What Russian Students Think

Professor of Government and member of the Executive Committee of the Russian Research Center at Harvard, MERLE FAINSODhas long been a student of Russian society. lie is the author of flow Russia Is Ruled (795.3), a comprehensive study of Soviet governmental structure. Last fall he made his first trip to Russia since his initial sojourn there in 1932-1933, and as he speaks Russian it was natural that he should spend most of his time talking with university students and professors. His article is based on extracts from his journal.


LENINGRAD. I arrived in Leningrad half an hour after midnight. The journey from Helsinki, about three hundred miles, had — taken more than fourteen hours. I was assigned a room at the Astoria. The next morning I toured the city with a very pleasant Intourist guide in a chauffeur-driven ZIM. The guide, a graduate of the Foreign Language Institute of Leningrad University, who had specialized in Swedish, understood English but hardly spoke it. We spoke Russian. She told me that she was born in Leningrad, and was obviously very fond of her native city. She gave the impression of being a cultivated young woman who went out of her way to be pleasant and agreeable.

My first impressions of the city: the center not much changed after twenty-three years; if anything, more dilapidated and run-down. But there are many new outlying districts and at least on one street, Leningrad Chaussée, many new large apartment buildings going up. In general, very little evidence of war damage. This largely repaired. But new construction and renovation of poor quality. The outside of the houses, even the recently constructed ones, already peeling. Housing very tight. The legal norm per person nine square meters, but in practice, I am told, this norm still far from realized. On the other hand, the main streets and sidewalks spotlessly clean in contrast with what I remembered from my earlier visit.

The old people look beaten, their faces lined and sad, but this is hardly surprising when one reflects on what Leningrad has had to endure. The younger generation, and children particularly, look much more vigorous. Indeed, the young seem to walk more rapidly and purposefully in comparison with two decades ago. The industrial discipline seems to have taken hold. Clothes in general are nondescript, except uniforms of the military and the police, who are numerous and look well dressed and well groomed. One quickly senses the attractions of a military career in this society.

I had hardly stepped out of my hotel when I was accosted by a young man almost immediately recognizable as a speculator type. He wanted to buy some clothes from me. I said I had none to sell, but I also added that I understood it was illegal. He replied, “But everybody does it.” I still said no. Then he left, looking at me queerly.

Near Dom Knigi (the House of Books) I was stopped by two young students at the Radio-Technical Institute. They were studying English and wanted to practice it. They asked my impressions of Leningrad. They were disappointed to find that I was not an engineer, and they parted abruptly from me when I told them that I was a professor of government. Shortly afterward I was again picked up by two students and had a much longer conversation with them. They, too, wanted to practice English. They told me that they were students of journalism at Leningrad University. They were intensely curious about the outside world. They reported that they felt much freer since the death of Stalin, that they had a short-wave radio set and listened to BBC, and that they especially liked its objective tone. It reported the news, news which they could not get inside the Soviet Union, without any editorializing or propaganda. They described the Voice of America as very uneven. It was sometimes good and sometimes overloaded with propaganda. They referred to the jamming of the Voice and said it was harder to hear than BBC. Their impression of Radio Liberation was wholly negative. They denounced it for what they called its cursing tone.

They said they wanted very much to visit America. They seemed to think that our State Department stood in the way. On this score it was obvious that Pravda’s campaign against the American regulation requiring foreign visitors to be fingerprinted had made its impact. They repeated the official line that Russians consider fingerprinting shameful. In general they were very curious about the world abroad, full of questions about America, and did not challenge what I told them about the United States, even when it directly contradicted much of what they heard through their own media of communication.

They seemed friendly and eager for contact, and when we parted their last words, in rather broken English, were: “Long live U.S.-Soviet friendship!” In the course of our conversation I happened to mention that nine million ears had been produced in the United States in 1955 and that I for one wished fewer had been produced, because it was becoming almost impossible to drive, too dangerous to cross the street. One of the journalism students replied, “I wish that we could run such dangers.”

