My awakening interest in Russia and its people grew steadily as I came to know individual Russians at the UN San Francisco Conference and later on at UNRRA and UNESCO committee meetings and in the UN General Assembly. Some of my colleagues here at Indiana University visited Russia in an effort to activate a U.S.-Russia exchange of scholars, and I learned from them something of the Russian scene. All of these contacts with Russian diplomats and American experts on Russia whetted my appetite to see Russia itself and to try to learn something, if I could, about that enormous land and society so different from our own. Russia was not hospitable to mere tourists and did not have the facilities to handle them. However, as part of its propaganda effort, it did spend a considerable amount of money and time on officially sponsored visits, mainly by delegations from Third World and Communist Bloc countries, which came in large numbers.
In the summer of 1958 I was offered an opportunity to visit Russia that would be of benefit to the university as well as to me. At that time, Edward H. Litchfield, who had served with me on the staff of General Lucius Clay in Germany, was chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh and also chairman of the board of the Governmental Affairs Institute in Washington, D.C. A resourceful man with many international contacts, he had been able to arrange for a group of seven university presidents, in company with six other persons, to visit Russia. Litchfield’s mission also included Franklin D. Murphy, chancellor of the University of Kansas; Deane Malott, president of Cornell; T. Keith Glennan, president of Case Institute at Cleveland; Harry D. Gideonse, president of Brooklyn College; Gaylord P. Harnwell, president of the University of Pennsylvania; H. Philip Mettgers, vice president of the Governmental Affairs Institute; Frank H. Sparks, president of the Council for Financial Aid to Education; Alan Scaife, president of the board of trustees of the University of Pittsburgh and Fellow of Yale University. Four wives including Mrs. Scaife accompanied us, adding an element of charm and grace to our party.
Our trip was undertaken because of the enormous curiosity, aroused by the success of Sputnik, on the part of the American people and especially American educators to learn more about Russian education. We viewed our visit as an opportunity to observe the Russian system carefully and, upon our return, to report formally to the higher educational community as well as to other interested segments of the American population. The report that we published on our return did receive widespread attention, both in the press and in educational circles, and, I believe, served its purpose well.1
It was the custom of the Russians to arrange trips such as ours as exchanges: that is, having invited us, they expected to pay our expenses in Russia and, in return, have a group of Russians invited to the United States with all of their expenses in the United States paid here, thus overcoming the Russian handicap of a shortage of dollar exchange. Since we wanted to be as independent as possible, to have our trip as little monitored and circumscribed as we could manage, we declined the hospitality of the Russians and did not have to reciprocate with similar sponsorship on this side. Our offer to pay our own way was unprecedented in the experience of the Russians. Though hesitant to accept an arrangement that departed from their acceptable pattern of visits, they eventually agreed.
We were able to be financially independent because of the generosity of the Scaife Foundation. Its officers, who were also two of its principal donors, accompanied us on the trip. Both Alan and Sarah Scaife were deeply interested in higher education. Both liked exotic and even difficult, out-of-the-way places. Although they were not professional educators, they knew enough about the field and about the world to be stimulating members of our group. They were delightful traveling companions.
Prior to our leaving, Litchfield had been able to negotiate successfully with the Russians for a rather extensive trip to include not only Moscow and Leningrad, the usual objectives of visitors, but also Tbilisi, Samarkand, Tashkent, and Alma-Ata. Although our visit was privately financed, we had the status of an official American educational mission, which was valuable to us in gaining access to information. Our sole objective was to have a look at Russian higher education; we were the first group of university presidents to do so after World War II. We were well briefed before we left and the mission was carefully organized. In each city we divided ourselves into teams of one, two, or three, and each team took a different assignment. Although our trip lasted only 15 days, by hard traveling and careful planning we managed an accumulative total of 150 observation days. The effectiveness was increased as we shared our observations with each other.
We were received cordially, both officially and privately, everywhere we went and were shown what we asked to see, except for the Party schools, that is, institutes that train young Communist Party leaders. Not only were the students there given a complete political indoctrination, they were trained in executive management as well. Thus the Party schools were in a particular sense comparable to the executive-development institutes run by American universities for both industry and labor. Graduates of the Party schools were placed in factories to ensure political conformity and, importantly, to stimulate production to meet government goals. (One was placed in every faculty senate for similar reasons.)
We early learned that the years of misunderstanding and propaganda had produced many misconceptions about American society among Russians in general. We were asked frequently about the treatment of the American Indian, racial segregation in the schools, starvation and unemployment, and the hard lot of the American student. The propaganda line of the Party concerning our economic and social order had been implanted in the average Russian. Yet, surprisingly, the individual Russians we met without exception were friendly to us and were interested in learning all they could about America, particularly about its music and authors.
