When Entrance Exams Were Abolished

Less than a year after their coup, the Sovnarkom of the RSFSR abolished university entrance exams on August 2, 1918. The admissions process of 1918/19 was annulled and universities were ordered to open up to everybody, with no tests for subject knowledge or even literacy.

Thus came to an end one of the few unmitigated educational success stories of the Russian Empire, which at 127,000 students by 1913 constituted Europe’s largest national student body by far – as well as its most “diverse” (greater share of women and people of a common background than in England or Germany).

Subsequently, the Russian intelligentsia would be driven out of its own institutions (if not out of the country or into a hastily dug ditch), the student body replaced by Jews and affirmative action proles in the 1920s.

Here’s what Yuri Slezkine wrote on this in The Jewish Century:

The art historian A. Anisimov wrote to a colleague in Prague (in November 1923), “Out of 100 applicants to Moscow University, 78 are Jews; thus, if the Russian university is now in Prague, the Jewish one is in Moscow.” The father of a student about to be “purged” for alien origins wrote to a friend or relative in Serbia: “Pavel and his friends are awaiting their fate. But it’s clear that only the Jerusalem academics and the Communists, Party members generally, are going to stay.” And according to the wife of a Leningrad University professor, “in all the institutions, only workers and Israelites are admitted; the life of the intelligentsia is very hard.”

As it turns out, though, this wasn’t Russia’s first experiment with “open borders” higher education. It was predated by the Petrovsky Academy of Alexander II, which was opened in 1865 for the newly emancipated serfs. It was staffed with the best professors. Each individual course cost 5 rubles, while a year’s worth of education cost 25 rubles, though in practice most paid the former and enjoyed the latter since those rules were not strongly enforced.

Nice and well-intentioned as this project, unlike the Bolshevik one, was, it was not very successful, as its 1871 report made clear:

Most of the students, drawn by the freedom to access the academy without entrance exams, not having a clear view of what awaited them, and unaware of their lack of preparation to complete the courses, abandoned them after realizing their inability to cope with the material, having fruitlessly wasted their time on things that were beyond them. … The professors had to be aware of the level of their audience and tailor their lectures to them; they tried to do that as best they could, but there was still a gap to what they could feasibly do and the level of comprehension of their diverse mass of listeners.

By 1872, the Petrovsky Academy started requiring evidence of secondary school completion and passing an entrance exam.

As it turns out, either way, these “progressive” experiments in higher education don’t tend to end successfully.

Anatoly Karlin is a transhumanist interested in psychometrics, life extension, UBI, crypto/network states, X risks, and ushering in the Biosingularity.


Inventor of Idiot’s Limbo, the Katechon Hypothesis, and Elite Human Capital.


Apart from writing booksreviewstravel writing, and sundry blogging, I Tweet at @powerfultakes and run a Substack newsletter.


  1. Please keep off topic posts to the current Open Thread.

    If you are new to my work, start here.

  2. I thought this post would be covering this story:


    Maybe it is.

  3. Barbarroja says

    It seems that the best system is one that doesn’t charge fees while at the same time requires hard entrance exams. Being a teacher myself in what PISA report defines as one of the most segregated places in education in Europe (Madrid, second only to Hungary) I have noticed that when students are discriminated by wealth, the quality of education also goes down; however, when you segregate them according to their ability (here we do it by placing the most talented students in classes where the language of instruction is English/French/German) the quality of education skyrockets.

    As an example of it, some years ago I read an article about how the average IQ of young British doctors was lower than in the past: since British universities had become expensive, many poor, talented students could not study Medicine, and their place was occupied by less talented but wealthier students.

    So, the problem with tsarist Russian education (and with every other place in the planet at the time) was the lack of access to education for the majority of the population. When trying to solve it, the Commies created a different problem. When countries think of how to optimise the use of the talent of their population, they should avoid both extremes.

  4. If I were given a mission to destroy America, I couldn’t do it as effectively as progressives. Sometimes I marvel at the creativity of all the different directions from which they attack their own country.

    With the University of California’s decision (and the same decision from plenty of other elite universities) yet another foundation stone has been kicked out from under the US empire. People flock to the US from all over the world to attend some of the best colleges on the planet. When these institutions have to stoop to cater to the slowest kid in the class, and when they care more about being PC than their own accreditation, their rankings will drop. Fewer people will graduate, the course content will be dumbed down, and their graduate students will be lining the shelves of Walmart instead of the boards of Fortune 500 companies. I used to want to go to university in the US, actually. Then I saw shit like this.

