Building the New Soviet Person at Moscow State University

By Zinaida Osipova

In conversations with my cousin and his friends who graduated from the prestigious Moscow State University (Moskovskii gosudarstvennyi universitet, or MGU), it was fascinating to learn about the life of the brightest minds of Russia: just like students elsewhere in the country, they skipped lectures, used old sports complexes, and dealt with a dormitory curfew. Was this a more recent development or were these habits present in the Soviet era?  How did students live sixty years ago? These were questions that sprung to mind after my conversations.  Fortunately, the 1958 book Students of Moscow University by M. Mikryukov provides an overview of student life at the top university during the Khrushchev era. Written for a foreign reader, the book represents an idealized view of the university life. Nonetheless, it tells us about what the university provided for and expected of its students. In the Soviet Union, education was a tool for creating a new Soviet man with certain moral and ideological attributes, and Mikryukov’s account demonstrates the desirable qualities of a young Soviet citizen in the Khrushshev era: enthusiastic, hard-working, having practical skills, physically fit and active in extracurricular activities.[1]

Students of Moscow University was written in English, so its primary goal was to illustrate student life for foreigners. Mikryukov was a student, albeit external, of the faculty of journalism at the university: his account emphasizes showing student life from within, adding credibility to the narrative. The book, edited by V. Khodorovsky and Ya. Goldfeld and printed in the USSR, is accompanied by images depicting student life “in action.”

Students of Moscow University was published in 1958, five years after the construction of the Main building (Glavnoye zdanie) and MGU’s campus on Lenin (now Vorobyovy) Hills. In a historical note, Mikryukov stresses the simple origins of Mikhail Lomonosov, its founder, the university’s accessibility to “students of humble birth” from the beginning, and its “revolutionary traditions” dating back to the early nineteenth century.[2] It is important for the author to underline the university’s commitment to its current values from its origins in the eighteenth century.

In addition to history, Mikryukov emphasizes MGU’s prestige and its diverse enrollment of “nearly 70 nationalities.” The friendship of peoples, a common refrain from the era, is one of the central themes of his work. Mikyukov underlines the many different origins of freshmen comprising Soviet and foreign nationalities. He returns to the subject of internationalism throughout his work: a Czech student is doing chemical experiments, Chinese students teach Russians how to use chopsticks, a Syrian newcomer receives help from friendly Soviet students, and Burmese, Korean, German French and other foreign students perform at an international student concert. Mentioning a Kazakh girl, he describes the story of her family, “characteristic of the Kazakh people”: the revolution introduced the nomads to a new life and “Kazakh culture, now unfettered, began to blossom.”[3] Mikryukov underlines MGU’s internationalism and illustrates how the university embodies Soviet goals by bringing all nations, including the previously “backward” ones, to the forefront of progress.

Mikrykov’s style is engaging for the reader: by skillfully switching between description of the university system, anecdotes and his dialogues with students, he creates an atmosphere where we even feel our presence there. Mikryukov takes us through the practical training of students devoted to their disciplines, noting the availability of state-of-the-art equipment on the side. An instructor at the journalism department tells Mikrykov to include the drawbacks of the student journal in his story: lack of a hand-cut type and an assistant for the photo laboratory, a zincographer being late with the clichés and the flat press being out of order.[4] Of course, noting these drawbacks serves to demonstrate the honesty of this account, while at the same time implicitly praising the system for these being the only things about which the department has to worry.

Mikryukov discusses changes that took place at the university over the past few years: a new emphasis is placed on practical applications over pure research and students are sent all over the country for their internships. Mikryukov proudly explains that in the Soviet Union, all university graduates are assigned to work according to their areas of specialization. In nearly all cases, Mikryukov informs, students’ requests for preferable assignments are approved. He notes that the “graduates in their mass are eager to employ their knowledge for the benefit of their country which has reared and educated them.” [5] As we see, exemplary Soviet students should not only possess practical skills, but also wish to employ them wherever the motherland needs them.

Aside from being hard-working students devoted to the communist cause (we are told that more than ninety percent of the student body belongs to Komsomol), the MGU population is depicted as being enthusiastic about sports, which, coincidentally, are mandatory for the first two years of education. Motorcycle racing, horseback riding, yachting, tourism, game sports, swimming, gymnastics and many other sports – these are the diverse athletics in which MGU students participate. Physical activity makes them fit and adapted to practical expeditions involving being outdoors. In short, by Mikryukv’s account, MGU prepares specialists with versatile skills. [6]

The book mentions that MGU students get several weeks of vacation in the summer and two weeks in the winter, which they, of course, prefer to spend engaging in sports or cultural activities. Students get free or discounted rates for sanatoriums, rest homes, health resorts, and cruises. In addition to cheap vacation options, MGU students enjoy other monetary benefits: a universal stipend of no less than 290 (and up to 780 for the most eminent) rubles per month and dormitory housing (students live in two-room flats, unclear how many per room) for 25 rubles per month. A dining hall meal of three-four dishes costs between three and five rubles.[7] For comparison, in the 1950s, Soviet teachers earned between 575 and 935 rubles per month, with professional salaries being set fairly close in all specializations.[8] Thus, we see that stipends at MGU were not low within the Soviet context, and a student could afford to pay for university housing and eat at the cafeteria two-three times per day.

Mikryukov’s book is an interesting piece of propaganda told by a student himself. Perhaps, that is how he viewed his alma mater, or he could have been given explicit guidance on what to discuss. Although an overly positive account, the book showcases the attributes the Soviet system promoted in its youth and contains some excellent images of Soviet students.


Bereday, George Z. F. and Schlesinger, Ina. “Teacher Salaries in the Soviet Union.” Comparative Education Review 6, no. 3 (1963): 200-08.

Mikryukov, M. Students of Moscow University. Moscow: Искра революции [the Spark of Revoluton], 1958.

Smolentseva, Anna. “Where Soviet and Neoliberal Discourses Meet: The Transformation of the Purposes of Higher Education in Soviet and Post-Soviet Russia.” Higher Education 74, no. 6 (December 1, 2017): 1091-108.

[1] Anna Smolentseva, “Where Soviet and Neoliberal Discourses Meet: The Transformation of the Purposes of Higher Education in Soviet and Post-Soviet Russia,” Higher Education 74, no. 6 (December 01 2017): 1095.

[2] M. Mikryukov, Students of Moscow University, (Moscow: Искра революции [the Spark of Revoluton], 1958): 5-6, 10.

[3] Ibid, 13-25, 53-54, 110, 126-129.

[4] Ibid, 33.

[5] Ibid., 46-64.

[6] Ibid., 65-92, 101.

[7] Ibid., 92-97, 109-110, 113-115.

[8] George Z. F. Bereday and Ina Schlesinger, “Teacher Salaries in the Soviet Union,” Comparative Education Review 6, no. 3 (1963): 201.

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