Azrael Views Russian Student Life on Exchange Visit
Not all of the exchange projects between the United States and the Soviet Union consist of one shot, one month visits. Under the Lacey-Zaroubin agreement between the two countries, Russian and American university students exchange entire academic years; last year, 22 Americans spent nine months studying at Soviet universities, and 17 Russians were enrolled at American institutions.
Jeremy R. Azrael '56, Teaching Fellow in Government, one of the 22 Americans, spent the past academic year at Moscow University. He and his wife lived in the 30-story skyscraper dormitory that forms the heart of the university. Azrael studied Russian newspaper files and was permitted to interview a few Soviet industrial managers for a Harvard doctoral dissertation on the impact of industrialization under the first two Five Year Plans. Mrs. Azrael studied the Russian language and taught English privately to a Moscow schoolboy.
At Russian universities, student living quarters are grouped by faculties, and the Azraels had a room in the section of the skyscraper assigned to the economics faculty. "At no time were we Americans treated as a delegation," Azrael says. "We lived relatively normal graduate student lives.
"We went there as scholars, not with a crusading approach. We were not interested in engaging in long political debates. For the most part, we had a chance to meet people naturally, in their homes or in our room at the university. There were of course some people who could not look at us as anything but Americans, but usually we could form a normal pattern of friendship."
The practice of living together by faculties, Azrael notes, tends to make the Russian student more specialized and narrower than his American counterpart. At the same time, however, he found that Russian economics students knew more about their own literature than an American economics concentrator is likely to know about American literature. Natural science students seemed to have a widerranging interest in other fields and a more open-minded approach to controversial ideas than their colleagues in the social sciences.
Although there is a great deal of academic work--undergraduates must write theses and pass state examinations, while graduates work independently under the guidance of an adviser--Russian students find adequate time for outside activities. In addition to Komsomol, the Communist youth organization to which everyone belongs (membership is not compulsory but so desirable that few fall to join), Moscow has a large number of extracurricular activities rather similar to those found in American schools.
The university participates in intercollegiate athletics. "It is interesting to note that at Moscow, the best university in the Soviet Union, as at Harvard, the best university in the United States, the athletic teams almost always lose," Azrael says.
Soviet students, Azrael finds, are generally content. "Tourists who meet Russian youths on the street tend to get an exaggerated impression of discontent among the university students." He was struck by the large extent of "satisfaction, defined in a great variety of ways, among the Soviet student body."
Students at Moscow University are part of an elite and they can look forward to good careers. They all get stipends, not enough for luxurious lives, but adequate for basic living expenses. "It is too easy and dangerous," Azrael says, "to overemphasize the signs of student discontent."