This is my alma mater, the Moscow State University of Foreign Languages named after Maurice Thorez, acknowledged as the second-best university for the teaching of foreign languages (pipped only by the very exclusive University of Foreign Relations) in the whole of the USSR. This is how it looked in my day – the stone work painted yellow ‒ but now it’s been re-painted a sort of drab beige (as you can see from the photograph below). Such a shame.
It’s here that I studied for my Masters in English and French and is the inspiration for ‘Ghost Love’s’ Moscow University of Languages where Tonia is studying. Brilliant university! Happy days, when everyone was young, full of energy and looking forward to the future.
I had grown up wanting to be a concert pianist but to be successful meant getting a place in one of the best conservatoires in the USSR. For anyone to do that they needed two things: talent and blat. Blat is ‘connection’ – the helping hand of an influential friend or family member ‒ a sort of Russian equivalent of ‘the old school tie’ but much more pervasive. Without blat it was difficult to get anywhere in the USSR … not that things have changed much since the fall of Communism. Whilst I had the musical talent to be a concert pianist I had absolutely no blat and the prospect of attending one of the second- (or third-) rate conservatoires outside Moscow and St Petersburg did not appeal.
Therefore I decided to pursue a career centered on my other great passion: languages, so I set my sights on getting into Maurice Thorez. Doing this was problematic: the schools attended by the children of those high up in the Party had better English teachers and these kids often had supplementary private language lessons. The result was that their English was miles better than that of kids from ordinary schools. Fortunately Maurice Thorez employed a system of positive discrimination whereby about 10% of places in each year’s student intake were reserved for kids from working-class backgrounds (like me) and that (after taking a year out and working like crazy to get my English to a standard that would meet the university’s entry requirements) was how I managed to get in.
Maurice Thorez has about ten thousand students and teaches 35 languages. I took a five-year Master’s course in English and French though there were a broad range of other subjects thrown in for good measure: Marxism-Leninism (of course!), linguistics and pedagogics, Latin and Russian being just some of them. It was very intensive but I loved it. I lived and breathed my university, so proud that I had made it to the famous Maurice Thorez.
This is me in the final lesson of my French course. I am on the right. In the middle is our French professor, Alla Sergeevna Sokolova, a great teacher and a great person.
The Language groups consisted of 7-8 students. We studied six days a week, compulsory classes were from 8am to 1pm, the classes covering conversational English, newspaper English and home reading as well as lessons in more specialized subjects such as phonetics, grammar, Old English and many more.
One oddity was that most of the male students were in the Interpreters’ Faculty – they were being prepared to work with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the KGB after graduation. As the vast majority of the students in the other faculties were girls ways had to be found for the girls to meet the boys! As Tonia explains in ‘Ghost Love’, this was done in the ‘smoking areas’ where the boys went for a cigarette between classes. This photograph shows where we all congregated in Maurice Thorez – a little skverick across the road from the main building.
My elder daughter is reading Russian and Linguistics at Oxford University so this has given me an opportunity to compare and contrast the styles these two universities adopted to teach foreign languages. My conclusion is that Maurice Thorez was superior: the amount of contact time between student and teachers was miles higher there. I couldn’t believe how little interaction my daughter has had with her tutors.