We had accurately anticipated that education, Russian style, or at least research had a very high priority in the U.S.S.R. because of the dramatic evidence of it just nine months earlier when the Russians startled the world by launching the first Sputnik on October 4, 1957. The high importance granted education in Russia was in a way illustrated by the principal facility of the University of Moscow. Just completed, this imposing building was then the highest in all of Europe and contained thousands of rooms and a library of 5,500,000 volumes. Other construction was underway and, on my last trip to Russia in 1975, I observed that there were many additional buildings located on the spacious grounds of the university. In the nine years preceding our visit in 1958, more than $200 million had been invested in the physical plant.
We devoted quite a bit of time to the University of Moscow, which we found awesome because of the immensity of its physical plant, the extent of its scholarly resources, and the quality of its faculty. We were told about the massive outlay, not only for buildings, library facilities, and technical equipment, but also for scholarships that made it possible for 80 percent of the students to attend the university at the cost of the state, if their academic credentials warranted. We learned that teaching at the university level is one of the highest-paid professions in the Soviet Union and that a faculty-to-student ratio of one-to-ten prevailed. It was quite apparent that, because of education’s high priority, a people that formerly had great pockets of illiteracy had become almost wholly literate even in the remote provinces. There was an extensive array of facilities for training in certain specialties that U.S.S.R. officialdom seemingly deemed most important to the state. Yet, impressive as all this was, we were mindful that only 20 percent of the students completing secondary school were permitted to continue their education.
It should be said that we were also made aware of official Soviet interest in outshining the United States in conspicuous aspects of higher education: buildings, research facilities, faculty salaries, and financial support. Contrary to a general impression, the Russian bureaucracy encourages competition—competition to excel, to be productive, to achieve designated standards, and to better previous performance. For such accomplishments there are nonfinancial rewards in the form of various recognitions spelled out in advance to stimulate maximum effort.
We found one of the principal differences between the Soviet system and ours to be the fragmentation of their curriculum in higher education. There were at that time thirty-nine universities and between seven and eight hundred technical institutes, that is, specialized professional schools. Nearly all the specialties, with the exception of law and journalism, were offered in individualized institutions. For example, the Institute of Agriculture was connected with the Ministry of Agriculture, and the Institute of Medicine was part of the Ministry of Health; even the Institute of Music had bureaucratic ties through the Ministry of Culture. But in every case the curriculum, the admissions policy, textbooks, and numerous other policy matters were decided by the central Ministry of Higher Education. Of course, this fractionated system of training specialists made cross-fertilization of ideas between members of different faculties and student bodies difficult, and from an administrative standpoint it seemed to be a rather expensive system, running up a very high overhead cost. Additionally, students would find it prohibitively difficult to change fields. As far as we could ascertain, there were great gaps in the curriculum—for example, in the behavioral sciences—as might be expected in such a system.
Every university we visited had extensive library holdings that included a large section of up-to-date foreign journals. Apparently reading is a popular pastime among the Russians as bookstores were crowded, and we were told that there was a flourishing black market in new paperback editions of both contemporary and classical works. Correspondence study is widespread, and industry provides workers released time to go to the campus for study and examinations, all expenses paid. Abundant use is made of museums as an educational resource.
Of course, education was clearly geared to the needs of the state with resulting overspecialization, rote learning, rigidity punctuated by sudden changes, intellectual isolation, absence of a community of scholars, and no real academic freedom. In this regard, the number of women in higher education (51 percent of all students) should be mentioned. In some fields such as pedagogy and the arts (78 percent), medicine (69 percent), agriculture (44 percent), and technical institutes (39 percent), the percentage of women students was much higher than in comparable fields in America. Women held positions as directors and rectors, and more than a third of the faculty and the researchers were women. But at the highest level, members of the Academy of the U.S.S.R. and Doctors of Science, less than 10 percent were women.
Continuing from secondary schools, there was an emphasis on language training within the universities and specialized institutes as well as in the institutes dealing solely with languages. We learned that all university students must take work in professional education and be prepared to teach if, after graduation, they were assigned to a teaching post. A graduate is more or less obligated to accept a proffered post no matter where it is located. As the rector of the University of Moscow expressed it, the student was not forced to accept the post; he could refuse if he wished to—refuse and starve. The stress on science, which has now become well known to all the world, did not surprise us, but we were impressed by the great encouragement and support of certain of the humanities. They are nurtured and developed on an unprecedented scale, especially music, drama, theater, opera, ballet, radio, and television. For some reason physical education is important to the Russian bureaucracy, and each student was required to take a total of 136 hours of it in the first two years of higher education. We observed a strong interest also in history—history rewritten in terms of Russian ideology—and we noticed considerable activity in the field of archaeology. In the years since then, Russian archaeologists have made great discoveries and valuable contributions to that science.
