Living in my Russian apartment is a little bit like living in a prison. If you’ve ever been inside a penitentiary, you have gone from one area to another with yet another door unlocked before you and have heard the clang of the door and rattle of keys behind you. When you’re just visiting, being locked inside leaves you with an eerie feeling. The difference here is that I myself lock the doors behind me, not to keep the bad guys in, but to keep them out.
There are four. The first is the outer door of the building. That one has an electronic key. Next, on the third floor, where I live, is a metal door that sections off my apartment and the neighboring one from the rest of the hallway. Then, guarding my doorway, is a massive steel door covered with wood. Both of these metal doors have huge, old-fashioned keys. Last of all is a wooden door with a Yale lock (or western lock, as some here call it), not so different from your front door.
It’s the second door, the one I share in common with the next-door neighbors, that interests me, because (pardon the metaphor) it provides a window into the Russian character.
The lock on this door is effective but rather primitive: it simply keeps the door shut with a bolt against the frame on the inside. It can hold the door fast in various stages of locked-ness. Each half-turn of the key advances the bolt further. One half-turn doesn’t quite do the job, but two, three, or four half-turns will keep anyone from simply pulling it open.
The thing about it is that the key to this lock is ridged on one side but smooth on the other. It will fit into the lock either side up, but will open the lock only when it is inserted the right way.
Which is the right way? Well, that depends on how many half-turns have been given to the bolt. If it was an odd number (1, 3), it opens the door with the ridged side up. If it was an even number (2, 4), it works with the ridged side down. From the inside of the door, you can see by the advance of the bolt how many half-turns it took to leave it in this position. But from the outside you just have to guess.
For my part, I always turn the key the maximum of four half-turns. The reason seems logical to me: it will make it that much harder for any would-be intruder. My neighbors, however, lock this door variously with two, three, or four half-turns. To them it seems to make no difference.
Now, some might find this annoying. When you’re cold, tired, and hungry, carrying heavy bags of groceries, with full hands, in the dark, it’s awfully inconvenient to insert the key, only to have it do nothing, and have to take it out and put it into the lock other side up. I could be upset that the neighbors, unlike me, aren’t consistent. Instead, I decided to turn this into a game and an opportunity to observe the behavior of the natives.
It’s not hard to figure out neighbors’ routines. You hear them go in and out at certain times of day. You can tell by the voices who’s waiting at home and who’s just returned. So, I thought, maybe each family member has a peculiar way of locking the door: 2 half-turns for Grandma, because of her arthritis, 3 for Mom, who’s in a hurry to get to work, 4 for Daughter, or something like that.
Those neighbors moved and a new family came. I thought, Maybe now we’ll have some order! But no. This is a young family of husband, wife, and toddler. Their routines are even easier to figure out. Still, no discernible pattern. So it’s even clearer that the same person is entirely random in number of turns given the key.
All this fits what I know of the Russian character, which in general is rather relaxed, even haphazard in its approach to life—especially in externals. Unlike Americans, Russians generally don’t crave or expect convenience. Centuries of hardship have jaded them to it. I could go to the neighbors and kindly ask them to come to agreement with me about how we’ll lock the door, but they’d probably just give me a blank stare. A few Russians I know, if they were in my place, would definitely try to do this. But I think there would be little result.
If you demand order, you go live somewhere like Germany. At this point, though, I think that for me such order would be boring.