How I Went Abroad For The First Time

The first time I went abroad was in the summer of 1984. I was 21 and just finished my fourth year at the University. At that time, colleges and universities in the Soviet Union had the system of degrees, which was different from the rest of the world. We did not have bachelors and masters; we just had “specialist,” and everybody had to complete five years of school to graduate (some had to complete five and a half or six).
We didn’t have “freshmen” or “juniors,” we were “first-year students,” “second-year students,” etc.

I was attending the Department of Mathematics and Mechanics of the Leningrad State University, and we had “an exchange program” with Humbolt University in East Berlin. It was only called “exchange,” it took place in summer when schools were not in session, and it was just a rare chance to get to Zagranitsa. Both the Russian group and the German group consisted of ten students, in June the Germans where visiting Leningrad, and in August we were visiting Berlin.

The competition to be a part of this group has been going on for the whole school year. Until June we would not know who exactly will go to Germany (only East Germany, of cause!)

I can’t recall now, what was a process of initial selection. You were supposed to maintain excellent grades, to be an active member of the Komsomol, to go through multiple “political orientations,” but it was something else as well. Until almost the very end of the selection process, we had one extra person in the group, just in case somebody won’t be able to come. At the very end, the person who dropped was the only one about whom we all were 100% sure she will go. She was a representative of the Far North minority, and she was not just the Komsomol member, as all of us, but the member of the Communist Party! She dropped because she got a bad grade in the last semester, or at least that’s what we were told. But maybe she was on the Party mission :).

Before that, each of us had to pass a special Communist Party Committee hearing. We were called into the room one by one and interrogated by the party leaders of the department (each and single organization, school, plant, factory, you-name-it had there own party committees).

In theory, they were supposed to test our knowledge of the names of the party leaders of the foreign countries and other similar things. But in practice, the goal of the interrogation was to find out the level of our loyalty. For example, they would ask a question about an event, which was not mentioned in the official propaganda. The only way to learn about it would be to listen to the “voices of the enemy” – the radio broadcasts in Russian from abroad. They might ask something like – “So what do you know about this demonstration which took place in Poland the other day?” And if you appear to be confused and didn’t know the answer, they would be like “OK, no problem, not a big deal!”

My biggest crime was the fact that I’ve participated in the Math-Mech Days. It was an annual holiday to celebrate our department, and each your the students would but on a skit (or rather a play, written by a group of students) which would be funny, but would also contain a lot of critiques not only for the academic process but also for the official policies, jokes about world events, etc.

The Party Committee was doing it’ s best to censor, and the student tried to outsmart the system. I was a very active member of the group, who was writing, editing, and rehearsing the show. I did it for the first three years of studying, but in the fall of 1983, one of the professors (the one, who was going to travel with us) hinted me that I might want to skip this year.

He was right. The second question I was asked at this hearing was:

  • Dombrovskaya, so you are not participating in the Math-Mech day this year. Why is it so?
  • Well, I am busy, I have many other things to do.
  • That’s a shame! You were so good at that!
    All of this was pronounces with a sneaky voice full the false pity.

They let me pass. At least, I was not listening to the “enemies voices” at night!

Then the German group has arrived, ten students and two faculty members. For several days before that, we were cleaning the rooms in the main dorm of the University (the City campus, not our STEM campus in the countryside, which I’ve described previously).

For several days we were trying to make these rooms habitable, and it was not an easy task. We knew the gender of all the visitors and had allocated the rooms accordingly, but when the Germans came, it turned out that the faculty members were a couple, so they quickly rearranged everything.

For three and a half weeks, we were entertaining our guests, at the same trying to provide some eatable food for them :). We prebooked all possible tours and excursions, and we even secured some tickets to the Kirov Ballet. We talked in Russian and English – all students in the socialist countries had to learn Russian, and only two of us had some knowledge of German. Then they left, and we started to get ready for our journey. None of us had been abroad before, except for the two professors traveling with us, but they were on the party mission:)

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