An incident during our Moscow visit may be of interest. Before leaving Bloomington, I had been charged by my colleague, Roy Harris, the late distinguished American composer then on the faculty of the Indiana University music school, to carry recordings of some of his recent symphonies to the eminent Russian composer, Dimitri Shostakovich. Harris and Shostakovich had corresponded through the years, had met, and they had high respect for each other professionally. Soon after I arrived in Moscow, I told our Intourist representative that I wished to see Shostakovich and I told him the reasons why. The young man first said that would be impossible but upon my insistence agreed to inquire. He came back the next day to say that Shostakovich was out of town, but I continued pressing the fellow and finally I had a favorable answer: on such-and-such a day Shostakovich would receive me in his apartment. At the appointed hour we went to the apartment, which was in one of the new apartment buildings in Moscow (they all look alike), and took the rickety elevator up to the fifth floor, as I remember it. In Moscow at that time the elevators only carried passengers up; they had to walk down. The minds that had created Sputnik could have mastered this relatively simple technical principle had anyone thought it important to do so. I was received by a maid and invited into a room that apparently served as a combination sitting-dining room. I suppose the closest counterpart in American life would be the “family room.” We sat around a big table that I am sure was used also for dining. Shostakovich entered after a few minutes, obviously quite nervous at receiving me. Although he had received the Lenin Award, had received the title People’s Artist of the U.S.S.R., and was held in high esteem, he seemed frightened to have face-to-face contact with an American, a condition that saddened me. I could only assume that he feared a black mark against his record because of my visit. Through an interpreter we had a pleasant conversation about music, and I delivered the records with Roy Harris’s cordial greetings. Tea was served, and at the end of about half an hour or so we left.
I had a chance to have a glance at the apartment. It was much more spacious, I am sure, than the typical Russian apartment, but it was furnished in a very plain and humble fashion notwithstanding the fact that its tenant was a man at the very pinnacle of the Russian musical world. I was told that he had in addition to this apartment a country place that he frequented, and as a star artist he must have had adequate income, but, unless he really preferred simple surroundings, it would appear that there was little he could buy with his rubles. This revealing glimpse of how a world figure, a man among the artistic elite, lives in Russia lingers hauntingly in my memory of that trip.
I should say here that the contrast between public buildings and private accommodations was startling. We observed that homes and apartments were meager to modest, that people had few clothes and personal effects, and that there were very few personal luxuries. “On the other hand,” as our report stated, “they have quite extraordinary public facilities. The theaters are elaborate and in some cases most attractive. The drama, choral, ballet, and opera groups which perform in the theaters are very good indeed. Schools, libraries, museums, parks, and similar public facilities are distinctly superior. They are very extensively used and appear to be deeply appreciated.”2 Russia is a land of collective glamour and individual austerity.
It is also a land of amazing paradoxes: a common roller towel in the most modern of jet airplanes; streets filled with automobiles, but a driver pours water on the engine of his car to cool it; in a jet plane a woman sitting on her baggage in lieu of a seat; great scientific and technical accomplishment and yet poor, disorganized service everywhere.
Our next stop was Leningrad. Moscow had impressed me as drab, somber, and uninteresting, and our hotel there was Grand Central style on the inside and Atlantic City on the outside. In contrast Leningrad is a European-style city—pleasanter and brighter than Moscow—and our hotel was of European type. At the University of Leningrad we had the privilege of meeting with the faculty senate and found this a stimulating experience. Leningrad is also a very distinguished university, typically a little less rigid in its ideological position than is the University of Moscow. The farther we got from Moscow, the more relaxed the societies and universities seemed to be. We found Tbilisi beautiful and the Georgian people a joy. Notwithstanding the fact that it was Stalin’s home state, the Georgians seemed to be quite uninterested in what went on in Moscow. According to my notes made at the time, the city has “lovely parks, cool and shaded fountains, two beautiful stadia, beautiful formal walks and flower beds—cool shaded areas. A toy railroad for the children run by the children and given an educational twist.” Baku I remember as simply a great oil center, but Samarkand was interesting because of its historical background and the contributions that had been made there to science. Tashkent we found quite rewarding; there we met with the equivalent of a city council as well as with university representatives, and we asked questions and were answered freely.
