Attending the University: Military Studies, Schedules and Transportation

Last week, when I was in Helsinki, I also went to Saint-Petersburg for two days. There was nothing neither touristy nor nostalgic in this visit. I had an appointment with the realtor, and I also visited the HSE, where Boris is now teaching. Visiting this school and seeing how normal it is, made me think yet another time about my years as a student. I realized I’ve stopped blogging about this segment of my history, and now I will continue from where I stopped last time. There will be several posts describing our everyday life as students in the early 1980s.

There was no much change in how all the subjects were taught for at least two and a half first years. I’ve already mentioned, and I will repeat it: the Soviet higher education system was not integrated with the rest of the world. We didn’t have BS or MS, and we didn’t have freshmen, sophomores, etc. We would attend a university for five years and get a diploma as a “specialist.” 

We did not have electives for the first 2.5 years. Everybody majoring in math or applied math was taking the same classes, possibly with different professors. That’s why I was able to change my “specialty” twice, first from applied mathematics (which meant computers :)) to just mathematics, and then back. 

We had classes six days a week, Saturdays were “workdays,” too. Starting from the second year, our boys had “a military day” – each class would have a designated day of the week. Let me explain it here in more detail. 

There was a mandatory draft to the Army in the Soviet Union (and it is still in effect in Russia as I write it). Every man who’ve reached the age of 18 had to serve in the Army for two years. There were two drafts every year – the spring draft and the fall draft, I do not remember the dates. The bottom line: if you are eighteen at the time of the current draft and you are not in school (either high school, or college, or University), you will be drafted. The conditions of service were miserable: bad food and not enough of it, very Spartan lodging, bullying, and hazing (“Dedovschina,” from the word “Ded” – old man, that’s how the second-year privates’ nickname). Young men and their parents especially were trying to avoid the draft at all costs.

That was another incentive to get into college: you would get a “grace period” or “delay” in draft until you finish your education, And moreover, many higher education institutions had “a military chair.” That meant that starting from the second year of their higher education men would spend one day of a week studying some military sciences, practicing I am not sure what, and would go to the training camps for short periods. After completion of their education, in addition to their diploma, they would get a military rank of Lieutenant. Most likely, they would be ever drafted or set to any actual military service, but in some cases, they could be. However, the majority of men would be Lieutenant in Reserve, and would never have to serve. Also, some men would manage to get “the white card,” which meant that the army doctors would declare them unfit for service. The reasons could be as serious as mental health or severe malnutrition, or as minor as flat feet. 

The above was the long explanation of why girls would have an advantage of two days off school, while boys would only get one. 

Even then, there were, on average, three “pairs” of classes a day, and then you had homework. The worst was to have a “window” – the two-hour interval between classes when you had nothing to do. There were tons of things to do, but you could not leave the campus.

A little bit about the University STEM campus. It was a creation of Academician Alexandrov, who wanted to build a Western-style student campus, Soviet Harward. There were many problems with this decision, most the infrastructure, just not enough public transport, bad quality of construction in the Soviet Union, and not enough of student dorms. The latter was a constant problem in the country, not the University specific.

As I’ve mentioned earlier, the majority of students were attending universities and “institutes” (other higher education establishments) in the same city they lived, and they would continue living with their parents. Dorms were exclusively for the out of town students. So to get to the first “pair” which started at 9-30, you had to take 8 AM train from the Baltic Railway Station and to get there, you had to take public transportation. Most likely, you had to be out of the house by 7 AM, and how early you would get up was totally up to you. 

The first two “pairs” were over by 1 PM; then you could leave if that was all you had. If you had the third one, there was a lunch break from 1 to 2 PM, the third pair from 2 to 3-45 PM, and the fourth pair from 4 to 5-45 PM. At least for the first two years of me attending the University, it was extremely cold in winter inside the building, then it turned to “just cold.” We often kept our outdoor clothes on all the time inside. 

More to come!

My historical posts are being published in random order. Please refer to the page Hettie’s timeline to find where exactly each post belongs, and what was before and after.

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