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Back in the USSR — Life as a Student in Moscow in the 1960s

Grim. Tedious. Unrelentingly cold and dreary. Add in KGB surveillance and the fear that they truly were out to get you and you have the makings of one memorable graduate year abroad. Dr. Naomi F. Collins has enjoyed a storied life and career in academia, non-profit work and various other areas. Some of her most notable experiences come from living in Russia during the height of the Cold War. Her husband is a retired career Foreign Service Officer and former Ambassador to Russia, James F. Collins, whom she accompanied to Moscow several times over the course of four decades. In the following excerpts from her oral history, Dr. Collins speaks of her life as a graduate student in Russia from 1965 to 1966. She details what it was like to be a Westerner studying abroad there – from the day-to-day challenges, the social tensions that came with surveillance, and finally their hasty escape when they feared that they’d run afoul of the KGB. 

Dr. Collins was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy in February 2012. You can read about Russell Sveda’s experience on the Trans-Siberian Railway in 1969, other anecdotes about KGB surveillance, and Stephen Dachi’s recruitment by the Hungarian Ministry of the Interior.


“My grandparents could not imagine why we would choose to live in the place from which they worked so hard to escape”

Q: Jim was not in the Foreign Service then, was he?

COLLINS: No, this was a graduate student exchange program that still exists today. Today it is run by IREX [International Research and Exchanges Board], but in those days it was run by the Inter-University Committee on Travel Grants, supported by the State Department and Ford Foundation, and run out of Indiana University, by chance. While we were living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Jim had fulfilled the paperwork requirements, but interviews were still required. On a blizzardy day, two professors interviewed each of us in succession in their hotel rooms in Cambridge. They declared we passed the first test just by showing up. We had to do it on foot, with knee-high boots. I still picture the unhinged galoshes on one of them, which probably means I was looking down too much.

Q: What was their concern?

COLLINS: Well, psychologically it was a very trying, vexing environment to live in during the Cold War, in the dormitories. I think they were assessing our stability, our ability to survive the tedium and pressures of a year at Moscow State University [MGU in Russian]. They already had experienced graduate students and/or spouses who didn’t make it through.

To describe the spooky but tedious environment there would take a long time. To try to capture it, I wrote a book on what it felt like to live in Russia as a foreigner through four decades. In it, I tried to recreate the environment of the 1960s in Russia. The book, which came out in 2008 is called Through Dark Days and White Nights: Four Decades Observing a Changing Russia….

Of course I was ready for winter, coming from New York and Bloomington, Indiana, and had the right gear, although I learned that 40 degrees BELOW zero, where Fahrenheit and Centigrade meet, made other “cold” feel just “cool.” I should have been alerted when they commented during the interview, “Hopefully you have some sort of hobby or something that will keep you busy, like Arthur’s knots where you can master all the knots in the book over the year…” because, as it turned out, one of the biggest problems there was plain old boredom. People could hardly survive the monotony of the place, without color or life. I asked whether I could use the libraries there, and they said I could.

So in August of 1965 we took a small student ship, the Aurelia, out of New York’s West Side docks, and a train for three days across Europe into Moscow. My grandparents, who had come with my parents to bid us goodbye at the dock, were in tears. They pictured Cossacks, poverty, ignorance, cold, and hunger. They could not imagine why we would choose to live in the place from which they worked so hard to escape.

We actually had luxury living for Moscow then: our own small suite with a bathroom.

There’s much more about how we lived and what we did in the book: I had taken notes at the time as well as written letters to our parents. I should add that I was sick a lot: caught lots of bugs. Suffered months of strep throat, for example. Not to mention intestinal parasites.

Q: Had you picked up Russian?

COLLINS: That was required. When Jim was accepted for the program, along with about 15 others, everyone had to study Russian at their own level. Jim’s, advanced; mine, beginner. A very intense summer it was, from about 6:00 AM to bedtime, daily. We were housed in a Russian-language-only dormitory. No English was to be spoken. Of the graduate students going then, two were women, the other 14 or so, men. The best known today among them is Bill Taubman who wrote the award-winning biography of Khrushchev.…

Q: Were you picking up any feel for the Soviet System, the Russians and the Soviets?

COLLINS: Not while we were in Bloomington that summer doing intensive Russian.

Between talking with tape recorders and teachers and one another, it was all we could do to get through each long, hot day. The teachers were primarily White Russians who escaped the Russian Revolution, or their parents had. They were very old, or seemed so to us at the time. In retrospect, I’d guess they were in their 70s. This gave us no inkling about the KGB, security, and being foreign.

