On 25 December 1991 I sat with a group of Russian graduate students in front of the television in our dormitory, watching Mikhail Gorbachev deliver his final speech as president of the USSR. One would expect that this momentous occasion — the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union — would have produced reflective thoughts, passionate debate, and even a few tears. Instead, we noted the event by retiring to an adjacent room and engaging in a card game that went late into the night. Looking back, I could see that it had been a perfect moment that had captured not only the ambiguities of the deceased Soviet Union, but also the ironies of student life. Life in the dormitory, especially in times of social and political change, was full of unpredictable events.
During the course of the 1991-92 academic year in St Petersburg, I lived in the Shevchenko graduate student dormitory — a place familiar to many Western scholars. I had come to St Petersburg to conduct research for my doctoral dissertation, which examined the political and academic development of Leningrad State University during the inter‐ war period. Although the environment had changed substantially since the early years of the Soviet Union, many features remained the same. Like our predecessors, we battled with the dormitory administrator (the "commandant") for better sheets and furniture and we endured many cold nights without hot water. My student companions were probably not unlike the students I had chosen to study. That visit and several others over the ensuing years gave me a sense of the complex social and political environment within which student life in this city had evolved.
The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 resulted in many new opportunities for research. Documents made recently available have added to our understanding of Stalinist high politics, relations between Moscow and the regions, and the character of everyday life in the