Friends and Enemies: Foreign Students in Late Soviet Universities

Department of Anthropology; Department of History
Anika Walke Washington, University in St. Louis (USA)

Beginning in 1958 and until the late 1980s, students from the so-called “developing countries” studied in Soviet universities—in Moscow and Leningrad, as well as in Tashkent and Kharkov. These students benefited from the Soviet government’s ambitions to expand its influence in the new independent post-colonial states, but also experienced difficulties in everyday life in Soviet society. Clashes took place due to a lack of resources and equipment, the privileges of foreign students that distinguished them from the ranks of their Soviet peers, social control in dormitories and classrooms, and political disputes. This research project is based on archival documents and personal accounts from graduates, both Soviet and foreign, with the aim of analyzing international solidarity in the form of academic exchange in contrast to the growing tension and upheaval in late Soviet society.


How did internationalism and xenophobia coexist within the Soviet Union?


Washington University in St. Louis (USA) professor Anika Walke presented at a joint seminar that took place as part of the “Transnational and Migration Studies” (Department of Anthropology) and “Eurasia Without Borders” (Department of History) projects. Her presentation was devoted to the position of foreign students in the late Soviet Union.

Professor Anika Walke is the author of the book Pioneers and Partisans: An Oral History of Nazi Genocide in Belorussia (Oxford University Press, 2015) in which she works with oral histories of the Jewish genocide in Belarus during the Second World War. In her new project about students from “developing countries” in the late Soviet Union, Anika again uses interview as a primary source for her work. At the time of her presentation she had got only two interviews, and thus her presentation was characterized by a discussion of possible research directions and hypotheses.

She began her presentation with a story from one of her informants about the offences he endured due to the color of his skin on the streets of a Soviet city. This incident became the starting point for Walke’s research, and allowed her to pose a key question: how did internationalism and xenophobia coexist within the Soviet Union?

From the beginning the Soviet project was built around the idea of internationalism, and the 1920s were full of active contact between Soviet communists and their comrades throughout the world. Even disappointment in the idea of world revolution and Stalin’s “great retreat” from the revolutionary ideals of class nature did not signify a full “closure” of the USSR, as a large number of foreign specialists were still present in the Soviet economy and supported by cultural and scientific relations. After the Second World War, in the context of decolonization and the formation of a new bipolar world order, the Soviet Union joined the struggle for “developing countries” by supporting socialist regimes in Asia and Africa. One such a method of support was educating students in Soviet universities.

In this context the authorities paid great attention to attracting students from “developing countries” to the USSR, and to organizing their lives there. Many of these students learned about educational opportunities through special cultural centers in Soviet embassies and did not initially have any special political sympathies toward the Soviet Union. One of Walke’s informants, who arrived to study in 1986, said that she knew little about the USSR or Marxism, and was motivated more by an interest in getting a useful education than by ideology.

Within the Soviet Union, foreign students found themselves in a special position. They had larger stipends, better living conditions, and separately supplied clothing. Most of all, foreign students had significantly greater opportunities to travel outside the Soviet Union—not just to socialist countries, but to “the West” as well. Finding themselves in alien linguistic and cultural surrounds, they received constant support from local student-supervisors who helped them with language in everyday life and in school. Friendships often formed between Soviet and foreign students, though a certain distance still remained.

Despite their privileged position, students from “developing countries” were often subject to racist attacks by the Soviet people. They were called “niggers,” “chimpanzees,” or were simply frightened by them. Professor Walke suggests that the elite living conditions of foreigners in the USSR in comparison to those of other students did not contradict xenophobia, but were another side of the same coin: their exclusive position and exclusion from society.

Roman Gilmintinov

Anika Walke—PhD, Assistant Professor at Washington University in St. Louis (United States). She studied at the Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg (Germany) and defended her dissertation in 2011 at the University of California, Santa Cruz (United States).

Her teaching and research interests include memory of the Second World War, migration and national policy in the (former) Soviet Union and Europe. She has published several articles on oral history and memory in the former USSR and on Jewish resistance in the Nazi ghettos in Belarus. In her book Pioneers and Partisans: An Oral History of Nazi Genocide in Belorussia (Oxford University Press, 2015) Walke interweaves oral histories, video footage and recollections in order to show how the first generation of Soviet Jews survived Nazi genocide, and how they preserved the memory of it after the fall of the USSR in 1991.