“My first impression was that I had entered a time warp”

 Q: When you got to Moscow what were your impressions?

COLLINS: My first impression was that I had entered a time warp. I was back in the Brooklyn of my early childhood—or actually, of my parents’

youth. I pictured the 1930s. The graphics of the city were so retro; the buildings so shoddy, worse than those in Brooklyn. Luxury housing for their top party officials was more like Brooklyn apartments. It was far poorer and more backward than what I could have imagined. We all had this built-up image of Russia, how strong and powerful our enemy was. And there it was, all chipped and broken and cracked and malfunctioning, dreary, gray, and monotonous, lacking spirit or hope. While they were technically proficient in the arts, with beautiful renditions of “Swan Lake,” let’s say, they lacked the freshness, creativity, and originality of inspiring arts. No new writing of interest then, no visual arts. Stagnant. Television news and movies were stylized, predictable: men with tractors, fields of grain. Aspirational. “Boring” understates it.…

Q: How about the students there?

COLLINS: The students were bright and interesting. The ones we lived with were in graduate philology. Languages. I realized before too long – and wrote about it at that time –how little interest they had in ideology, theory, Marxism and communist theory. They found these tedious and boring requirements. They were already quite cynical then, even in the 1960s. At the time we thought that the regime could not last forever with this lack of interest; that at some point, it would crumble. There was also a lack of interest in the parades and forced holiday hoopla, not to mention TV and radio. What we did not realize then was how quickly, suddenly, unexpectedly, and soon the Soviet regime would collapse. We did not then guess that it would be in our lifetimes.

KGB Student Spies and Curious Russian Students

Q: I have talked to people who have served in Warsaw in the 60’s and 70’s. One thing they were convinced was that there were only about five really convinced Marxists.

COLLINS: That’s right. In Moscow at that time, the only convinced Marxists we met were those who were hired by the KGB to work with us, follow us, travel with us, keep an eye on us. They were allegedly with the foreign student office.

Q: How did you know who the KGB types were?

COLLINS: Oh, it was easy. As soon as we arrived, they greeted us at the station. All smiles and good cheer and positive thinking. I was suspicious. One good thing about coming from New York, I was cynical enough not to trust these professionally cheery people.

When we first met our “keepers,” we had been on the train for three days after a ten-day boat trip on a small ship. I was a bit spaced. A young man and young woman greeted us all chipper and bright – and spoke perfect English. I thought, “Well, this is convenient, anyway.” They had some sort of vehicle into which they piled our footlockers and us to drive us to the dorm. By then we had met up on the train with many of the other American graduate students who had somehow been assigned to the same train and same cars. These two young Russians wanted to be our friends – in a big way. They wanted us to come to tea. They wanted to come to our rooms for tea. They showed great interest in our lives. So I saw as little of them as I could manage to do.

The people who were actually interesting to talk to were not those two, but the people in the dorm around us. The dorm was totally mixed. Foreign students were right next to the Russian students in a way that seems surprising in retrospect. One would have guessed they’d have isolated them from us, but they didn’t. Although foreign students were scattered throughout the huge dormitory, the Americans, British, and Canadian students were assigned the same rooms year after year. On our floor there was one other American and three British students. The other foreign students and Russians we spoke with, we met in the hallways and kitchen, a shared, common kitchen. And sometimes we sat in their rooms drinking tea and having cookies and jams; or invited them to our room for those. The Russian students were careful but incredibly curious. They asked questions constantly.

They would look at America magazine, the glossy publication of USIA [the U.S. Information Agency]. These were hot items, this U.S. propaganda. We could also acquire books by American authors and share them with Russian friends. I remember, as they were reading, wide-eyed, a piece about Harlem. A friend asked, “These pictures of Harlem, are they real? Are those houses the ones they really live in?” I looked at the brownstones and said, “Yes.” I told them that many people shared these: they were not for one family alone. But then they looked at the streets parked up with cars and asked, “But they have those cars?” I said that some of them do. They so distrusted their own government to tell the truth, that they assumed any government publication was all lies.

While that magazine tended to look on the bright side, it was broadly speaking accurate.

Then they wanted to know whether an entire family lived in one room. And whether they had coats and hats, because they had read that Negroes in America were very poor. Did they really have a TV set? And for washers and dryers, I said they likely shared them. But they couldn’t believe that these “poor people” treated so badly as “Negroes” could have had access to a automatic washers and driers. (I described Laundromats.) “So it is not so bad they are living, no?” And I wanted to say they are living far better than most people across Russia, as possessors of indoor plumbing, hot water, cars, and Laundromats. (This doesn’t get into rural black poverty of course.)