During the afternoon I visited the Aletro and went shopping in the bookstores. There was almost a violent contrast between the beauty of the Metro and the drab clothes of the riders. One could not help being impressed by the Metro as a remarkable technical achievement.

The bookstores seemed to be jammed with technical books. It was striking to note the great demand for them, in contrast with the relatively sparse groups gathered at the showcases displaying political literature. One catches a glimpse here of the technical dynamism running through Soviet society.

In the evening after a late dinner I went for a walk and was promptly accosted by a young man and his girl. The young man identified himself as a “jazz lover.” We had a long talk. The boy was a student at the Polytechnic Institute and full of admiration for the United States. He had seen pictures of New York in the movies and observed that it must be the most modern and wonderful city in tho world. He was very much interested in American cars and insisted on hearing from me about the prices of all of the different makes (the prices, of course, seem ridiculously cheap when translated into rubles at the official rate). But he also made clear that his great love was jazz. He listened whenever he could to the Voice jazz broadcasts.

He thought that Armstrong was tops and rattled off a list of names of jazz bands in America of which I had never heard. He said there was a thriving black market in Leningrad in American jazz records. Apparently the young students at the Technical Institute manage to get discarded X-ray plates on which they record the jazz they hear on the Voice. These records, according to my informant, command a fabulous price and are tremendously in demand. He kept commenting on the drabness of life in Leningrad. What all his friends liked about jazz was that it was happy music. He thought the United States was a wonderful country where everybody was happy and dancing to jazz music all the time.


THE following day I was taken on a two-hour tour of the Leningrad Public Library, shown the rare book collection, the stacks, and the reading rooms. On the way I noticed numerous English books, including Finley’s Thucydides, a book of Gottschalk’s, and many others. Kelsen on the theory of law and a copy of the American Political Science Review were on display in locked cases in the hall leading to the reading room. In the course of the tour, I passed t he office of the spetsotdel, or Special Section. The door was closed and I made no comment, but it was interesting to note that the police still had their representatives in the library.

During the evening I walked the back streets (they make an unhappy contrast with the Nevsky Prospekt) and then spent several hours at the Sad Otdykha (Park of Recreation) near the center of Leningrad. This was quite a sight. Two thousand or so youngsters dancing to fox trots, waltzes, and a Soviet form of jazz. Mostly the couples just swayed back and forth, but there was also some fancy jitterbugging, obviously modeled on American dancing, even whistling when the music seemed to call for it. Among the dancers were many girlgirl and even some boy-boy combinations.

All this was a startling contrast with twentythree years ago, when such dancing was under an official ban and took place only with blinds drawn. Now the regime, willingly or grudgingly, tolerates it and even provides a band and an open space in the park where the young people can gather. For the most part the crowd seemed well behaved, though there were also a few drunks, some hooliganism, and at least One fist fight. The general impression was rather sad. It was as if the young people were swarming out of their rabbit warrens to get a little taste of gaiety. One seemed to feel in the crowd a real hunger for a more joyous life, for some escape from the drabness and monotony of daily living.

While I was in Leningrad, I also visited a middle (ten-year) school on the Ulitsa Plekhanova. Under the Czars this school was known as the Third Gymnasium. It was the school where Dostoevsky and the children of Pushkin were educated, and the director in his talk with me stressed this proud tradition. I attended a number of classes, and I was both impressed and depressed by the strong discipline which seemed to regulate the life of the school.

The classes it seemed to me varied a good deal in quality, and it was evident that in the less impressive classes the teaching left much to be desired and the responsibility for the poor performance was not exclusively the students’. In the ninth-grade history class which I attended, the lecture was on economic developments and class relations during the first part of Peter the Great’s reign. The presentation was made in simple Marxist categories, but I also noted that the instructor waxed especially eloquent when he talked about the advantages which accrued to Russia as a result of the opening up of relations with the West. On the whole, the students seemed serious and hard-working, but they confined themselves to parroting textbooks. At least while I was there, there was nothing which could be called free and easy discussion.

