to get dark so that would be around the right time). I clearly remember that it was a pretty cold day and that it was starting to snow a bit. As I started to get closer to the dorm I saw someone lying on the ground under a sheet near building 2 (the dorm was 3 buildings, we were in building 3). I just thought it was a homeless or drunk person sleeping by the building (poverty is really visible in Petersburg so that wasn't an uncommon sight). I clearly remember thinking that I should tell the security people at the desk because it was really cold and they'd freeze to death if they spent the night there. It wasn't a homeless person. I don't really remember clearly the sequence of thoughts or events that follow but this is my best recollection. As I got closer I noticed that the sheet was covering the person's face as well. I thought that was slightly strange but I still hadn't realised the significance of this. Then I saw the blood.
Coming home to find a dead body in front of your apartment building is never a good experience. I can't really describe though what it's like when you're only a week (or so) into living in a foreign country (that's going to be your home for the next 4 months) that you're only just starting to get the used to operating within. I'm pretty sure that most of us seriously considered just going home right then, I know I did. Until then it was very easy to think that you were getting the hang of how things worked and that the 4 months wouldn't be that big a deal. Then something like this completely shatters that notion and you're brutally exposed to how different things really are. You begin to question your ability to deal with this foreign environment and doubt begins to penetrate into your consciousness.
What made things worse was how painfully obvious it became that life is cheap in Russia. When I got up to my apartment I was able to find some of the other group members and get some more details. It turns out that it was a suicide and that it had occurred earlier in the day. The police had come and determined that it was a suicide and then they left. They covered the body with the sheet and just left one (very non-descript) person there to shoo away anyone that got "too close". There weren't any police lines or anything, just a body and a "babysitter". The body stayed there for at least 2 more hours before it was finally picked up. Life is cheap, death is a nuisance. It seems like it's human nature to get a kind of morbid curiosity about these types of things so a lot of us did watch for awhile from the 9th floor.
Later on we did get some more details. It turns out that it was a girl (I believe that she was around 13) who was living in building 2 with a relative (her brother I think). Supposedly, she killed herself because the living conditions were so bad, but we never did really confirm this. Building 2 really was worse than building 3. From how I understood it (and I never did dare to go to either building 1 or 2) building 1 was almost entirely Russian students. Building 2 was slightly better (better being a relative term as building 2 still had all the stairwell windows broken and broken glass on the stairs) and included Russian students and some foreign students. Building 3 was the best building and was primarily foreign students from wealthier countries. At least up to the 12th floor. After that, it got really bad (it's an 18 storey building). I only ventured past the 12th floor once and that was enough for me.
Probably one of the worst things about this whole incident was that it all seemed so common-place. Bligh (who was back for his 3rd time) told us that every time he was there there was some kind of death at the dorm. One was a prostitute who was working on the 18th floor. Apparently, one of her Johns threw her out a window. Another one was a drunk student. He had decided to do chin-ups off the railing of one of the balconies. The balconies were in pretty bad repair and the railing broke. These are not the kinds of stories you want to hear at any time but until then we were just figuring that the dorm was just a crappy apartment complex, not a place where deaths were common occurances.