But the point I’m making – if longer than it should be – is that they were trying very hard to check the verisimilitude, the authenticity, of these random bits and pieces of information that came their way. Could they trust these sources? It wasn’t long before they came to trust and believe what we said, because we were always candid and did not sugarcoat America.

I should add that we also got trips into the countryside: to historic towns like Suzdal, Vladimir, and what are now tourist sights but were not yet developed at that time. Old monasteries. Of course our assigned “friends” always accompanied us.…

Culture Shock and the Challenges of Daily Living

It was also hard to believe how much energy and time were expended in the efforts of daily living: procuring food, taking crowded transport, lugging gear, walking a mile in the cold to get to the Metro train. Exhaustion stalked me — and Russians. So did illnesses.

Q: I was going to ask where you got your food-

COLLINS: It took forever. You’d go into a store and stand in one line, for cheese, let’s say. Then you’d order your half-kilo of so-called “Dutch” cheese. Then into another line for rice to be measured out or set aside in a bag. Then to the cashier to pay for and get chits for each item at each station, and return to pick up items you had ordered at each. We had no refrigerator, of course. Very few people did. So we had to do much of this almost daily. We left things on the windowsill to keep them cool. But in the winter they’d actually freeze on the inside sill. And the products you bought had not been refrigerated, so one wanted to be careful, especially about eggs, milk, or poultry. But by Russian standards we were well off.…

Q: Did you pay on the bus? 

COLLINS: Yes we did. It wasn’t very much. It was an honor system, but we certainly didn’t want to appear dishonorable for what were a few pennies.

Q: I was in Bishkek sometime later, and found the bus was so crowded you couldn’t really pay. It didn’t cost much and I wanted to pay but I couldn’t figure out how.

COLLINS: Yes, they had a complicated system. I would get on and I couldn’t get anywhere near the cash box, so I’d pass my money along through others. There was a specific expression you would use that meant something like, “Please pass this along.” And I would give, let’s say, five kopeks to the next person to pass along. But – along the way– other people, who needed change and didn’t have five, would take the five and add their ten kopeks to the bucket brigade. This could get more and more complex, and sometimes led to arguments if the math didn’t seem to be coming out right. There could be multiple steps of making change, returning change to people, and such. And people would scream at those who had only larger coins, say 20 kopeks, because you can imagine the number of people then involved in getting and making change. And eventually some coins would make it into the box. Of course you would never know, never able to see the box, but would end up getting your ticket. All this negotiation required a set terminology and specific phrases. Fortunately, we were taught this stylized language.

Q: I can remember getting on a bus in Bishkek and discovering all of a sudden something licking my hand. I thought what the heck is that? I turned around and looked and there was a big St. Bernard on this crowded bus. They had the biggest damn dogs.

COLLINS: Yes, and to add to that – in the countryside – on buses and trains, some pigs, goats, chickens, roosters, hens. Real animals. Not a petting zoo. That was culture shock (even though we didn’t call it that then). As we awaited a train once, watching these animals in the station ready to board with us, I commented to Jim, “What are they doing here?” To which Jim calmly replied, “But how else can they get there?” Almost no cars or trucks at that time. So weird to experience Russia then, so strangely static and so strangely old fashioned.

The Stark Contrasts and Contradictions of Soviet Life

Q: I heard of a Soviet specialist, who ended up in a little village, and he had the radio on, and they were talking about a space flight and here was a woman in the middle of the square pumping water into buckets to hang on the yoke on her shoulder. Draw a contrast from that.

COLLINS: Exactly. I wrote a poem on that theme a few years later. I was struck by the contrast between Soviet rockets and satellites heading for the moon with young girls in Moscow walking home from school in their heavy khaki cotton stockings and stiff white organdy hair bows, the way my mother looked in pictures when she was a child in the 1920’s or so. It was so anachronistic. And those village pumps.

The disconnect between rocket science and shared village pumps for water, outhouses instead of indoor plumbing, was so stark. In those villages – beginning just outside the windows of our high-rise building — the roads were unpaved, impassible mud in spring when the snows melted. The gaps were so enormous, with the 18th and 20th centuries coexisting in one place. There were also the stories of highly trained brain surgeons performing surgery in hospitals without hot running water. And the drugs they lacked would fill a book: aspirin, penicillin, as well as birth control devices and condoms. For so many years, the only way to limit family size was through abortions. Estimates suggest some five to eight per woman, which is a lot. Especially when anesthesia was not available. I try not to imagine how that would feel.

Q: This is your first time there. What did you think when you left? How did you feel about going back?

