Passed/Failed: Vitali Vitaliev

Vitali Vitaliev, 45, was the special correspondent of the Soviet magazine Krokodil before defecting to the West in 1990. Published next month, Borders Up! is an account of East European life as seen through the bottom of a glass. Dreams on Hitler's Couch will be out as a paperback in July
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Backward in the USSR: One of the first things my parents told me when I went from nursery to primary school in Kharkiv, Ukraine was: "Never say what you think, never say what's on your mind." That's very cruel, too much to have to demand of a seven-year-old. My parents were once summoned to the headmistress over an essay I'd written because I'd enthused about the wrong character in a story. My grandfather, an old Bolshevik, said, "I regret what we did in the Revolution if it ended up like this".

Seven-year twitch: The primary school was incorporated in what was known as Secondary School No 116. Education was very disciplined; you were supposed to sit with your hands folded neatly on the desk. It's not easy to make a seven-year-old do that but they succeeded, I think, because they had bugbear figures, scarecrows, to scare the hell out of us. The main one was the headmistress with her factotum, the caretaker - an old hag. Yet I think it was a good school, if you forget about all that totalitarian rubbish.

A manual for all seasons: I started writing at a very early age and was really very lucky with the Russian literature we studied: at secondary level we had superb teachers. The attitude to Soviet literature had to be uniform and we had a sort of manual, a textbook telling us what we should think about this or that work. All writers were portrayed as champions of working people and in rebellion against bourgeois rule - or they were just not mentioned. The teachers had to write down every word they themselves said; in fact, they would copy someone else's notes year after year.

Cock-eyed: History was politically very important and very one-sided: the teacher had to be a Communist Party member and very thoroughly vetted. At 15 or 16, we had for history a Communist monster whom we called the Cyclops: she had one eye and one leg. She introduced a punishment for political revisionism: you had to stand up through all the lesson. I spent more time standing than sitting. Despite these disgusting qualities, she was an excellent teacher. When I was taking my entrance exam to university, I thought of the Cyclops when I was asked some amazingly difficult oral questions which weren't mentioned in the textbooks. I was so frightened, I was nearly sick; if you didn't get to university on your first attempt, you would be drafted into the army, which would be like death - literally so in my case, I'm sure.

Mad Maxim: I had chosen to enter the foreign languages department at the Maxim Gorky State University in Kharkiv, and in prestigious departments like that they had a quota of no more than one per cent Jews; I had the word "Jew" in my passport. At university, 50 per cent was rubbish, such as the history of the Communist Party, and 50 per cent was excellent. There were English teachers who spoke the language so well that you couldn't believe they had never been outside the Soviet Union. One lecturer spoke 18 languages fluently.

Rocking the roll-call: Partly because of my Jewishness and partly because I was accused of having the "wrong" girlfriend, who wore Western clothes, I ended up with a "Blank Diploma", that is, I left without being given the job which the state was supposed to provide. We were both interrogated by the KGB. The top diploma was called "Red", for which you had to have excellent marks in "Scientific Communism" and similar subjects that only a complete idiot would believe in. I just wouldn't go to those lectures; there was not usually a roll-call because, with 300 students, there wouldn't have been time for the brainwashing.

Interview by Jonathan Sale