One of the teachers with whom I had a long conversation mentioned in passing that she had a son who was a student at the juridical faculty of Leningrad University and that he had been mobilized with his classmates to work on a collective farm to help gather the harvest, Classes in the law faculty, she told me, had been postponed until October I because of the harvest emergency. This was an especially interesting tidbit, because when I visited the law faculty and asked to sit in on a class, I was told that the students were still on vacation, although I knew that the university ordinarily opened on September 1. The professors apparently thought it just as well not to inform me that the students were out on the farms.


Moscow. I arrived in Moscow at 9:45 A.M. and was assigned to a too magnificent suite at the National. Went down to breakfast and met three former students in the first three minutes. Then off for tour of city. Compared with the Moscow of the early thirties the transformation is overwhelming. Then Moscow seemed more like a sprawling village. Today it looks like a world capital. Many wide boulevards and skyscrapers, with the new university dominating all. Behind the impressive facade, however, Moscow still has plenty of brokendown and ill-kept buildings. Indeed, one can see them only a half block or so from Gorki Street, Moscow’s Fifth Avenue. One has only to cross the bridge beyond Red Square into the Zamoskvarech district to encounter a slum as run-down as any in the Western world. In contrast with Leningrad, the dress of people on the streets of Moscow is much smarter. Moscow is obviously better supplied, and the shop windows, at least on Gorki Street, have a European touch. In Moscow foreigners arouse very little curiosity. There are too many of them. But I did note that the appearance of a new Chevrolet station wagon on the street, presumably Embassy-owned, attracted a great crowd of people, who were full of admiring comments.

At lunch met a journalist friend who suggested that I might be very much interested in attending a reception at the Mexican Embassy that afternoon, since it was a national holiday reception and it was customary for some of the Soviet high brass to attend. The Embassy itself was on a back street, and the whole neighborhood was out in force to observe the parade of high-powered cars which brought the ambassadors and the Soviet leaders to the door. We arrived early and had an opportunity to watch the personalities gather.

The Soviet notables clustered in a room by the door and spent most of the time talking with each other and with the Mexican ambassador, who was their host. I had asked my friend to present me to any one of them whom he knew at the first good chance. At a moment when Gromyko seemed more or less alone, we went over to him and I was introduced. Gromyko took charge of the conversation. We talked — about the weather. We talked about the weather in general, the weather in Moscow, and more particularly, the weather in Washington, which Gromyko remembered as especially horrible. Gromyko then asked me about my job at the university, and this led to some general comparisons between Soviet and American universities. By this time a small group of Embassy people and newspapermen gathered around us in the hope that something interesting might develop.

Just then Pervukhin, a member of the Presidium and the senior Soviet leader present, came into the room accompanied by Tevosyan, who is a deputy chairman of the Council of Ministries, and Komarov, vice chairman of the Party Control Committee. At this point Gromyko called out to Pervukhin, “Come rescue me. I’m surrounded by Americans.”He then introduced me to Pervukhin and went off to another part of the room.

Pervukhin is one of the tallest members of the Presidium group, about five feet, ten inches, very neat, studious-looking (indeed he looks rather professorial). An engineer by professional training, he gives the impression of being a businesslike, efficient administrator with little patience for humor or small talk. I explained that I was a Harvard professor revisiting the Soviet Union after an absence of twenty-three years. He asked me my subject, and I said the study of government and that the nearest equivalent for it in Russian universities was constitutional and administrative law. Tevosyan, a bright-eyed, moon-faced Armenian, asked whether the study of law was popular at Harvard. I said yes, that there were about fifteen hundred students at the Law School and that it attracted some of our best minds. Komarov then came into the conversation and said that he understood that lawyers were very important in the United States, that they practically ran the American government, wasn’t that true? Not entirely, I replied, but lawyers are certainly very important in the United States. Pervukhin then interrupted to say that in the U.S.S.R. it was very different. Lawyers were much less important. The important people were engineers and scientists. The conviction with which Pervukhin spoke was an authoritative reminder of the regime’s emphasis on technical and scientific education.


