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.

My First Trip Abroad – Preparation And Other Details

I was about to start describing an actual trip, but then I’ve realized how many details surrounding this trip require a separate explanation. That’s one of the reasons I’ve decided to start this blog in the first place. I would never put into my journal back then all these details of our everyday lives because they were so “everybody knows it.” And the future generations will never ask about them because they won’t imagine that everyday things may be so different!

There were two essential things to take care of: passports and money. I know that for most of the world, a “passport” means a document that allows you to travel abroad. Not the case for the Soviet Union, and even for nowadays Russia.

All of us had an “internal passport,” which was issued to anybody when they reach sixteen years of age. This internal passport (which everybody would refer to as just “passport”) was used and is still used in the situations when Americans use their driver’s license or State ID. It was something you would need to carry with you most of the time if you want to avoid trouble with a militia.

And if you are lucky to be allowed to go to Zarganitsa, you will be issued a separate passport – a foreign passport, or as we now are aware of the terminology, “zagran-passport.” There were three different types of zagran-passport, and we were issues the “regular” ones.

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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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What I Thought About The Foreign Countries

To build on my previous post, I am thinking about our perception of foreigners back in the Soviet Union. It was not about “foreign countries,” it was not about “international tourists,” it was about “Abroad” as a noun, “Zagranitza” in Russian.

The word means “behind the border” or “over the border,” anything which lies outside the borders of your country. I never thought of it back then, but now it seems funny for me that this word exists in the Russian language.

Zagranitza was scary and exciting at the same time. And when I am trying to analyze my past thoughts and feelings, I have to agree that they were very inconsistent and conflicting.

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To The 50th Anniversary Of The Landing On The Moon

In July 1969, I was six years old and living in the Soviet Union, and you may wonder who it the world I could remember just anything about Americans landing on the Moon. But in fact, I do remember!

That summer I was staying in the children sanatorium in Karelia, I was getting colds with the alarming frequency throughout the whole year, so my pediatrician prescribed to me some fresh air and sand beach (I hated being there, by the way, but that’s a separate story).

So one sunny day after the required nap we were gathered in the largest room in the building, and the director of the sanatorium told us grimly, that “Americans landed on the Moon.” I do not really know why I remember this episode so vividly, after all, I was not especially into space theme at that time. But for some reason, I remember even the dress I was wearing on that day and resentment in the voice of the director and the somber expression on her face.

Switching To The New Economic Model (1991)

Anna asked me to write about shock therapy, but first I need to say a couple of words about the economic situation in the Soviet Union: not how did it look objectively, not how did it look for the rest of the world, but how the ordinary people, who’ve been inside this system, perceived the economic situation.

The ruling word was “deficit,” and in Russian, in those days it meant not the fact of deficiency of certain goods, but deficient goods themselves. “Deficit” meant anything, which you were unable to find in the store, anything, you had to “get,” either staying in a long line, if you were lucky to be at the place and at the time, where and when “a deficit” has been distributed. Or perhaps you knew somebody who worked in retail, and they could help you to “get a deficit.” There were also “holiday distributions” at the workplaces, or in the worst case scenario, you could find “a speculator” who would sell to you “a deficit” for a sky-rocketing price.

You might ask – who could afford this sky-rocketing price? The answer is that most of the people could. Not every day, not for everything, but if you really-really needed something, you would come up with the money, most of the time.

The salaries were approved somewhere far away from your place of work, and in a majority of cases were not individualized, meaning that a junior engineer will have the same 120 rubles monthly, and maybe 130 or even 135 rubles monthly, if they would work for the Department of Defense. All prices, from bread to beef, to bananas, to underwear, to chairs were fixed across the country, so everybody knew what did the “ice-cream for 19 kopeks” mean, you could use a price instead of a brand.

Most of the people would use their “retail connections” or “speculators” from time to time, for example when they would needed new winter boots or a coat for their toddler. And the vast majority of people would complain about this situation. Most of “intelligentsia” would lament: I wish it would be legal being able to get something for a higher price. It’s much better than not having these goods at all! Why “they” won’t let these people sell what they have.

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