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 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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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.

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How I Went Abroad For The First Time

The first time I went abroad was in the summer of 1984. I was 21 and just finished my fourth year at the University. At that time, colleges and universities in the Soviet Union had the system of degrees, which was different from the rest of the world. We did not have bachelors and masters; we just had “specialist,” and everybody had to complete five years of school to graduate (some had to complete five and a half or six).
We didn’t have “freshmen” or “juniors,” we were “first-year students,” “second-year students,” etc.

I was attending the Department of Mathematics and Mechanics of the Leningrad State University, and we had “an exchange program” with Humbolt University in East Berlin. It was only called “exchange,” it took place in summer when schools were not in session, and it was just a rare chance to get to Zagranitsa. Both the Russian group and the German group consisted of ten students, in June the Germans where visiting Leningrad, and in August we were visiting Berlin.

The competition to be a part of this group has been going on for the whole school year. Until June we would not know who exactly will go to Germany (only East Germany, of cause!)

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