I was a university student in Soviet Estonia for five years, which was then the standard length of studies. I was offered no choice of subjects, but I was happy at the time and remember this period fondly. In independent Estonia it is no longer fashionable or even acceptable to praise the Soviet period but I certainly benefited from the system.
The university had an excellent library, which opened at 08.00 and closed at 22.00, seven days a week. When I came to write a thesis in my final year, on the American writer William Saroyan, there was nothing available in Estonia and all the books and reviews had to be ordered from a library in Moscow. This service was quick, efficient and free of charge. I benefited, too, from sharing a room at the university hostel, at first with ten other girls but after a few months I managed to transfer to a smaller room which I shared with only three others. Inevitably this brought the four of us very close, and we liked this. We learnt to be considerate. We had lots of parties with loud singing when there was something to celebrate and quiet periods when one of us had to study. From those parties, I still remember the Armenian brandy and the enormous piles of aubergine sandwiches: Bulgarian tinned aubergine pâté was the cheapest sandwich filler in those days.
I remember once waking up in the morning to see a dead bedbug on my pillow; I had apparently squashed it in my sleep.
Bedclothes in the hostel were changed once a fortnight. This did not, however, get rid of the bedbugs, which were widely believed to have been brought in by some Russians. I remember once waking up in the morning to see a dead bedbug on my pillow; I had apparently squashed it in my sleep. There was warm water in the showers, which worked most evenings, and there were lockable shower cubicles. In the communal washrooms, the water was icy cold, particularly in winter, and everybody washed in full view of each other. The toilets were often blocked and the communal kitchens filthy. Everyone took turns to clean the kitchens – some better than others! Quite a lot of cooking and eating was done in groups. The most popular dish was sautéed potatoes, which required only potatoes and cooking fat. Meat was beyond the reach of most students.
We did not pay for the hostel and most students received a grant of 35 roubles a month, which just about paid for the food; help was needed from parents for anything beyond this basic level. In contemporary Estonia the grant system has been largely abolished, and student loans introduced.
The strangest subject was ‘safety in factory work’, although none of us was expected to work in a factory.
Although I was reading English, this involved studying Marxism–Leninism and a host of related subjects. Even physical education was compulsory. I was excused from Russian as I had done very well in it at secondary school. The strangest subject was ‘safety in factory work’, although none of us was expected to work in a factory. About a hundred of us would dutifully copy down what the lecturer told us; I remember him particularly drawing a lathe on the blackboard. I had never seen one in real life and have not done so since.
English studies were arranged in small groups of around 12 students. It was very formal, with an awesome English grammar book written by a Russian and published in Russia. All our language teachers were Estonians who had never been to England. Our literature teacher was an English communist who emigrated to the USSR, and then married an Estonian poetess. Literature for him ended before World War II and we were never taught anything about post-war writing.
We could not afford butter on bread or sugar in coffee but we would talk long into the night, sometimes able to stretch to a glass of Hungarian wine.
There was no shortage of activities in Tartu. The town had an excellent theatre, as it still does, combining drama, opera and ballet. There were coffee-shops of the German and Austrian kind where we could linger. We could not afford butter on bread or sugar in coffee but we would talk long into the night, sometimes able to stretch to a glass of Hungarian wine. By contrast, in the autumn we would be sent to a collective farm to work. This mwas hardly fun as it rained often, the potato fields became soggy and the potatoes heavy. The work was at the expense of our university studies and may well account for the fact that I never really mastered the basics of Latin.
We were guaranteed a job at the end of our university course regardless of our exam results. Since I had been reading English, I was offered a job as an English teacher, as were the other 25 of us. Take it or leave it, but sign on the dotted line for the minimum of two years – that was the principle. It is a day I still remember well. It was well organised and, with hindsight, even reassuring, but so demoralising at the time. I refused to sign at first but was told that I had no option, although I was not interested in a teaching career.
It has been reassuring in the years since that many of the students with whom I read English and shared accommodation have had very satisfactory careers as teachers after all. They did not seem enthusiastic at the time but later grew to like their teaching jobs.
Independence has changed a lot in people’s attitudes; present-day pupils are willing to learn and their parents are even willing to pay for extra lessons. It is a far cry from the days when nobody in Estonia wanted to learn English because there was nothing one could do with one’s language skills.