Trapped in a Russian Apartment!

quinningWhen American bobsledder, Johnny Quinn, tweeted, ” . . . With no phone to call for help, I used my bobsled push training to break out. #SochiJailBreak” and posted a photo of the now infamous busted bathroom door, I couldn’t help but to recall my own Russian trap.

I spent three weeks in St. Petersburg last summer because of work. I was given a subletted apartment for my stay, which was nice because I could cook at home and live in a typical Russian apartment in a typical St. Petersburg neighborhood. I like these types of situations because it sheds some light into how ordinary people live their every day lives.

Something I noticed right away was that Russians love doors. Not just any door, but really strong ones (maybe not for the bathroom). The door to the apartment building, which had all the charm that you would expect from a Soviet era apartment building, was magnetically locked. You used a key to turn off the magnet temporarily, so you can push the door open. Nothing short of a rocket could get through the door.While the exterior of the building was grim-looking, there were little touches, such as plants in the common area, to soften its appearance.

Then there were the doors to the apartment itself. That’s right. I said doors. It’s not a typo. The first door, the most exterior door of the apartment, is a steel door. Believe me, I have never felt as secure as I did when I slept behind that steel door, including where I live now, which is a doorman building. No one could bust through that door. Then as if that were not enough, right behind the steel door is a normal regular wooden door. When you go past those two doors, you’re in a very small foyer and once again, there’s another door separating the foyer from the living room. Ostensibly this is for when you’re answering the door and you don’t want anyone to see what’s in your apartment. You enter three sets of doors to the apartment before you enter the living room.

For most of my stay in St. Petersburg, I only had my mother or Ben with me. Because whenever I went out, my mother and Ben came with me, we didn’t think about the door situation much. I locked and unlocked the door as I needed to. The last few days of my trip, I got a roommate, who came and went as she pleased (and as she should). The first morning, she woke up early and left the apartment before Ben and I needed to. We finished our leisurely breakfast and got ready to leave. I grabbed my set of house keys and opened the door. Or at least I *tried* to open the outermost steel door.

It was locked. From the outside. Which my roommate did, when she left the apartment earlier. The key that I had in my hand could not *unlock* the door from the inside. No, that key was just for locking and unlocking the door from the outside. I was trapped in a Russian apartment, high on the 4th floor, so I couldn’t jump out even if I wanted to.

I started to panic. I had to leave the apartment because I needed to be at work. I tried calling my colleagues from the Russian cell phone that I had, but it wasn’t working. All I kept thinking was how I was expected at work and I wasn’t going to show up and my colleagues would have no idea why I didn’t turn up. I frantically turned on my computer so I could email for help. Ben kept calm and hunted around the apartment for some sort of tool to help us. He found a little foreign coin that was just big enough and slim enough to fit into the groove of the screws. He quickly unscrewed all of the screws of the large metal lock. When the lock was dismantled, the door lazily swung open.

I frantically ran out to catch the bus because I had no time left if I wanted to make it to work on time. Of course, Ben stayed behind because the door to the apartment could no longer be locked. I made it to work on time, and with the panic behind me, I was able to laugh about the situation. Eventually we found out that there was a separate different key that unlocked the door from the inside when you locked the door from the outside. I had simply been using the slide bar to lock the steel door from the inside. That separate key could also be used to lock the door using the same lock that you use on the outside. Two different keys for the same lock. One key for the outside. Another for the inside. It’s too complicated for us. Because we never encountered such a lock, it never even occurred to us to look for a different key to unlock it from the inside.

Ben was able to reassemble the lock and screw it back in, so we had a working door again. I can’t even begin to describe how appreciative I was to have Ben with me that day. There was no way that I would have been able to escape from that Russian trap without him. It would not have occurred to me to unscrew the lock. Johnny Quinn’s bobsled push skills would have been useless against a steel door. I needed Ben.

If you’re ever in Russia, be wary of doors. They have a habit of trapping people in. Just ask Johnny. A couple days after he got trapped in the bathroom, he found himself trapped inside an elevator. Russian doors. . . .

St. Petersburg 080

11 thoughts on “Trapped in a Russian Apartment!

  1. Woah. That’s an insane amount of doors. No wonder your cell phone didn’t work. The signal probably couldn’t penetrate the steel box you were trapped in! Thank goodness for Ben! He sounds like MacGyver!

  2. I spent 3 months in Russia back in 1999. We lived at the Marriott on Tverskaya in Moscow. We also spent a couple of weeks at the Kempinski in St. Petersburg. I don’t remember multiple doors, but it truly is a different world. Two weeks after arriving, it began to snow and didn’t stop by the time we left. The luxury cars were filthy on the outside and nobody smiled or said hello on the streets (and I’m from NEW YORK! Just a side note, New Yorkers are much friendlier!!!). I did love the history, the art, and the food, though. Putin is scary (I’m counting on the fact that you don’t have an FSB following).

    • re: FSB
      No, I don’t think so. Then again with the NSA, who really knows?

      It was also my experience that people rarely smiled on the streets and in general had a rather dour expression on their faces. Still, with the exception of the people in customer service (who were generally not nice), I found Russians nice and amenable to helping me when I was lost on the street. Putin wasn’t popular with my Russian colleagues, but no one said so out loud. You never knew who your enemies were, so people were guarded with their words. You could only suss out their feelings from what they didn’t say and the tone of their voice.

  3. I spent 3 weeks in Russia 25+ years ago ( St Petersburg and Krasnodar ( near Sochi! ) The weird thing ( super weird to a teenager) were the public bathrooms aka hole in the ground. Glad you broke free!!

      • Yep, squat potty’s! It was a long time ago- I don’t think I’ll ever eat beets again after that trip borscht was the main meal everywhere- we called it 101 was to cook beets. blech.

  4. Now there must be a whole lot of keys moving about in the cities of Russia. :) Can’t wait to go there.
    Hey, is that ‘smiley’ (near the handle, door #33) the keyhole?

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