The Financial Express

Memoirs of higher study in Soviet Russia

| Updated: March 01, 2021 18:50:19

Memoirs of higher study in Soviet Russia

My first visit outside Bangladesh was Moscow, the capital of the then USSR in the late 1960s. I enrolled at the Moscow State University-- considered the best university in Russia and one of the top ones in the world-- for my PhD. I went there under a Cultural Agreement called the Tashkent Agreement as it was made in Tashkent (capital of then Uzbekistan) between India, Pakistan and the Soviet Union.

Bangladesh was still a part of Pakistan, known as East Pakistan.

I was a 24-year-old teacher of Soil Science at the then East Pakistan Agricultural University, Mymensingh. During that time, Pakistan had only two agricultural universities, one in Mymensingh and the other in Lyallpur, West Pakistan.

To Moscow

When I landed at the Moscow International Airport, the scenes there were baffling to me. It was February with heavy snowfall outside the airport-- a puzzling sight for a youth who just started experiencing what the developed world looked like outside the village town of Mymensingh.

We were three teachers together from the Agricultural University on the flight to Moscow. On reaching Moscow, Pakistan Embassy there helped us regarding our overnight stay, even though we could not inform them beforehand. I was placed at the Faculty of Biology and Soil Science in Moscow State University. Two of my other colleagues were veterinarians and went to a veterinary research institute.

Moscow State University

Moscow State University, the first Russian university founded in 1755, has a rich academic history. It provides outstanding teaching and research. The university building is an incredible feat of architecture. Enrollment there stands over 40,000 students that include graduate and post-graduate with above 7,000 undergraduates.

While staying in the dormitory, I was placed under the supervision of academic Professor Dr Nicolai Sergai Avdonin, head of the department of agricultural chemistry and worked on a research area of localised application of fertilisers on potatoes. Potato is the staple of the Russian people. I had two summer field and pot trials under my research programme, which were carried out in the Botanical Garden attached to the faculty building. I also conducted physiological studies including biochemical changes in food values of potatoes under storage conditions.

Season changes in Russia

As a newcomer to Moscow, I had no idea that the environment of a place changes so dramatically within each season. Russian winter is all about snow. It completely covers the trees and landscape. Moving on snow is interesting but one has to be careful not to fall down as I knew an Indian scientist who had one such experience getting a hand fracture.

March, on the other hand, is the month of natural greenery all around when trees start to have new leaves. And by May, flowers start blooming in all trees, not to mention apple trees that become full of white flowers. It is the charm of Spring. Summer, however, is the most welcome season in Russia with prolonged day length. This particular season was my field experimental cropping season. In autumn, tree-leaves start falling being bronze to red in colour. I remember participating in voluntary work called 'Subodnick'-- the work of cleaning leaves off the street.

Language difficulties

I did not know anything of Russian language, not even the alphabets. Again, I landed in Moscow in the midst of severe winter during the month of February. It became very difficult for me to adjust to Moscow winter with temperature as low as -30 degree celcius.  Loneliness and language barrier with extremely cold weather badly affected me. So I joined Russian language classes soon.

Initially, I often encountered problems in communication at the dining hall while ordering food as the menu was written in Russian. So I memorised a few common names that were always available. Normally I used to have smashed potatoes and meat with gravy, salads, meat balls, ice cream, etc. Sometimes rice, kebab and some central Asian foods could be found as well.

For my library work, I mostly used the faculty library, along with the State Lenin Library which was the largest in Russia and second largest in the world. Oftentimes, I used to spend seven to eight hours a day there. I used to have my lunch there at the library restaurant.

Black Sea Resort

During my study period, I had only one occasion in summer to be off from work. I planned to spend the vacation in a Summer Health Resort in Sochi at the Black Sea, where a good number of post-graduates from Moscow State University joined. It was a place with wonderful scenic beauty. I had been there for one month. Every day, I used to go to the Black Sea for bathing and swimming. Sochi beach was stony unlike our sandy beach in Cox's Bazar, which is good for those who do not know swimming.

Excursions around Moscow

Once, I had a chance to visit the Kremlin, a fortified complex palace once used as the residence of the Kings of Russia, is now the official residence of the Russian president. I visited the great Kutuzov Art Gallery which depicts the background of Napoleon's invasion of Russia and his defeat. The whole story of Napoleon's invasion is narrated in the paintings of the Art Gallery.

I visited The Moscow Planetarium which was a wonderful attraction for all ages. It included a multifunctional complex that combines scientific and educational aspects. It is one of the biggest planetariums in the world. During the visit to the Kremlin, I also saw the huge bronze made Czar Bell, the biggest bell ever built in the world.

Later part

Pakistan president Yahiya Khan visited Moscow in the early 1970. We, postgraduates, studying in Soviet Union were invited to meet him at the Pakistan Embassy. He sanctioned US$ 200 for each student. I utilised the money to visit West Berlin in 1972. I visited this old city thrice. I also had the opportunity to visit East Berlin and the historic Checkpoint Charlie.

Before I defended my PhD, I came to Dhaka in early February, 1971, for a two months stay. However, when I heard that Yahia Khan postponed the national assembly, I knew bad days were ahead. So I cut my trip short by a month and rescheduled it to March 05, as my PhD was yet to be completed. Though it was a hassle to get a ticket for Karachi, once I reached there, I took a plane back to Moscow comfortably.

Bangabandhu at Moscow State University

Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman visited Soviet Union in March, 1972, in his first official visit outside the Indian subcontinent. I had the opportunity to see him at the airport. He later attended a reception programme at the Moscow State University. At that time, I was in the very last phase of My PhD work.

In January 1973, I obtained my PhD degree and finally left Moscow for home by March as the first Bangladeshi PhD degree holder to come back to Dhaka, with Bangladeshi passport given by the embassy of Bangladesh in Moscow, USSR.

Dr Syed Anwarul Haque is a retired professor of Bangladesh Agricultural University, Mymensingh.
Email: [email protected]

Share if you like