Getting Into College And Soviet Anti-Semitism

From Hettie:

Several years ago, one of my followers on the LJ platform asked me to write a post about anti-semitism in the Soviet Union, specifically in the college admission process. Many people didn’t believe her that these things had happened, even when they were living in the USSR at the same time.

I promised to write about it, and it took me a while – it was excruciating to recall these episodes. Later, my older son Igor translated my blog post into English. I think his translation is quite accurate, so now that I am collecting all my memories in this blog, I’ve asked him to repost his translation here.

First, I thought that I will make some edits, but turned out that even reading it again was way too emotional, so I decided not to make any changes. Maybe I will do it sometime later. But now – no edits, no comments, all “as is”. Here it comes:

A few weeks ago, in a friendly LJ, I promised to talk about entering college in the end of 1970s/beginning of 1980s in the last century, in USSR – particularly about state antisemitism. I will only talk about what I saw and heard personally, or about what people directly involved in the events told me. I promised to do it by New Year. I started writing this a few days ago, but it was very painful, so it came out slowly. And so, as a result, I am posting another very non-holiday post. Yulya – I couldn’t manage to write everything that I knew about it. It was very difficult to write any more.

I know that the situation I’m writing about lasted literally a few years. By 1983, the situation already changed. Most likely, it was different in other cities, and it was definitely different in other colleges.

Because vast majority of the people involved are still alive and I’m not Elena Chizhova :), I won’t give any names, and I ask all my readers who witnessed or were involved in the events to do the same. It’s not that I have any doubt in you :). I just want this to be a public post.

In spite of the fact that I’m listed as ethnically Russian on my passport (he-he), the fact is, I have plenty of Jewish relatives, so, of course, I knew that there were some limits on Jewish ability to get admitted to colleges and get employment. But when I didn’t realize as a teenager, and, as it turned out, what my relatives didn’t realize, was just how bad the state antisemitism got by the end of the 70s. My grandma taught at [Leningrad State] University for many years, though she did come across some antisemitic attitudes (“But this is Leningrad University! The temple of Russian education! And who are the department heads? Fichtenholz, Eikhenbaum, Weinstein!”). And my cousin twice removed managed to just barely get into [Leningrad State University College of History] – he had to take evening classes, but he got in and he graduated. And then we was able to defend his thesis. So everybody at home thought that, sure, it was harder [for Jews], but if you really have what it takes, you can make it through.

And so I, like many of my friends, didn’t believe that anyone would try to fail us during admission. I didn’t believe what some of my friends said. I thought that people were simply using antisemitism as excuse for their own bad luck. But that cracked when our “older comrades” in the class ahead of ours tried to get in. We were friends, and we knew what they were capable of. So when people told me about antisemitism in the entrance exams, I said: ‘Well, it L couldn’t get into [Leningrad State University College of Mathematics], then I would believe it. Because there was no way he couldn’t get it. ”

…L didn’t get in. And several people of the same caliber couldn’t get in. All of them were able to get admitted into [Leningrad Political Institute] and [Leningrad Electrotechnical Institute]. Back then, [Leningrad State University] entrance exams were held a month earlier than for all of the other colleges. We thought about it like this – first the University, then everything else.

They came to school the first Saturday after September 1 [Translator’s note: Soviet/Russian schools traditionally start on September 1, and my mom’s high school, at least, (I’m less sure about others, but I know her school’s case wasn’t unique) classes were held Monday-Saturday]. We sat in our math classroom after classes were over, and they told us everything that happened during admissions. And exactly who got flunked. I was in shock. I and one of my closest friends went to see our math teacher. He said – come with me. We walked with him from school to his home. And he told us how it happens. Yes, he said, antisemitism happens. And it’s possible that we haven’t yet reached the bottom.

He told us that, in the past few years, the University had a standard approach. About a month before the entrance exams, Vice Dean of College of Mathematics went to all three [math and physics focused schools] that existed back then. And each school gave them two of their “candidates” – one “fully Jew” and one “official halfie” (which is to say someone whose ethnicity is listed as Russian on the passport, but one of whose parents is, according to their passport, a Jew). And the Vice Dean promised – or maybe didn’t – that they get in. The important thing is that they knew for sure that most of them wouldn’t, and they knew who they should encourage and who they shouldn’t. That year, when our “older comrades” took entrance exams, the dean was replaced. And, as our teacher said, everybody knew that things were going to be bad. He came to school… and didn’t promise a spot for anyone.