While at Tbilisi, we spent a day at a collective farm 150 miles away. There we were greeted quite hospitably by farmers and their wives. The grape harvest had just been concluded, and the new wine, fermented only a few days, was ready for testing. Our visit coincided with the typical new-wine festival they celebrated. They had spread under the vineyards and fruit trees, for our enjoyment and their own, great tables laden with all kinds of Russian foods—fish, chicken, goat, suckling pig, salads, cucumbers, tomatoes, cheese, bread, and yellow cherries—and there were huge kegs of the new wine to be consumed. We ate and we drank and we had a great time discussing agriculture and education and our respective ways of life. They were particularly interested in farming, about which Deane Malott and I could talk a little, more perhaps than some of the others. As the afternoon wore on, it became evident that there was to be a contest between the Russians and ourselves as to who could consume the most new wine. Alan Scaife and I early determined that we would not let the Russians beat us, regardless of what the drinking did to us. So with toast after toast and our arms intertwined in Russian fashion, we drank the new wine. All our people except Alan and me dropped out early, and the Russians gradually dropped out too, one after another, until in the end Alan and I were the only persons still drinking and we were declared the victors. It was a Pyrrhic victory at best as was evident soon after we had taken our farewells and were out of sight of our hosts, but Alan and I had been in no mood to cede anything to the Russians.
As we came back to Tbilisi in the evening, most of our party went up to a funicular to have a look at the city from the air. I went on to the hotel, since I am not exactly addicted to funiculars, and there I found our young Intourist representative greatly agitated. He reported that Moscow had just phoned to say that Khrushchev was coming to Tbilisi the next morning and that the plane we were to have taken at ten A.M. had been cancelled. As a consequence, we would have to leave at four A.M. I told the young man that the plan was quite impossible: our party had not packed and would probably not get back to the hotel until about midnight. It would be impossible for us to leave before the regularly scheduled time. He became even more agitated, insisting that it was absolutely necessary for us to get out of the hotel since Khrushchev’s party would need our rooms when they arrived in mid-morning. As I suspected that this was a change made merely for the convenience of the transportation system, I repeated that the arrangement was impossible. I also advised him that, if the regular plane had been cancelled, he should call Moscow and have a special plane sent down—that we should be glad to charter a plane to take us away at the regularly scheduled time the next morning. By then the young man was thoroughly upset and arguing that he could not do that—that there was no system of plane chartering in Russia and that it simply could not be arranged. He then began pleading with me, “Dr. Wells, if you will tell the group when they come in at midnight that they have to leave at four A.M., they will do so.” I flatly refused, adding, “It’s your problem. We’ll not leave the hotel until time to go to the airport, which means we’ll be here until about nine o’clock, and you can work it out however you wish.” He went away in a state of great distress and, so I was told, telephoned Moscow that he had a group of crazy Americans on his hands who would not leave and that something had to be done. Well, just as I had suspected, the authorities could and did arrange for a plane to pick us up at the scheduled time the following morning. Between ten and eleven a special plane arrived from Moscow and we were its sole passengers enroute to Baku, Samarkand, and Tashkent over a wild and barren land. This was one of the first of my several brushes with Russian bureaucracy, all of which have amused and, in a way, delighted me. At Alma-Ata we found a delightful, nearly pioneer city, only 150 miles from the Chinese border. We were enthusiastically received by faculty of the university, who seemed a world apart from their colleagues in Moscow. The university was of some size but obviously did not receive the kind of support that Moscow received. We learned that a faculty position at Alma-Ata was considered to be a hardship post, so professors were paid more there than at the universities of Moscow and Leningrad. Even so, few faculty had wished to leave Moscow, seemingly because it was the seat of power and preference. We visited the Astro-Physics Institute, set in a beautiful spot, where the students were observing Sputnik III with great pride. The vice-director asked to be remembered to Frank Edmondson of Indiana University’s astronomy faculty. It was the judgment of our group that, if we were to teach in Russia, we would prefer to be at Alma-Ata. The place reminded me of our Northwest: it was an orchard-growing country and a very productive agricultural region. Many of the people in Alma-Ata were of Oriental background, and there were numerous students from China in the university as exchange students.
Our hotel offered some surprises. As I noted then, “General bath is very clean and bright, thank heaven. All showers, however, are two floors below. Beds are small and hard but again, thank heaven, single rooms and everything is bright and clean and the pillows are soft and of reasonable size. There is a table, a lamp, a vase for flowers, teakettle and radio in the room.”