COLLINS: I returned from our student year there thinking that it was a long way from home, and that its economy and basic life were so primitive compared to ours that they had an incredibly long way to go. Such a conspicuous absence of consumer goods, of detergent, plastics, implements, and of course large goods, washers, driers, refrigerators, and cars. And I was thinking, “My God, if this is our superpower enemy, and they are so fragile at home, and so far from being “advanced”– well that was unexpected and a shock. The second thing I thought was that I didn’t want to go back there again. It was really good to be home. It was not just about the material side which was not so important to me, but about the psychological side both for the Russians and for us. The surveillance. The worry about being framed for something, particularly when we were students. And we were, it seems—or perhaps it was by chance. How Russians had to live daily with fear and intimidation: there’s no good way to think about this.

People lived with a lot of bad options: were you going to be true to yourself or were you going to do what was expected of you and be rewarded for it, get better housing and special coupons to buy nice winter boots and nice toys for your children and maybe a washing machine or a refrigerator. We all have that to some extent, knowing our “price,” but not with such dramatic consequences. And those were the lucky people. Many had fewer choices because they had been blackmailed into making a deal between living a life as a coal miner in a remote part of Siberia or going to the top university and spying on other students. They wouldn’t otherwise get to the university because their father or mother or both had somehow crossed the regime and found themselves in a Gulag. The “sins of the father” could be used against the sons and daughters, limiting their options. If they were lucky. Some of them actually told their American, Canadian or British “friend” this story. We had already suspected some of this, especially from the more reluctant, less gung-ho, “friends” assigned to other American, British, and Canadian students….

Living in fear of being framed by the KGB and sent to jail

Maybe this is a good place to retell how our student year ended. Sometime during the winter or spring, a stranger knocked on our door. He said he was a student and wanted to talk to Jim. He suggested taking a walk because he knew our room was bugged. We all knew this. So Jim went off with this young man, then returned, then went off for another walk with me to explain what happened. (I don’t have to tell you how cold it was outdoors.) Jim told me that the young man told him that he planned to defect from Russia. This put us in a difficult position, of course. Jim discouraged him. But some months later we got a call from the cultural officer at the embassy who was in charge of students. He (I think his name was Christiansen) told Jim to come down to the embassy right at that moment. And Jim did. The officer told Jim that they have to get Jim and me out of the country very quickly because a young Russian man had jumped ship in the Philippines and claimed to be a friend of Jim’s. Jim and I spent our final night there totally awake, for fear the KGB might get to us before we got out in the morning. We had our door wedged with a chair under the doorknob.

We weren’t being paranoid. This was a realistic possibility. We knew that an American professor, Frederick Barghoorn, had in fact been arrested and jailed on trumped-up charges just a year or two before. The image of being in a Russian jail was not something I could sleep with. We never knew and never learned what the truth was: whether the man had simply defected and wanted a cover story, or whether he was a plant who made up the whole story to frame Jim. But we did know that we were going to leave immediately. The officer had told us that he and a car would be waiting for us outside the gates of the embassy at 8:00 a.m. (I believe it was). And we were to leave as if it were just a normal day for us, going to the bus or Metro to go downtown. That is, we were not to carry anything with us. Take your passport and we’ll put you on an early Air France flight out of Russia, he had said. We did as he said. We left everything in our room. (They found another American student later to pack up our things for shipment to London.)

They put us on a plane that we thought, and they thought, was going nonstop to Paris. The officer waited until the plane took off. We relaxed immediately. But what a shock when the plane landed in Warsaw! And we thought – oh, God, we’re vulnerable here. Maybe they’ve caught up with us. The pilot made us all get off the plane. So we did the most defensive thing we could think of: stayed with the crowd of French tourists on our plane, followed them from booth to booth as they shopped for knickknacks at the airport. As young as we were then (I had turned 24), we had survival skills. We imagined that no one would want to break through this cheerful crowd to capture us in the middle of it, making a distressing scene. We did not allow ourselves to be isolated for a second.

We landed in Paris not sure what to do, but managed to get a plane to London that night, arriving quite late. When we arrived in London, the immigration people were of course suspicious. We had no baggage. No money. Your passport is stamped with Russian visas and you’ve been living there, they said. What are we supposed to think? So they separated us and questioned us each individually. Of course we told them the truth, but the story seemed a bit weird even to us. Finally they said, “OK, you can sleep over in a hotel tonight, but tomorrow morning, first thing, you need to show up at the nearest police station and explain what you’re planning to do in England and how you’re planning to pay for it.” They were worried that we would go on the dole, which almost happened. But of course we’re here today, so it all turned out well. And they always treated us with courtesy.