So how were they flunked? There were three methods. Back then, the entrance exams at the College of Mathematics went like this. [The students who got golf metals upon graduating from high school – the highest distinction a graduate could get] took the first exam – written math exam. If they got a 5 [Translator’s note: Soviet/Russian grading system uses a number scale, with 5 being the best and 1 being the worst), they got in. If they got a 4.5 or more, they would need to do an essay, too, and if they got an overall average of at least 4.5, they got in. Everybody else took those two exams, plus two more – an oral math exam and an oral physics exam.

The written math exam was set up like this. It was made up of five very complex problems. Even though, theoretically, you had to solve them based on what you learn in school, the reality is that solving all five problems in however many hours the exam lasted wasn’t realistic. It’s not even that you needed to be brilliant – if anything, you needed to somehow figure out very complicated conditions, you needed to make complex statistical evaluations, check conclusions… In other words, you could not rush through it.

If a Jew solved three problems out of five, they got a 3 – everybody else got a 5. If the Jews solved 2 problems, they got a 2 – everybody else got a 4. That is how some of our “older comrades” got flunked early (and they were lucky), the rest had to go through it until the end, and they didn’t get in anyway.

The worst part about all of this was that the guys and girls who went through it broke. It wasn’t just bad luck, it wasn’t just an experience of defeat. It was knowing they were powerless against the system. You may not believe it, but I know, because they were my friends – and most of them, with their very Soviet ideals, didn’t want to escape the country with their parents who were trying to fill out the paperwork [to be able to move to Israel or elsewhere outside the Soviet block]. They believed in justice in spite of everything. In the three years when I saw this happen up close, that’s what scared me the most – how, after they left the admissions commission room, they came out as completely different people

The next year was our turn. And we were ready. But we thought we’d be able to push through. I had a gold medal. I got a 5 on the written math exam and got in – the first student from our class. My best friend also had a 5 in math, but she didn’t have a medal. She didn’t get a medal because of an order from above – they lowered her grade for the graduation essay. And so now she had to write an essay exam. For which they gave her a 2. They found two punctuation mistakes and seventeen stylistic mistakes

We all waited for her as she appealed… It was so foul, because none of this was right. Anyway, the appeals commission didn’t mince words…. I don’t remember the exact words, so, for the sake of historical accuracy, I won’t quote it here.

Later, after the admissions process was over, we found out that, that year, there was an order – the percentage of the Jews who got admitted had to correspond to the percentage of the country’s Jewish population. So half of a percent. 1.5 people. One “full” and one “halfie.”

For years afterwords, we hated that person who got that “full” spot. The one our friend didn’t get.

Then came the next year. When our “younger comrades” were applying. I was assigned to “prepare” the prospective students during the summer session. I immediately spotted those boys in the crowds. Practically all them came with their dads. I tried to take them aside. Told them: ask for their documents back. The dads said: we get it, but we think that we have a one of a hundred chance. And I said: no, you don’t have any chance. Please. You can’t imagine what it will be like afterwords.

When I came back after another conversation in the hall, the secretary of the admissions commission grabbed me by the elbow. And he said, calling me by my last name: “One more conversation like this and you will be asked to leave the college.”

…The one thing I could do was sit with them in the hallway of the Twelve Colleges building, waiting for the results of their appeals. On that bench, all of us –

I remember their faces, their first and last names – to this day…

5 thoughts on “Getting Into College And Soviet Anti-Semitism

  1. У нас в 84 году было то же самое. Самая способная поступающая была польской еврейкой, и попала только на вечернее отделение, через год перевелась на дневное. Когда случилась армия и освободились места. Мальчик из ее класса, откровенный славянин, гораздо слабже, прошел с триумфом. А у нас на последнем экзамене просто спрашивали, сколько баллов не хватает – списки были уже готовы.

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