Just Across the River From the Czar’s Palace


Dormitory No. 6, Leningrad State University (Neva River hydrofoil in foreground) (Photo: Michael Alberts)

Here’s a bit of color about a little-heralded aspect of life in the bad old days of the USSR.

The story comes from my first visit to the Soviet Union – as a graduate student – in the summer of 1967. I was in Leningrad for a six-week course at the Leningrad State University (LGU) “Faculty of Russian Language for Foreigners.” I was with an entire Boeing 707-load of young Americans – a group of mostly undergraduate students in the inaugural year of an educational “exchange,”* now 50 years old, organized by the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE).

We were there to strengthen our fluency in this rather challenging language. We came from colleges all around the country. Although I’d majored in Russian area studies and studied Russian four years at Yale and had just completed the first year of a two-year Soviet studies master’s program at Harvard, that summer I was in a relatively small group organized by Dartmouth College. Other groups comprising that planeload of students came from half a dozen other schools around the country – Colorado, Georgetown, Kansas, Michigan State, Oberlin, Queens. Each group was accompanied by one or more professors of Russian from the sponsoring university.

After about 10 days in temporary accommodations, we moved into an LGU dormitory, a 19th-century building wonderfully located just across the Neva River from the Winter Palace, the unimaginably opulent residence of the czars that is now the main portion of the Hermitage Museum.

Upon dropping off my luggage in my assigned room, I went down the hall in search of the toilet facilities. I had very little trouble finding them. My nose showed me the way.

Despite the dorm’s classy neighborhood, the commodes in its bathrooms, like those in many public “facilities” in the USSR, lacked seats. This might go at least part way toward explaining why so many of those who used it, crouching, appear to have suffered from woefully inadequate aim.

Just as I discovered the john and looked around, appalled and disgusted, who should walk in but one of the American professors. A conservatively dressed, elderly gentleman with impeccably combed silver hair – clearly the scion of a Russian family that had emigrated around the time of the Russian Revolution in 1917 – he too looked around, quickly sized up the situation and uttered words so spectacularly at variance with his distinguished look and bearing that I remember them clearly to this day:

“This … is a shit house.”

And so it was.


* I put “exchange” in quotation marks because it was a one-way program – Americans studying in the Soviet Union. No reciprocal group of Soviet students was sent to the U.S. because the program was not part of the official, government-to-government exchange agreement, in which smaller, but more or less equal, numbers of American and Soviet graduate students went to each other’s country each year for doctoral research. Even that exchange was not entirely reciprocal. I know, because when I later worked at the American consulate-general in Leningrad (1976-78), a considerable part of my responsibilities was to serve as an advocate to the Soviet authorities on behalf of the American students on that formal exchange. The Americans were all attempting to do Ph.D. research in Soviet archives on historical and literary subjects, but they were often stymied – denied access to archival materials that they had previously been promised would be made available to them. So I’d go to bat for them, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Their Soviet counterparts at U.S. universities were all doing graduate work in physics, chemistry and computer science, attempting to help the USSR catch up to the U.S. in certain specific areas. Despite the asymmetry – to the USSR’s advantage – of the exchange, as far as I know, these Soviet students registered no comparable complaints about difficulties in pursuing their academic objectives in the U.S.

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