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Student in Irkutsk

Having left secondary school No12 in Achinsk in 1969 with good grades I wondered what to do next. I wanted either to become a lawyer or a journalist. The wish to be a lawyer was mainly to keep company with my two school friends Sveta and Natasha who wanted to be lawyers.

I liked to write essays when I was at school, especially on free topics like: "What do you think about life on other planets?" I usually had good marks for my school essays and my friends often told me that I was good at writing. I thought I might become a journalist and work for a newspaper.

My mother's advice to me was to study the English language and to be a school teacher. To be honest I never felt like teaching anything but the idea of learning languages was quite appealing to me. I thought that once I knew languages I would find a job that I would enjoy: an interpreter or a translator.

Teaching a foreign language in Russia was considered to be easier and more prestigious than to teach other subjects. The teachers of Russian and maths for a example had to do a lot of marking at home. I knew it from my mother's experience: what huge piles of exercise books she had to bring home for marking.

It was common practice in Russia to divide classes into two groups for teaching a foreign language. They believed that it was impossible to teach children to speak in a foreign language with forty pupils in the class. So at the English lesson there were never more than twenty, sometimes fewer. As for the marking, the children hardly wrote a third of what they did in other subjects.

Why was it more prestigious to be a teacher of a foreign language? I think it was because not many people could speak a foreign language in the first place. Those who could were respected for their rare skill. I did not see many school inspectors who knew the foreign language well enough to be able to criticise!

We decided that I would go to the Institute of Foreign Languages in Irkutsk and I never regretted that decision. When it did come to teaching I could not boast I enormously loved it but I came to like it enough to become quite a good teacher.

Irkutsk is a town in Siberia not far from the world famous Lake Baikal, with a population of about half a million. The beautiful Angara river, famous for its clear blue water, runs through the town. There are several legends about Baikal and Angara, here is one from a book of children's stories.

There were many beautiful legends similar to this one about Siberian rivers, lakes and mountains told by old people who lived there all their lives.

The climate in Irkutsk is wonderful with snowy winters and hot summers, with beautiful springs and golden autumns: every season of the year just as it was meant to be by God or by Nature. When it rained, it usually did so at night and in the morning everything appeared to be clean and fresh. The sky was bright blue nearly all year round. Irkutsk actually has the same number of sunny days in a year as Sochi, a resort on the Black Sea coast of Russia.

The five years in Irkutsk were mostly associated for me with the study of the English language and with the discovery of pleasure that only learning can bring.

I was moderately good at English when I was at school. It always seemed too complicated a language to me and I could not see the logic of it clearly. Especially difficult I found the tenses like: future in the past etc., and wondered why they could not just have three tenses as in Russian: present, past and future.

After only six months in the institute the whole 'picture' of the language became clearer and much more understood. It was very much due to the good teachers who loved their job and also to a good curriculum and the way the studies were organised that I made a good progress so quickly.

We had eighteen hours of English every week whereas at school we only had two. It made a lot of difference. There were about ten students in a class and it was not possible to hide behind anybody's back or cheat if we were not ready for the lesson. We did try to be prepared each time as well as we could. I was one of those people whom studying of the English language gave lots of genuine joy.

All the lessons and the lectures in English grammar, lexicology, the history of the English language and other subjects were delivered in English. No word of Russian was allowed during the classes.

I tried never to miss a lecture and to make notes of everything. I always found it much easier to pass exams and save time on preparation. Soon my notes became famous among the students and sometimes even senior students came to borrow them when they wanted to revise the subject.

Some teachers we loved more than others but most of them were good specialists with experience of previously working abroad in English speaking countries. We could feel that most of them loved their job as well as the English language and were real enthusiasts. They passed their enthusiasm and love to their students.

We were given long lists of English and American literature to read to pass our exam in English literature. Some we read in original and discussed in the class, such as "The Forsite Saga", "The Gadfly", "Jane Eyre", "The picture of Dorian Grey" and many others. Some we read in translation by famous Russian writers, for example the beautiful translations of Shakespeare by Marshak.

Occasionally we had a chance to listen to or to talk to a live English speaking person. Normally the students gathered in a lecture hall and the guest talked to us and we asked questions. It was a big happening and we had a chance to check our English against 'the real thing'!

It was a pity to me that the pleasure of studying languages was constantly interrupted by the lectures and seminars in such subjects as the History of the CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union), Dialectical Materialism, Political Economy of Capitalism and Socialism (two separate subjects). It was very annoying to spend time on all those boring studies which I personally would have rather spent on something else.

Speaking about the lectures I especially tried to have the notes of those subjects which I did not like. I think I must have produced an impression of a very communist minded person attending every lecture and sitting in the front row but the main reason for it was to be able to get rid of the subject as quick and easy as I only could. I did not know how I came to be so wise but I was.

I did not know many people in our year who enjoyed those communist subjects. It was in 1970s under Brezhnev and most of us had become quite sceptical about the number of decorations on Brezhnev's chest. We could not refuse to study his 'great' works such as "Virgin Land", "Malaja Zemlja" and others. There were many anecdotes about him and nobody believed he had written those books himself.

However to stand up and in the middle of a lecture or a seminar and say that all Brezhnev's works were rubbish and simply not true would mean no less than to be expelled from the institute, which none of us desired. That would not have changed anything for the rest of the students.

I tried to imagine what would have happened if the whole hundred and twenty of us stood up and said that in chorus or one by one? I am sure there would be some sort of investigation who initiated it. The whole town would have been stirred by the 'incident' in the Institute of Foreign Languages.

