Sleepless nights at a train station and state-sponsored discrimination. This is the story of how my father came to finally attend college as a teenager in the Soviet Union.
In 1970 my father was 17 years old, living with his parents and brother in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. He was interested in radio electronics, having built radios and clocks as a teenager. His father (my grandfather) was an electrical engineer, working at the time for the Uzbekistan Department of Auto-Transportation. My grandfather was a military man, having fought and been wounded at the Battle of Stalingrad in 1943. He encouraged my father to pursue a military career in electronics and telecommunication.
My father graduated from Tashkent High School #94 in May 1970. He knew he wanted to study telecommunications but his father insisted it be at a military university. At the time, my dad was reading electronics textbooks published by professors working at St. Petersburg’s Navy Academy. This specific academy trained sailors to man the country’s nuclear submarine fleet. The school had one of the premier telecommunication programs in the country, so my dad decided to apply there.
Getting into university in the Soviet Union was a very different process than what we have here in the US. You could apply to one and only one university. If you didn’t get in, you’d be conscripted into the army the following Fall.
Instead of mailing in an application and waiting for a response, you had to travel to the university to take an on-site admission test. Over the summer, the universities used their dorms to house the out of town candidates who were busy preparing for the exams.
Before they were allowed to apply to a military academy, students had to take medical exams to prove they were fit to serve in the armed forces: a basic blood test, an ear, nose, and lung examination, among others.
In June 1970, my father passed his health exam in Tashkent.
The Journey to St. Petersburg
A month later it was time to begin the 72-hour train ride from Tashkent to St. Petersburg.
My dad and my grandfather were waiting at the station as the train arrived and people started to line up. It became quickly apparent that the train had been overbooked: the line stretched far outside the carriage. And my dad was not in the front.
If he didn’t make the train, he wouldn’t get on the admission list. And if he didn’t make the admission list, he’d be conscripted.
Realizing the same thing, my grandfather lifted my dad onto his shoulders and pushed him through one of the train’s windows.
After four days on the train, my dad finally arrived to Petergof, an area south of St. Petersburg where the university was.
Exam Week at the Navy Academy
None of the students had been admitted into the military yet, but they were still required to follow military orders. The day before the exam, they were all awoken at 6 AM and were marched to the cafeteria.
On the way out of the dormitory, the commanding sergeant noticed my dad’s bed. It wasn’t made to Navy standards, so he was assigned to toilet scrubbing duty that night.
Every time my dad tells this story, he reminds me that the bathroom didn’t have stalls. He was scrubbing while others were sitting a few feet away.
It wasn’t until 3AM that the night officer finally relented, and let my dad return to bed.
The next morning was the start of Exam Week, and my dad’s first exam. There were three main parts: physics written, physics oral, and mathematics. Each was three days apart, took half a day, and was scored out of 5 points. The highest score you could get was 15. And to be admitted that year you needed to score at least a 12.
By the end of the week, four students had scored 14/15. My dad was one of them, and no one got a perfect score.
The students who failed had to leave the dorms that night. The remaining students were administered yet another, more advanced health examination.
Since this was school for submariners, the Navy wanted to make sure the candidates were healthy enough to survive the intense conditions of being deep underwater for months at a time. One of the tests required the candidates to be put into a barometric capsule to test their ability to withstand high pressure. Some of the students failed the test because their ears started bleeding.
My dad remembers the experience being incredibly unpleasant, but he made it through without any visible symptoms.
The Results Are In
The next day all of the students were gathered in the courtyard, waiting for the list of accepted students to be posted. One of the officers approached the bulletin board, and nailed the list to the wall. As the rush of students subsided, my dad was finally close enough to read it.
His name was not on the list.
Shocked, he was told that all non-admitted students were to leave the premises by 7 PM.
He didn’t understand. He had passed the exam with flying colors, and should have been top of the class.
He immediately ran to the university’s human resources department to ask why he hadn’t been accepted. The admissions officer told him it was due to health reasons. “Go back to Tashkent”, he told my dad, “they’ll tell you the exact reason there.”
He was given a certificate that would allow him to re-apply the next year without re-taking the exams. But the certificate was meaningless. Anyone without a spot in a university would be conscripted in the Fall, certificate or not.
Next thing he knew, he was sitting on a bench in front of the train station with his suitcase. Seventeen years old, four thousand kilometers away from home and with no way to call his parents, he decided to spend the night on a bench.
All he remembers from that night is being constantly awoken by police officers and being forced to move from bench to bench. He spent two nights at the train station this way, trying to figure out his next move.
A Second Chance
St. Petersburg was a university city (much like Boston in the U.S.), and he knew going back to Uzbekistan meant guaranteed conscription. He decided his best chance was to make a last ditch attempt to apply to the St. Petersburg University of Telecommunications, a school that had a similar telecommunications program, only aimed at civilians.
My dad handed his exam score certificate to the university admission office, where he was told that with such high marks, he wouldn’t have to worry about being denied. The university even gave him free dormitory space in exchange for tutoring the other students for their upcoming admission exams.
When the date of the acceptance ceremony came in August 1970, his parents flew in from Tashkent to see my father enroll. Anticipation was high.
The list of accepted students was posted. And once again, my father’s name was not on it.
Angry, my grandfather marched to the admissions office and demanded to see the director. The secretary told him that he’d need an appointment. But my grandparents’ flight back was that night, so they had to leave. After an entire summer in St. Petersburg, he still didn’t have the acceptance letter he needed. He was alone, again, left to figure out what had happened.
The next day, the director of admissions met my dad. My dad told him his score, and asked if there had been some sort of mistake. The director simply replied, “There’s been no mistake, but you should understand. We’ve already exceeded our percentage for the upcoming semester.”
My dad did understand. He was Jewish.
The director was referring to the maximum number of incoming Jewish students that the university was allowed to accept every term.
It was understood that since Jews represented a minority percentage of the overall population, the university would only accept that percentage into the student body. This was in line with the Soviet Union’s unofficial policy of anti-semitism in the post-Stalin era.
Upon hearing those words, my father threatened to complain. To whom he didn’t know, but he was out of options. To this threat the director simply replied, “That’s your right. But I recommend you save yourself the trouble and return to Tashkent. You can apply to the local institute of telecommunications there.”
He spent the next day going from office to office, desperate for options. Finally, someone tipped him off about an annual “Conflict Committee” that was set up to handle admission-level mistakes at St. Petersburg universities.
It was there he met with the Conflict Committe’s director and explained everything. Most importantly, he threatened to go to the local newspaper and break his story.
In his young age, he didn’t understand how much of a futile threat this really was. The newspaper would not only refuse to publish his story, but would also inform the KGB - which could put him and his family in jail.
The Conflict Committe director asked my father to sit in the waiting room while he made a call to the other university’s dean. Sitting on the other side of the door, he overheard the entire phone conversation. The conflict director warned of my dad’s threat, and the possibility for a scandal. Several nervous minutes later, he was called back into the room.
“Go back to the university. You’ll get your admission certificate.”
In June 1975, my dad graduated university with honors at the top of his class. He went on to develop the first fiber optic systems in the Soviet Union.Thanks to Ian for all his great help with this article!