Daily Archives: 11 February 2005

Studying in the Soviet Union in the 1960s

David McDuff‘s retrospective on studying in the Soviet Union in the 1960s continues. The following are only short excerpts from each post.

Going Back V

It’s hard now, in retrospect, to recreate or even re-invoke the atmosphere of those years. At home, in Britain, there was a sense of social change, the dropping of old certainties and taboos and also a degree of willingness to experiment with new lifestyles and patterns of living. This was accompanied by the burgeoning pop culture, the new cults of fashion, drugs and sex, the advent of rock music, the Beatles and the Stones, and the Wilson government with its slightly tongue-in-cheek, but none the less real commitment to the “white-hot technological revolution”. It all had an air of adventure, but at the same an innocence whose essence is hard to recapture or understand nowadays. In some ways, as students (our official designation was that of “scholars”) travelling on British Council stipends and the recipients of a Foreign Office briefing, we were, I guess, meant to be representatives of the New Britain, carrying the Western way of life into the heart of the Soviet monolith, in the hope – entertained by some – that some of it would rub off and act as diplomatic grease for the rather rusty state of British-Soviet relations at the time (strangely, perhaps, the installation of a Labour government at Westminster and Whitehall had led to more, not less tension between London and Moscow).

Going Back VI

In the morning, we all left the train with our luggage and were herded into another bus. Our mood was generally cheerful, though also somewhat apprehensive. To begin with, the group was housed at a university hostel (studencheskoye obshchezhitie) on Lomonosovsky Prospekt, with the promise that in a couple of weeks’ time we would be transferred to the main university building. The university district, in Moscow’s south-western suburbs, is a rather characterless and sprawling area of geometrically planned avenues, which also takes in Lenin Hills (Lenskie Gory, now Sparrow Hills, Vorobyevye Gory), and the university skyscraper. Our hostel was a five-storey building, indistinguishable from the other five-storey apartment blocks that stretched for kilometre after kilometre on either side. We were fortunate enough to each receive a room to ourselves, though we soon realized what a luxury this was – most of the Soviet students in the building had to share two, three or even four to a room. For the first day or two we restricted our outside forays to such activities as finding the nearest foodstore – something of a necessity, as the university stolovayas (dining-rooms) were situated some distance away. We got used to queuing for such items as bread, kolbasa (sausage), cheese, and so on, and then joining the second queue at the cashier’s desk, in order to pay. The whole process could take as long as an hour. Back at the hostel, we experimented with cans of pork and salted fish, which we prised open and devoured in the floor’s communal kitchen.

Going Back VII

In the basement of Zones B and V were the stolovayas (dining rooms) and shops and stores. Here we could spend our money. We were fortunate by comparison with our Soviet colleagues, receiving a monthly stipend of 250 rubles, supplemented with a monthly British Council grant of £25 in hard currency traveller’s cheques. Most Soviet students had to subsist on a maximum monthly stipend of 150 rubles, many receiving less than this. At this time, one ruble was supposed to be equivalent to one US dollar. The main stolovaya was a self-service canteen which, for very little money, provided a basic diet of shchi (cabbage soup) or borshch (borsch), kotlety (meatballs, usually served with rice), cabbage and/or carrot salad, sour cream, kumys (fermented mare’s milk), kompot (stewed dried fruit in a tumbler, really a kind of fruit juice), black bread and/or white bread, and tea. This was served for all meals, including breakfast. It could be eaten for two or three days before becoming intolerably repetitive. There was also a coffee bar, which was supposed to serve coffee, though I never saw any during all the time I spent in MGU. There was also a store selling such delicacies as Soviet champagne, wine, cigarettes, Cuban cigars and candy. Outside the main building, on Prospekt Vernadskogo and Kutuzovsky Prospekt there were foodstores (gastronom) which sold staple groceries, and it was even possible to buy fresh meat if one was prepared to queue for a long time. If one was feeling especially extravagant, in certain areas of town there were also the so-called beryozka hard currency stores, earmarked for the use of Communist Party officials and high-ranking bureaucrats, but also open to foreign diplomats and their families. Some of these stores sold fresh fruit (often virtually unobtainable with rubles) and superior quality cuts of meat, and after a little argument one could usually be served by presenting one’s traveller’s cheques to the kassirsha behind the often brutally overcrowded sales counter, though this often involved prolonged arguments about whether one’s signature was genuine or not.

Going Back VIII

Lidiya Prokofyevna, or “L.P.” as we soon began to call her, was in charge of all the foreign “philology” (arts and humanities) students in the building and its environs. Her office was therefore often very busy, and the time spent waiting outside it for one’s appointment, which was sometimes delayed by up to two hours or more, could be considerable. When one did gain access to the inner sanctum, one began to realize why these delays occurred. To begin with, L.P. would fix you with her somewhat steely, but none the less friendly gaze, through thick glasses, and ask you questions about your zayavlenie, or application for research and archive facilities. When she had learned what she wanted to know, she would pick up the telephone and call the relevant authorities – however, the people at the other end of the line usually seemed to be busy or absent: the phone would go and ringing and ringing, and L.P. would sit there looking at you through her glasses. She might then briefly change the subject to the questions of how you were faring in Zone V, or who your group leader was, or some such topic, but would then revert to silent waiting, as the phone at the other end of the line continued to ring and ring. Sometimes this process of waiting went on for ten minutes or more – then she would call another number, with the same result, and so on. Eventually the required information would come through, and L.P. would issue instructions about the appointment with the archive director, librarian or other official. I think most of us found these sessions in L.P.’s office something of a Kafkaesque joke – and what made the joke even funnier was that L.P. seemed to share an awareness of the absurdity of the situation. Eventually one day, the leader (or starosta) of our group and his deputy brought her flowers and chocolates, which finally seemed to break the ice.

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Soviet vs. Western Dissidents

Here’s an excerpt from what A Step at a Time has to say about Cold War dissidents.

In the 1960s and early 1970s there existed an almost complete disparity, a dislocation, even, between the dissident movement in Soviet Russia and the radical movements in the West (those which gravitated around the Paris “revolution” of 1968, for example). While Western radicals sometimes paid lip service to Soviet dissidents – and there was a mild flurry of sympathy for them during the events that immediately followed the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 – in general there was an almost total lack of comprehension on both sides. Western radicals could not understand the admiration felt by most Soviet dissidents for Western democracy and culture, while most Soviet dissidents were appalled by the disdain and hatred felt by much of the Western radical left for Western society. Later, this dislocation crystallized out in the situation described by Sharansky in The Case for Democracy, where Western “ban-the-bomb” marchers walked side by side with KGB operatives who were bent on exploiting the radical left-wing and peace movements, while in the Soviet Union, anti-nuclear protesters and peace activists languished in jails and prison camps.

Looking back on it now, it’s hard to see how anyone could seriously have compared the two movements – the radical Western left and the Soviet dissidents. While the Western students and activists were free to utter their opinions, hold public demonstrations and even burn down buildings, in the Soviet Union those who resisted the established order were imprisoned, tortured and killed. “Who could turn away from themselves even under enormous strain, after seeing Ginzburg’s tenacious refusal to compromise?” Cali Ruchala writes. Although the dissident movement was by no means homogeneous, and comprised different levels and qualities of disagreement with the power of authority, the example of fortitude, moral sanity and defiance, even under impossible conditions of repression, shown by Ginzburg and others like him was simply over the heads of most Western observers, even those who for their own political and ideological reasons wanted to sympathize with the Soviet outcasts.

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