While in Alma-Ata we also went to the opera house to hear the state symphony orchestra, a delightful experience, for the players were talented and beautifully trained. (Incidentally, every Russian city of any size has a well-equipped opera house and frequently also a concert hall.) As we entered the theater to take our seats, we were startled by applause. Our first thought was that we were late and that the applause was for a completed number. But in a moment we realized that the applause was for us. They had held up the performance, waiting for us to enter, and we were greeted in this cordial and friendly manner because the community felt highly honored to have a group of visiting university presidents from America. The young conductor, obviously Oriental and impeccably clad in white tie and tails, led with great verve an orchestra with an unusual combination of both Eastern-and Western-style instruments in a fine program of Beethoven, Bach, and Brahms. At the intermission we were nearly mobbed by students trying out their English and asking questions about America.3
Throughout our trip, surprises and paradoxes abounded. At Alma-Ata, for instance, the air terminal was an elaborate building with crystal chandeliers, overstuffed furniture, and vast reception lobbies. Notwithstanding this impressive structure, the air runways were undeveloped and, as there was very little traffic, the terminal seemed largely deserted. The explanation we were given was that one bureau controlled the building of airstrips and another controlled the building of air terminals. The air terminal bureau was ahead of the strip bureau and, as a consequence, Alma-Ata had a magnificent palace to receive passengers but only grass runways for the planes.
Our hosts there, who were unexpectedly well informed about the United States, were very hospitable. The rector entertained our group in his spacious house with its lovely garden and fountain. There were forty at dinner but more could have been accommodated in the dining room. The dinner—excellent, elaborate, and served with a sense of decorum—consisted of many cold dishes—meat, salads, fish, pate—chicken and cauliflower, fish with excellent sauce and potatoes, ice cream, raspberries, strawberries, cakes, and candies, all accompanied by a great variety of beverages.
The plane that was to come for us was very late; our departure was scheduled for between eleven and twelve o’clock, but the plane did not arrive until two A.M. Our host committee accompanied us to the airport and would not leave until they saw us safely aboard. I shall always remember the picture of us gathered together under the stars—it was a beautiful summer night—singing songs to pass the time. The Russians, surprisingly enough, sang the songs in English, such oldtime favorites as “Swanee River,” “My Darling Clementine,” “A Long, Long Way to Tipperary,” and so on. Not infrequently the Russians knew the words better than some of us did.
I have made three other trips to Russia for meetings of the board of governors of the International Association of Universities (IAU) and for one of the quinquennial conferences of the IAU. On another occasion I stopped there briefly enroute to Islamabad. Even with all the changes and improvements that had taken place by the time of my last trip to Russia, in 1975, I still found traveling in Russia arduous. It is a vast, amazing country, difficult for the Westerner to comprehend. It is even more difficult for the Westerner to understand the apparent acceptance by the great mass of the Russian people of their type of government and the censorship and restrictions under which they live.
This memoir is not the place for a detailed description of the political ideology and the educational philosophy and practice of the Russians. But I am grateful for the opportunities that I had to have some exposure to them and so to have, in viewing the problems of the world, reading the day-to-day news, and greeting the Russians who now come to the States more frequently than in the past, some better understanding of Russian society and the shaping of its attitudes.
In the published report of our mission there appears a thoughtful comment about “the dynamics of the atmosphere” present in most aspects of Soviet life and a caveat on inferences about Russians that may serve as a corrective to other impressions of our visit: “There is a noticeable conviction as to progress, an apparent feeling of success, a pride and a sense of destiny which is inescapable. Whether the individual is right or wrong in feeling as he does, the fact remains that the prevalence of this dynamic provides a general stimulation for the people which is of tremendous importance. Anyone who has assumed a role of leadership in creating change in either a single institution or in a major segment of society is aware of the fundamental significance of the development of such a dynamic.” 4
1. Report on Higher Education in the Soviet Union (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1958).
2. Ibid., p. 12.
3. During this intermission we decided that we should present flowers to the soloist, who was to perform in both the first and second portions of the concert. We sent someone for flowers from a nearby flower shop and we were prepared to go on to the stage to present them at the end of the concert, but this opportunity was not offered. Instead we went backstage to make the presentation to the primadonna, who was buxom and formidable in size in the best operatic tradition. When I presented the flowers to her on behalf of our group, in my enthusiasm I remarked that she was tremendous—meaning, of course, that she had given us a great performance. Her eyes sparkled and, observing my corpulent figure, she smiled and through the interpreter said to me, “That, from you?” Rarely have I had a better lesson in using care in word choice when addressing a lady.
4. Report . . . , p. 7.