SEVERAL days later Pervukhin’s words had added meaning for me when I visited Moscow University. The new buildings are occupied exclusively by the scientific and technical faculties; the old, rather rundown structures in the center of the city are considered good enough for the history, philosophy, philology, economics, and law faculties. The university is an interesting mirror of the values of Soviet life, with science and technology very much in the forefront.

In the course of our tour we were taken through the auditoriums, the gymnasium, and some student quarters, but when we expressed an interest in seeing the laboratories, we were told that they were all in use and that the students could not be disturbed. The student quarters were small but adequate by our standards, luxurious by Soviet standards. Each student was assigned a room about nine by five, which was simply but adequately furnished. There was also a bathroom — with a shower, washbasin, and toilet — which was shared by two students. This again represents luxury in terms of the ordinary amenities of Soviet life.

At the present time there are over twenty thousand students at the university, including many from China, North Korea, India, Burma, the Peoples’ Republics, and even a few from France and Norway. The new buildings of the university have become the stellar attractions for all tourists in Moscow, and especially for delegations from Asia. That they make a powerful impact can hardly be doubted.

I had an interesting conversation with a young Italian who attended Moscow University for three years after the war and is now on a return visit observing language instruction in Soviet schools. He has many Soviet friends dating from his earlier stay in Moscow, and he is now seeing them again after a break during the bleak years between 1950 and 1953. The big change which he reports is that they not only see him but talk with him in considerable freedom. Khrushchev’s secret speech, he says, came as a tremendous shock to his young friends. The question to which they return again and again is: Whom shall we believe? Despite their inner doubts, which are aired to him, he finds his friends more venturesome in thought than in action. They show no great faith in the present leadership but also no disposition to challenge it.

So far as the schools are concerned, he sees tremendous emphasis on foreign languages, but, he says, as with all mass campaign efforts the quality of the available corps of instructors is very uneven and the campaign is enjoying varying degrees of success. In contrast with my impression of very strict discipline in the schools, he reports that he encountered many cases where the behavior of children was quite undisciplined and where the teachers had great difficulty in controlling their classes.

I attended one lecture at the law faculty at IN Moscow University. The course was on Soviet constitutional law, and the subject of the lecture was the relation between state and society. At the beginning of the lecture the docent mentioned to the class that for the first time they were entertaining a visiting professor from America. At that the students broke into enthusiastic applause, and the applause went on and on until I had to rise to acknowledge it. The lecture itself followed a very familiar orthodox line — indeed, the same lecture might well have been delivered under Stalin.

But the lecturer had some difficulty in holding the attention of the class. The trouble was my presence. There was a buzz of excitement and whispering among the more than two hundred students gathered there, and soon after the beginning of the lecture the students started passing notes up to the docent which, I later found, requested him to permit me to address the students. Shortly after that, a note was passed to me. The note, addressed “To the American professor,” read: “The honored Mr. professor: will you speak to us in the break between classes? [Signed] A group of students.”

When the break finally came, the docent turned to me and asked whether I would say a few words.

I got up, apologized for my Russian, and said that I was grateful for the opportunity to meet with the students and faculty of Moscow University. I then expressed the hope that some of them would have a similar opportunity to attend classes in American universities and that such visits would contribute to better relations between our two countries. I said that I did not want to lecture to them but that I would be happy to try informally to answer any questions which they would like to put to me. They then gathered around me, twelve or fifteen deep in a big circle, and started a rapid-fire volley of questions: What courses did Harvard students study? For what jobs did Harvard prepare? Were jobs assigned to students or did they have to find them for themselves? What was the tuition fee at. Harvard? Were there scholarships, and, if so, what did scholarships cover? Were American students fond of sports? Did they know about Moscow University? If so, what had they been told about it? Were there women students at Harvard? Were there Negro students? Why were Negro students kept out of school in the South? Could one read Soviet publications in America? Wasn’t it dangerous to read them? How did American students feel about the Suez crisis— wasn’t Egypt entitled to the Canal as a sovereign state? Who would win the American election, Eisenhower or Stevenson? What was the difference between the Republican and Democratic Parties?

