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From Russia to Radcliffe

(Page 2 of 2)



Actually, she had had a superb education in Russia and was leagues ahead of most of her fellow students. She found it amazing that in a class on modern European history, when the professor referred to Mazzini, the student next to her leaned over to whisper, ``Who is this Mazzini?'' Why, even in darkest Russia the Italian patriot was well-known!

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Mother adapted very well to her new situation. She was fortunate to be young, talented, and resilient enough to make a new life for herself after the separation from her family.

Fifty years later, she wrote of this period: ``Alone in a hospitable, but still strange land, torn away from the moorings of family life and accustomed surroundings, I suffered profoundly from an inner loneliness even while surrounded by colleagues and fellow-students.''

Mother chose political science for her field of concentration. As a child she experienced a persisting dream of what she would do when she grew up. She saw herself as a member of some parliament; a strange idea in czarist Russia, where the parliamentary experience was yet in its infancy. ``I was standing at a rostrum,'' she wrote, ``no doubt reconstructed in my mind from what I had heard about the English parliament from my father and some of his English friends, and delivering speeches which moved my fellow politicians to action.''

This seemingly wild expectation was translated into reality in the United States, for later she often stood on platforms, not of any legislature, but at colleges and universities where she lectured on world affairs.

Grandfather certainly influenced her choice of study. A constitutional democrat, he hoped that the relationship between czar and Duma, the representative assembly in Russia, would evolve along the lines of monarch and parliament in England. He discussed with his family the future of Russia, inculcating in his children the principle that each one of them, whether boy or girl, must prepare for service to their country.

Another strong influence on Mother was her Russian tutor, a young woman born into an illiterate peasant family who had put herself through school and university. She was a hunchback. Mother described her as having ``the radiant face of an angel, for whom higher mathematics had the beauty of music.'' From first-hand experience she knew of the unhappy conditions in czarist Russia. She wanted to help the poor by building dams and hospitals. In 1917 she left Mother's family to join the revolution.

From time to time Mother would report to Mr. Nickerson on her progress at Radcliffe. When she expressed her embarrassment about Gillette paying her expenses, Mr. Nickerson would smile and reply, ``We consider you a most promising investment.''

In the final weeks of her senior year, a single hurdle stood in the way of graduation: the Radcliffe swimming test.

Unfortunately for Mother, the waters of the Gulf of Finland being exceedingly cold, she had never learned to swim. Somehow the swimming instructor got her from one end of the pool to the other, perhaps by using a pole with a hook attached to her bathing suit and pulling her across. In any event, the necessary certificate was duly issued. Mother never swam again.

In June 1925, the Russian-born Vera Micheles, a gamble of the admissions office, graduated from Radcliffe College summa cum laude. She went on to pursue graduate studies at Yale and Radcliffe in international law and relations. Twenty years later, she was to be offered the presidency of Radcliffe. But this is a story for another occasion.