Children’s Hospitals In The Soviet Union

Some time ago, a fellow blogger mentioned staying in the hospital with her son, who got severe burns. I commented that I remember how I was coming to the children’s hospital every day when Igor had his eyes surgeries. I felt that a short comment was not enough to describe the difference and thought I should write more about this story.

Igor had severe nearsightedness from birth, and when he was four, the ophthalmologist told me he needs scleraplastic surgery. Even now, I can’t tell whether it was necessary. Here in the US, nobody heard about this surgery. But I was told that he absolutely has to have it; otherwise, he may go blind.

Before I proceed, I need to explain several things about hospitals in the Soviet Union. First, the patients would stay for a long period. Here, if you had surgery and no complications and concerns, you will be dismissed in a couple of days to recover at home. Also, you do not need to come to the hospital “in advance.”

However, back in the Soviet Union, a person, regardless of their age, would be admitted a week before the surgery “to get ready.” I am not sure about the rationale behind this practice. Were the doctors afraid of infections? Still, it seems completely unreasonable.

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Pictures From The Day I Got Married (The First Time)

I married Igor (Igor’s dad) thirty-six years ago, on December 22, 1984. Igor was twenty-two, and I was a month short of being twenty-two. 

The was not too young by then-standards to get married. I’d say most young people would get married around that age, either right before graduating from college or right after. I talked about this situation briefly here

I hope that I will tell the whole story of our relationships at some point, but the short outline looks like this. We started dating in September (I can’t recall the date, though I might find it). Igor proposed to me about six weeks into our relationship, and I said yes. Then we went to register to get married in a complete secret because first, we were afraid of gossips in the university, and second, we knew that his parents wouldn’t be thrilled. We went to register at the local Bureau of Registration of Igor’s district. The usual waiting time was three months, but somehow they told us that we could get married on December 22, which was only six weeks ahead, and we gladly accepted. 

Igor told his parents four weeks before the wedding day, there was a scene, but then things calmed down. Then both of us announced to my mm and all my relatives with whom we lived together, and they were very happy and congratulated us, and all was like it was supposed to be on a happy occasion. 

We arranged our parents were meeting and getting to know each other, and then the only thing we were trying to do was to minimize the attempts of Igor’s parents to have a big celebration. We wanted nothing of it. Okey, it is possible that Igor wanted, but I didn’t, and at that point, he would d what I wanted :). 

His mother used this occasion to order a good suit for him, and I asked my friend’s mother to make a velvet skirt and vest for me. I didn’t want a while dress, anything which I would wear just once. We didn’t have any extra money; we didn’t have money, period, and we didn’t want our parents to give us money. 

For me, it was just the beginning of the relationship; I knew that being in love does not mean you can build a family together, but there was no option to find it out except for getting married. 

The pictures below are the only pictures ai have from our wedding. A standard set; we got an album, and the parents got a set of printed photos, and that was it.

Our witnesses, Igor’s friend Sasha and my friend Lena were the only people except for our immediate relatives who knew that we are getting married, and we asked them to keep the information to themselves. 

On Igor’s side, it’s his mother and his stepfather, and I do not remember why his father was not invited. 

I think, it was the only time when I dated somebody taller than me, and I could wear high hills:)
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Getting the First Job After College in the Soviet Union

This is the last post related to the story of higher education in the Soviet Union: how graduates would land on their first jobs.

Since it was happening in the Soviet Union, all colleges and universities were state schools, and there was no concept of the private educational establishment. I’ve already mentioned that the cost of education was zero, which did not mean that students’ life was easy. But there was still a price student had to pay upon graduation. This price was called “a distribution of specialists” or simply “a distribution.”

The Soviet Union had a “planned economy.” That meant that the government planned ahead how much of everything had to be produced in any given year, including the number of graduates of all educational establishments. And all employers: manufacturing plants, research institutions, Department of Defence, schools, hospitals, etc. had to plan how many graduates they need to fill in their positions. Since the Soviet Union did not follow the same educational standards as the rest of the world, we did not have Bachelors’s and Masters’s; everybody had to study for five years (some professions – longer). And everybody would graduate as “specialist,” not B.S. or B.A. or M.S.

The graduates were called “young specialists,” and a couple of months before graduation, they had to be “distributed.” The organizations which wanted to hire somebody had to place their requests with an educational institution. In my case, it was the Leningrad State University. There were about 300 students who would graduate the same year as me from the Department of Mathematics and Mechanics. The University would accept about 300 requests for young specialists, including those who could continue their studies as post-grad students, and including those who will become TAs in the University. 

All students were ordered by class rank, and on the day when the distribution commission was held, they were called into the room in their rank order. 

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Attending the University: Math-Mech Days

What else were we doing as students except for the studies? There were not many sports. Actually, among nerds it was not cool to do any sports, it was a strong presumption, that only people who can’t use their brain for anything productive, do sports. And the only sport I remember somebody was doing was our gymnastics team. If there were any other, they wouldn’t have any visibility.


There were obligatory political activities. There ere mathematical clubs in schools, which were called YMSCH – Youth Mathematical Schools. They were clubs, after-school activities, but we called them “schools.” And I will write about them at some point.


One of the highlights of student’s life was the Math-Mech Day. I can’t recall now, what was the way of choosing a date for it, but it was some time in spring, far enough from the finals. Later, it was transformed into the Math-Mech Week with different activities every day. But back then, it was not even a day, but just a performance – a student play, written, staged and performed by students, undergrads, grads and postgrads. That was probably the only one informal gathering I can recall from the Soviet era, definitely the only one in the University.

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Student’s Life: Financials

The economic situation of a student in the Soviet Union was very different from the one of the nowadays US college student. Even then, different people had different experiences, and I am going to describe how it looked for me.