Running through all of the questions was a tremendous curiosity about America and life in American universities. At the same time the discussion also reflected the students’ pride in their own university and in their own society. Some of the questions clearly indicated the effect of indoctrination in the inadequacies of the American way of life, especially with reference to treatment of colored people. Rut on the whole the discussion was not bitter. When my replies clearly contradicted the official Party line, there was no disposition to debate with me. For example, when I suggested that despite Clinton and the Texas incidents the position of the Negroes in the United States was steadily improving, they did not gainsay me but simply answered that it was about time.


KIEV. I went to Kiev on September 28. On my way down the main avenue I was stopped by a young man who asked for a light. This was really a pretext to begin a conversation and to practice his English. In this case my Russian was better than his English, and vve gradually reverted to Russian.

The boy was studying at an engineering technicum from which he expects to graduate next year, He told me that his father was killed during the war, that his mother was on a pension, and that he lived with his mother and older married sisters. lie professed to be a great admirer of America. He had read Cooper and Mark Twain; he knew about Lincoln, Washington, the tall buildings in America, American jazz, and American cars. He added that he knew that practically every American workingman had a car. He told me that he listened to the Voice of America and he wished that it spoke more of America and less of the Soviet Union. He said, “We know what we have here without the VOA telling us about it.”He also said that he listened to BBC and that he was particularly pleased to get news through these channels that he would not otherwise hear.

At the same time this youngster was also very proud of Kiev. He insisted on showing me its beauties; he said that conditions were improving and he hoped that conditions would continue to improve. He said the Soviet Union was a young country with a future, but he also added that he would love to go abroad for a visit; that while he was not very hopeful that he would have the opportunity, still, with relations with other countries improving, he thought there was some possibility he might some day make it. I tried to get him to talk about politics but without much success, He simply wasn’t much interested. He dismissed Stalin with a gesture (“That’s behind us”). He said Khrushchev was well thought of in Kiev, but he got off the subject fast and wanted to talk about and hear about America.

After dinner I went for another walk. About a quarter of a mile from the hotel I noticed three young men looking at me rather curiously. I thought that they wanted to speak to me but decided not to make the first move. I went on walking; they fell in behind me, and finally, about a quarter of a mile later, they made the approach. I suspect that they wanted to make sure that I was not being followed, but I cannot be certain of this. They proved to be an unusually interesting student group, particularly the leader, who did most of the talking, who was headed for law but who may well get into serious political trouble before he gets there. We started on America and it quickly became clear that the group simply did not believe their own press on the United States. They were hungry for American journals, but found it very difficult to obtain them. They did read the Yugoslav newspaper Borba, which, they explained, was the nearest thing to an objective account of the outside world which they had relatively readily available to them.

Though all three were Komsomols, they were critical of their own one-parly system, felt there was no effective way in the Soviet Union of expressing diversity of views, and said that they simply didn’t take Patty ideology seriously. They said, however, that the situation had improved since Stalin’s death, that at least they fell free to talk with Americans like me, though I noticed that when we were returning to my hotel they did insist that we walk on the other side of the street and they dropped me several blocks from the hotel. Khrushchev was not popular with this group; they preferred Malenkov because of his identification with the consumer goods policy, and their other “heroes” were Zhukov and Voroshilov.

They were full of questions about world affairs— the Suez Canal, the prohibition of the Communist Party in Western Germany, and the American elections. The questions were never hostile. These students were just hungry for news; they did not believe their own press and more than anything else they wanted objective news. They pressed me to tell them what I knew about the Georgian riots. They made very clear that they were in rebellion against the official orthodoxies.