The principle and the Secretary of the Institute's Communist organisation would have been invited to the Town Party Committee for a very unpleasant talk and discussion how such a thing could have happened in a well respected institution? Somebody could have been dismissed or warned about such a possibility in the future.

There would have certainly been a strong 'recommendation' to strengthen the discipline in the institution and to pay extra attention to the communist upbringing and so on. The names of the 'ring leaders' would have been passed to the local KGB.

However there would not have been a single word said about taking Brezhnev's works out of the curriculum. That would just not have been possible!

It took ten more years for a person to come to power in Kremlin who was brave enough to call rubbish rubbish. It was Michael Gorbachev. He was like the little boy in the fairy tale who exclaimed that the emperor was naked!

We did have an incident in our institute once when a student was expelled on political grounds. His name was Yuri Tumanov. He met some American tourists in Irkutsk and accompanied them to Moscow where they all stayed in a hotel for several days.

As he explained it to his fellow students later he was motivated by the pure interest towards the English language and nothing else. He described how wonderful it had been to be surrounded by the real English speech from morning till night for the whole three days!

He was invited to explain himself to the Communist Party Committee where he was questioned thoroughly. His 'anti-Communist' behaviour was disapproved of and he was expelled from the institution. It was a lesson to all of us.

For five years as a student I shared a room with three other girls. Our hostel was in the centre of the town in Lenin Street, ten or fifteen minutes' walk from the institute. Now I think every student should have the experience of living in such a hostel as it is a good communication practice for life.

It was an old strong stone building with corridors on each floor with rooms along both sides. There was a communal kitchen and two toilets at the end of each corridor. Our room was number 58 and it had a balcony! There was a room downstairs where we did our washing and there were several showers. My friends and I preferred to go to public baths.

We washed the floor by rota and there was a person in charge of each floor who was responsible for it to be clean. I was chosen to be that person once but did not enjoy the job very much. My duty was to remind the students whose turn it was to clean the corridor and the kitchen. At least the toilets were not our responsibility and they were not always very clean either.

There was a student's council in the hostel which dealt with the students' affairs, mostly with the discipline. They checked the rooms every night for tidiness. They could tell students off for anti-social behaviour and could in theory expel a person from the hostel if he kept breaking the rules. But it rarely happened. Some students were constantly threatened with a punishment but they still stayed in the hostel.

The life in the hostel was different for different students. Some were more interested in studies, others in social life. Some got married as students and sometimes had to repeat a year. We had more girls in our course than boys, something like ninety-five to twenty. Not everybody had a chance of marrying a student mate. Some students got married outside the institute but by the end of the course we had quite a few students married and several became parents.

Two of the girls I was sharing the room with were called Svetlana and Olga and both had boyfriends in the army. They often got letters from their boyfriends and spent the evenings writing back. They wrote thoughtfully with love in their eyes and when the letters were finished they scented the paper from a little bottle, which was very romantic.

Another girl, Larisa, did not have a boyfriend. She was very serious and studied Japanese in her spare time. She got up very early in the morning and made herself a big cup of coffee and then began studying.

I had a school boyfriend in a military school in Achinsk. We exchanged letters occasionally although I did not remember scenting mine. Gradually the letters became rarer and rarer until I was not quite sure whether I had a boyfriend or not.

All four of us were good, we did a lot of studying, read books, went to the cinema and did not bring troubles to anybody. However I would not call my life boring as some people might think but on the contrary quite interesting.

When I was in year five my brother Yuri entered the same institute. I helped him to prepare for his entrance exams, especially in English. He got an excellent mark in it. We were very nervous because if Yura failed the exams he would be conscripted to the army: he was going to be eighteen in September. The Soviet Army had a lot of problems already and was not a very desirable place to be.

Yura passed his English, Russian and history very well but he failed his written essay. I was very upset and in tears when I decided to take a chance and talk to the teachers. I told them he was my brother and he was threatened by the army.

They found his essay and started to have a closer look at it. Some mistakes they said were not as serious and they raised his mark by one point. I was happy. My brother was saved!

Yura lived in the same hostel where I lived and it felt very nice. He enjoyed the studies and was one of the most capable students in his year. He also had a bigger social life than I did. At first I felt responsible for my little brother but after a while I started to feel like a little sister myself. He often called me "a nun" and told me I was too good.

However I was what I was and did not want to change my life for anything else. Yura told me a lot about what was happening around and I was much better informed. Yura also told me about Tumanov.

Tumanov lived in Irkutsk with his parents, and invited Yura to his home. Living in hostels, we missed the homely atmosphere sometimes. It was nice to be invited. Tumanov' parents were away and we did not see of a reason why Yura should not go. Yura told me that once there, Tumanov started to prepare one bed for the two of them. Yura was firm enough to reject him. I was shocked when Yura told me about Tumanov's intentions. I think I did not realise many of the things that were happening around me.

By the end of five years in Irkutsk we could not wait to finish the course and start working. I remember being on the bank of the Angara river sunbathing and dreaming of the time when all the exams were over. The state exams were still ahead and we were carrying our notes with us everywhere we went.

Class of '74 The day at last arrived ( 28th of June 1974) when we were free. I was to go to my mother's school in Achinsk to work as an English teacher.

Most of our year were going to be school teachers in little towns and villages of the Irkutsk region. One or two stayed to work in the Institute which was a privilege. One or two stayed and worked in the "Intourist" in Irkutsk as interpreters. One of the boys was offered a job in the KGB and accepted.

We had to work in the school where we were sent for three years. After that we were free to look for jobs wherever we wanted. I knew that if I did not like it at school they would let me go before three years were over. And that was what I was actually planning to do.

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