We didn’t have to pay anything for our education, and most of us didn’t work, especially during the first two years. As I’ve mentioned previously, most of the college students lived with their parents, so technically speaking, you didn’t have any significant expenses. Most of the college students had government stipends. You would get 40 rubles a month if you didn’t fail any exams in the previous semester, 46 rubles if you got all B and A, and 50 rubles if you got all A.

Different families decided differently on how their college-age children would spend their stipends. Some would request to contribute all the money to the “family fund,” some would say: whatever you want to do with this money, up to you. But most families presumed that their college-age child would start covering some of their expenses. Most often, it would be public transportation, lunches at the University, school supplies, and some of the clothing.

That was doable, but you needed to plan carefully, which not that many of the students could do. Although my Mom taught me to record expenses since I was twelve, it was challenging for me to stay on the budget, when I had my own money for the first time. I guess money management is something you have to figure out from your personal experience.

The most substantial expense was food, lunches in the University, and whenever in the city I would end up wondering after classes were over. We didn’t have a concept of a brown-bag lunch, neither in grade school nor in the University or later at work.

The University cafeterias had commercial espresso machines, although we had no idea back then, that’s what it was :). The “small regular” meant one expresso shot, the “large regular” meant americano, a “double small” meant double espresso, and then it was a “large double” – and americano with an extra espresso shot. And there was no milk of any kind to add to your coffee unless you buy a carton of milk.

The most common food was a hotdog, but it was not what you think. It was a single hotdog boiled in hot water with a piece of rye bread. No hot dog bun, no relish, no mustard, no onions. That would be my typical lunch. Or you could buy two hot dogs. There could be some pastry, and I am trying to recall why I didn’t buy it. Also, there were chocolate bars with filling. And it always felt very exquisite when you purchase a double coffee and a chocolate bar. The bar cost 55 kopecks, more than a hot dog, and it felt like a gigantic waste of money, but it felt so cool :).

If we planned to go somewhere after we return to the city from the campus, we would usually eat pyshkas, a kind of donuts, in a small place right by the Baltic railway station. One pyshka cost 5 kopecks, and a “coffee” – a drink made of dissolved sweet concentrated milk with a coffee flavor – cost 11 kopeks. So for 51 kopecks, you could get four pyshkas and a coffee and be hunger-free until late evening. That was my and other people’s dinner more often than you can imagine.

The public transportation cost from 3 to 5 kopecks a ride, depending on the type of transportation, and electric train tickets were discounted big for students, especially if you buy 3- or 6-month pass. Those passes were non-transferable and had an owner name written in.

A Typical Day of the Student of the Leningrad State University(circa 1980)

On a typical day, I would wake up, have a cup of coffee (instant or greek, we didn’t have coffee makers) with a little bit of something, and head to the Baltic railway station. There was no subway station close to where I lived back then, so I had to take a tram for about 20 min and then walk.

Each class in the University was divided into groups, like homerooms at school, and everybody in a group would have the same schedule for all subjects, except for English and PE. We felt like one unit, and usually took a train together. Many groups had a designated train car (something like “the third from the locomotive”), and everybody would sit together. In some cases, people might get on the train at one of the subsequent stops, but they would still find their group, and those who got on the train earlier, would hold places for them.

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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.

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Attending the University: How We Learned to Program

Back to my years at Leningrad State University. In my last post related to this part of our family history, I described how most of the subjects were taught except for programming.

For a start, programming did exist in 1980, even in the Soviet Union, and I was very interested in it. Since I was enrolled into a specialized high school for mathematics and physics, we even had a computer!  

I believe this school computer was one of the “native” ones developed in the country, not copied from the Western prototypes (my former classmates may remember better). Since it was just one computer for a whole school, and not a super-powerful one, we did most of our programming on paper and didn’t debug our programs. We were only allowed “to touch the keys” a couple of times during a semester.

However, at the University, we had actual programming, and we were supposed to debug our programs and to show some results. 

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Understanding Our Family History

Another topic of my conversation with Anna was about an understanding of people’s motives and preception of the world around them. That’s precisely the reason I started this blog; that’s why I try to be very honest with myself about the past.

Anna told me that she read somewhere on the internet about her great-grandfather, the one who was NKVD Major General, and about his career in the 1920s. She asked me whether she understood correctly, what he was doing in Middle Asia and Azerbaijan, and I confirmed. I think that it is essential to understand what many people were both the executors and the victims of the Great Terror. That is something I am not going to hide. And as Anna put it, she wants to understand, what was going on the people’s heads, how they could justify within themselves all these actions. How could a highly educated and very intelligent person consciously participate in the “kulak’s liquidation.” I can only guess about him. But I remember what his sister-in-law, my grand aunt, was telling me about her joining the Communist Party after most of her family was prosecuted. And I am going to write about it in the future. 

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Attending the University in the Soviet Union: English and PE

The list of subjects we studied was very limited. In addition to math classes and very politicized social studies, the only other classes we were offered during the first and the second year in the University were English and PE.

We had two “pairs” of both of them each week. Since my English was considered to be very good (I will explain later why) I was assigned to the most advanced level. This didn’t have any effect on the grade and was not reflected in the final transcripts, I was just fortunate to attend the better class.

Even in this better class, we had very little of conversational English. We’ve studied tons of grammar (to be forgotten the next day after the test) and completed lots of grammar exercises. Also, each semester, we were supposed to “pass thousands.” In this case “thousands” stand for thousands of symbols. I forgot both how many symbols per page was considered a reasonable estimation. I also forgot how many “thousands” we were supposed to prepare. But that’s how the process looked like.

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