Experience with this group left me with a question which I have not found easy to resolve: was this simply youthful nonconformity, or was it symptomatic of something more deep-seated ? Is the Party losing its grip over a section of youth that demands much more fundamental freedom than before and much more than the Party leadership is prepared to grant, or will these young people learn to conform as their elders have conformed before them? As we left I asked them whether they thought there might be another retreat in the direction of Stalinism. The leader of the group answered that it was not impossible but that they didn’t know.


KHARKOV. I spent some time at the Kharkov Juridical Institute, one of the most important centers on an all-Union scale for the training of Soviet lawyers, judges, and procurators. The Institute has approximately two thousand students. I had a two-hour session with the director and a group of five professors—all Party members — representing various subjects: constitutional law, administrative law, civil law, international law. They familiarized me in general with the work of the Institute and told me that the new Ukrainian Code would be ready by the beginning of next year and that the policy on the export of law publications was easing up. But most of the conversation dealt with international affairs, relations with the United States, and their criticism of conditions in the United States.

On the whole, the attitude of the group was more aggressive than any which I had previously encountered in university circles. The group operated with a certain discipline which might well have dissolved had I met the professors individually. They spoke of American developments in Pravda stereotypes, and on all questions of foreign relations there was the most rigid adherence to the Party line.

In our discussion of conditions in the United States, for example, the professors asserted that they could see no difference between the Republican and Democratic Parties, that both were creatures of Wall Street, and that it was the Communist Party in the United States which alone represented the interests of the working class. They asserted that the American Communist Party was subject to Fascist oppression, and it was a general assumption among them that the American working class had no legal rights at all.

I tried patiently to explain the position of labor unions in the United Stales, the law on injunctions, the effect of the Smith and the McCarran Acts on the legal position of the Communist Party, and the differences between the Republican and Democratic Parties. While they listened to me, I did not really feel that I was making any impact or that there was any real meeting of minds.

On international relations we covered the usual array of questions — the recognition of Communist China, its admission into the UN, the Suez question. But again there seemed no disposit ion to concede anything to the American point of view. In connection with American-Soviet relations, there was the usual talk about bases and the arming of Western Germany. There was, however, an interesting moment when we were talking about the Korean War. There was no real resistance, only silence, when I said that, people in the United States believed that North Korea invaded South Korea and that Stalin had given the signal for the invasion.

A hot discussion developed over the meaning of peaceful coexistence. I pointed to the passage in Khrushchev’s speech, and indeed read it to them, in which he speaks of the necessity for armed revolution in certain powerful capitalist countries. I added that with us this was interpreted as meaning the United States. Their reply was the standard one outlined at the Twentieth Congress; that is, that the triumph of the working class was inevitable, that the working class expected to come to power peacefully, and that it would only embark on forceful overthrow of the government if it met armed resistance from the bourgeoisie.

I thought their reply rather halfhearted. It seemed to me that they recognized that a contradiction was involved, simply observed that I did not understand Khrushchev’s statement, and let the matter rest. Although the discussion became quite heated at times, on the whole it ended on a fairly amicable note, and I was taken for a tour of the premises and the library. As we parted, the director expressed the hope that relations between our two countries would improve in the new climate after Stalin’s death.

Even as he spoke and as I reflected that the ideological barrage to which I bad been exposed cast a dark shadow on this prospect, I thought again of some of the students whom I had met, their friendliness, their yearning for a gayer life, their lively curiosity about the United States, and the courage with which at least one group had challenged the official orthodoxies. I remembered the words of Herzen: “At a certain moment the human intellect comes of age; and when it does, it can no longer be kept in bondage, not in the chains of censorship nor in the leading-strings of prudence.” I found myself wondering whether that moment was not beginning to approach in Soviet Russia.