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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History Lessons

I was at lunch with three of my younger co-workers, and one of them mentioned that he probably misuses utensils. The other two joined the conversation suggesting that all of them are not perfect in this regard. I wanted to tell my story about Germany, and a lunch with the Dean, and how I was inadequate to the occasion. So I started by mentioning, that since the upper class was eradicated in the Soviet Union, the skill of using the silverware properly was not taught to children at home.

One of my co-workers asked: what do you mean by “eradicated?” This question took me by surprise, so while I was collecting myself, another co-worker replied: well, precisely that: they were killed. She continued: I do not know that much of Russian history as I probably should, but I now that in the beginning of the 20th century there was a revolution, and people were killed.

Apparently, for two of the three, this was news. Not that I think everybody in the world should know Russian history, but recently I’ve encountered several cases when people made bad judgments and bad decisions repeating history to the letter.

Maybe I am wrong, and this is already an old history, and the new generation should learn from new examples – I do not know.

Working at UrbanSoft: Winter 1992-93

Now it is time to say a few words about John Roseman, a person who had an enormous impact on my life.

He was from New York and had an MS in Computer Science from Columbia. Now, recalling what he was saying at that time, he must have been from the old money family. He was very democratic and eager to participate in the creation of the new capitalist society in the new Russia. However, this was not a charity, he had some investors, and was looking for ways to make a profit, if not in Russia, then taking some US contracts. Tall and skinny, in his mid-40s, he moved differently, gestured differently, smiled, and was very visibly a creature of a different world.

Sometimes, especially in our Russian eyes he looked naive, and we almost openly laughed at him when he was writing letters to the office of the Mayor of Saint Petersburg, in his broken Russian, suggesting to instill parking fees, parking by the subway stations, development of the city bicycle system and other similar improvements. But the longer I live in the US, and the longer I live in general, the less I find it funny.

Living in Russia in the early 1990s was hard, even for us. The food situation was a little bit better, but as for the rest, we didn’t even know what we were lacking. John was shipping containers of everything from New York. Not just computers and printers, but the printing paper, labels and even the packs of cheap ball pens, and we could not believe he is actually buying them “for the office,” that we can take them when needed and use.

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“Having It All” Then and Now

Anna and Nadia were staying with me last weekend. The main reason was “All kids’ birthday,” but we were also hoping to spend some time together and to do some girls stuff. Which we did, and while the girls were here I was thinking (as I usually do in such cases) about how much parenting had changed since the time I had small children.

It’s also worth noting that I was in the process of listening to the audiobook “All the rage.” In addition to the fact that this book makes you think about gender inequality at home like never before, there was something else.

I always use my own life as an example of “you can have it all.” I used to say that if you plan everything carefully and can distinguish important things from unimportant, you can be a successful parent and a successful professional. And I still believe it is true, but it depends on how you define a successful parent.

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All-birthdays Day

My older son birthday is on September 28, and my twins birthday is on August 23. And since for the past ten years it was challenging to get everybody together in one place, we stopped trying to do it twice, and ended up having one big “combined” birthday. This year the day was September 22 – we had the most lovely brunch at Maison Parisienne in Lakeview.

Dylan(Vlad’s boyfriend), Vlad, Anna, Hettie, Igor, Nina (Hettie’s Mom)
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Winter 1992-1993: a Second Job

You might ask – why I needed a second job? As I’ve mentioned earlier, the pay in the University was close to nothing and often paid months later than it was due. The next question would be – if that was the case, then why I would stay at this job? Why I won’t find another job instead of looking for a second one? Oddly enough, the job in the University was the only one I could consider “a real job,” the others were “ways to make money.”

This presumption goes back to the Soviet Union. At that time you were supposed to have only one job, less some rare exception. Also, since there can’t be unemployment in the socialist state, you should have always been employed. Also, it was extremely undesirable to change jobs; you would always need a solid, respectable reason to leave your job. Our employment history was a physical object. It was called “a Labor Booklet.” When you start a new job, an HR person would ask for your Labor Booklet and would put a record, indicating your place of employment, your position and title, and the date you started. You could not start any new position anywhere without presenting your Labor Booklet, which would have a record of when and for what reason your previous employment was terminated.

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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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More Details About the CityLIGHTS 2019 Award Night

My LinkedIn just went viral yesterday, I had almost two thousand views within the first 24 hours of my post appearance, and a number is still growing. My likes present all my employment history :). I also got a couple of reposts and very warm congratulations. And everybody is asking for “more details.”  

Well… I do not even know where to start! So, as they say, I will start from the beginning :). I did not know whether I will be a winner or not. Two days before the event, I received a reminder email from the organizers which outlined the course of events throughout the night. It said that if I win, I need to give a 2-minute acceptance speech. I didn’t want to think too much about it and didn’t rehearse it, but I thought a little bit about whom I should thank if I won.

The VIP reception for the finalists plus one guest started a half-hour before the event. 

I barely knew a couple of people there, so I socialized somewhat moderately by my standards.

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