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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Attending the University in the Soviet Union – Social Studies

This is the continuation of that post; I’ve spoken a little bit about how math subjects were taught, but there were also a couple of non-math ones. So let’s cover them.

The toughest ones were all political subjects, which we had on place of social studies. Both in high school and the University, we studied “Marxist-Leninist philosophy,” and that was the only kind of philosophy we were allowed to know. By the way, I think it’s very good to know Marx works because 1) he had indeed some wise things to say, and 2) we should to know the origin, not interpretation, and learn from the previous mistakes. I find it very sad that people who got their education in the Soviet Union still resent this forced feeding of Marxism from their early stages of life, that they want completely erase it out of the world.

But back to my student years. Marxism-Leninism consisted of five parts, which could be conveniently mapped to the five years at theUniversity:

-The History of CPSU

-Dialectical Materialism and Historical Materialism (this is one subject – one semester for each :))

– Political Economy of Capitalism

– Political Economy of Socialism

– Scientific Communism

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My First Semester in the University: Higher Education in the Soviet Union

As you could already figure out, there was no ACT or SAT in the Soviet Union. Your GPA was counted as one of the grades at the entrance exam, as I’ve described here (along with the rest of the admission process). Also, everything was decided after you actually graduated. For me, I graduated in June 1980, and the whole month of June was dedicated to the finals, both oral and written. I hope I remember it correctly: we had an essay exam, math (in writing), and a whole bunch of oral exams: physics, chemistry, the history of the USSR (aka the history of the Communist Party), which was combined with the “social science” material. I believe we also had English, and we should have had oral Russian and oral math, but I can’t remember for the life of mine.

Anyway, when exams were over, we had our diplomas distributed at the lavish graduation ceremony followed immediately by the graduation prom. In Leningrad, which is situated pretty far North, the nights in June are very short; actually, it hardly gets dark for an hour. That season is called “The White Nights.” It’s supposed to be very romantic to wander the city streets at night time during this season, especially the Neva River embankments. Lots of young people are outside the whole night; you are expected to meet the love of your life one of these nights :), and you won’t go for less.

It was raining really heavily on my graduation night, but a tradition is something you can’t break. So my boyfriend (you are supposed to have a girlfriend/boyfriend that night, even if you didn’t have them before) and I were both walking in the rain. Our mutual friend, who was unfortunate not to have a girlfriend at the moment, was wandering in the rain with us. My graduation dress was red because I wanted to be different from others, and also because that was the only long dress, I found in the store which looked good on me. I didn’t have money for a tailored dress, besides making your dress to order was considered bourgeois at that time. So I was wearing a long red gown with a white belt, a white neckless and white high heels. We walked all the way from our school which was situated in Gavan, the far side of Vasilevsky Island, up to my house on the other side of the river. There I’ve changed to the warmer clothes, flats, and handed the boys some dry socks, and we continued our wandering in the rain – it was a tradition!

Literally the next morning we brought our papers to the Admission Commission of the University, and then all the events which I’ve already described have happened. On July 10th, I became the first college student in my class.

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More About Getting Into College in the Soviet Union

Back to my story. You might wonder, what was such a big deal about this specific University, and what was a drama. First, there were not that many higher educational institutions in the Soviet Union and the majority of them were located in Moscow and Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg). Many cities either had no higher education establishments, or they were ranked extremely low. For the High School grads in Leningrad, there was almost no option to get a degree outside the city. Some brave souls might try to challenge their luck in Moscow, but they would have way fewer chances there. Going to a smaller city would be getting into a way lower-ranked college. Plus, the student dorms never had enough capacity to accommodate everybody who would need it, and renting was virtually non-existent. Most of the college students lived in their parent’s homes, so going to another city incurred additional expenses. There were some students outside Leningrad, for sure, and I will tell in a duly order who they were and how their lives looked like.

Leningrad State University was the University, the only University in the city. Another thing I should mention is the fact that higher education in the USSR and later in Russia was not compliant with the rest of the world. We did not have BS and MS, we didn’t formally have “liberal arts,” although we didn’t have them informally as well. I guess for the fact of them being “liberal.” We had “institutes” and “the university.” You had to go to school for five years to earn a degree. To be precise, you had to cover the courses which were offered during these five years and not to have a failing grade in any of them. Higher education was free in the Soviet Union. Completely free, plus most of the students were given a small monthly stipend, which could be revoked if you fail one of the finals, and could me moderately increased if you got “excellent” on all of your finals.

However, do not assume it would be the same as to get into the US college for free regardless of your income. First, people just didn’t have extra money on average, and there was no option to borrow, period. There was no concept of “credit,” except for one very conditioned option to improve your living conditions. This one was called “cooperative flats”, but you had you be eligible to join. So it would be safe to say that credit did not exist. Second, the number of “institutes” even in the big city, like Leningrad, was minimal. I promise to find the exact stats :).

The Leningrad State University had a dozen or so of departments, and when you were applying, you were applying to a very specific department,. All the “liberal arts” were out of reach for us, because there was too much of the competition, so for somebody who was math-inclined, you could only apply to the Department of Mathematics and Mechanics. Which would accept only 350 students. 25 for the astronomy (yes, you had co claim your track when applying, and changing later was almost impossible). 50 for mechanics and the rest evenly divided between mathematics and applied mathematics; the latter has become computer science at some point. The level at which all math courses were tought was indeed much more advanced at the University. Why did it matter so much, I can’t tell you at the moment, but when we were seventeen and math geeks, it made a ton of difference.

One more thing worth mentioning here. There was and still is a mandatory draft into the Army, which boys were trying to avoid at all costs. Most “institutes” had a so-called “military chair.” Starting from th second to the fifth year of studying, there was one day a week when the girls were free, and the boys were taking military classes. This way the boys were graduating with some army rank, and most of the time it was counted as they have completed their years of service.

All of the above is very different from the American concept of “there is a college for everybody.” You had to get in right after school. If you are a male and you didn’t get in, you will be drafted when you turn 18. You could only apply to one institute, as I’ve mentioned earlier, the University was the only exception.

Hopefully, now you can understand better why the situation with the Jews was so severe.

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.