    This is a microcosm; the moment the US stopped caring about being the most elite country and started obsessing over being the most inclusive, it signed the death warrant of its hegemony.

  5. Mr. Hack says

    And I was hoping that Karlin would relate this story to the realities and trends found in today’s university system in Russia?…hmmmm….

  6. Indeed. Even for graduate programs in the hard sciences, more and more universities are abolishing any sort of entrance exam (like the GRE). As you can expect, the quality of the entering students is not so much uniformly low, as highly variable: we still get smart students, but also many who literally can’t do math involving fractions. And they all have to graduate, no matter what.

    But I don’t think this is so much ‘progressive,’ as corporate. While the public excuse for this dilution of quality is ‘diversity,’ IMHO the real reason is to keep the numbers up and the revenue streams flowing. As with car salesman, the modern university has production quotas to fill.

    Curiously, it is the so-called ‘professional’ graduate programs (medicine, dentistry, optometry) that are maintaining very high entrance standards and there is no way to wheedle your way in or graduate if you don’t score high enough. These may produce a new intellectual elite even as engineering and biology etc. decay.

    But we’ve seen this at the highest levels: the elite go to fancy schools, and get fancy degrees, and they have no real problem solving skills because they have never been allowed to fail. Look at our foreign policy, for decades it’s been failure after failure, and the people in charge are not ashamed but go from career success to career success. And all these Wall Street bankers that completely run their enterprises into the ground, and get bailed out and subsidized no matter what. This is not really ‘progressive,’ it is I think more accurate to say that it is a corruption of the elites. As the old saying goes, as with fish, rot starts at the head before it spreads to the body…

  7. College should be for intellectual endeavors…acceptance on merit only. Courses should be limited to those requiring significant mental effort. This would lead to a reduction in college enrollment of at least 50% of the current.

  8. In Russia, the rich pull Lori Loughlin, but the worthless peasants (such as yours truly) have to take entrance exams. I didn’t get into Leningrad State, but I got into LITMO 🙂 Not that it mattered as I was leaving for US shortly after.

    Not sure much has changed since the 90’s?

  9. The mission of most colleges and universities is to increase enrollment, thereby increasing income…the true goal…not education of the worthy.

  10. Athletic and Whitesplosive says

    Well the increasing emphasis on a “diverse” student body almost certainly has an effect on that, but to make the entrance exam too harsh might also be cutting off that “mid-level” of modestly competent doctors that nonetheless it’s better to have than do without.

    It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to deal with common mild illnesses, so 5 middling doctors could probably get a lot more done in that regard than 1 super doctor. I have no medical training and I can’t count how many times I’ve self-diagnosed myself or family on WebMD only to have my diagnosis confirmed when I went in for a checkup. Diagnosing a majority of the minor issues people deal with doesn’t take a ton of mental horsepower, but it still needs doing.

  11. inertial says

    By your own criteria from a few posts back, this Bolshevik experiment was a wild success. At no time in history Russia produced higher share of scientific breakthroughs than in in the 1920s and 30s. Especially in physics.

  12. Europe Europa says

    Entrance exams in the UK are rare, except for highly competitive courses like Medicine. Universities here accept students on the basis of A Level grades, typically giving priority to those with the best results and those whose results were too low to get placed in the first round of applications often get a place through “Clearing”. Some universities do interviews to narrow down candidates, but actual entrance exams are almost non-existent.

  13. This is a microcosm; the moment the US stopped caring about being the most elite country and started obsessing over being the most inclusive, it signed the death warrant of its hegemony.

    Thank God.

    We don’t need to be the world hegemon.

    We need to be more like Bhutan. The United States of Bhutan.

  14. students are discriminated by wealth, the quality of education also goes down

    Yes most of the talent and motivation in the world, is always with people ascending from lower classes to higher ones.

    On the other hand, upper classes can often be far more stupid than you could ever imagine, when you meet them. Not surprising that the children of rich and talented, often have problems in this area – it can be a single generation to lose all a family’s talent and motivation.

    I don’t know many Germans (almost not at all). But one of the most annoying people I ever had to study in a summer school was a German fellow from a rich background, while another very mediocre German classmate was from a family which own a lot of our favourite shops.

    This is the greatest buffoon I have had to study with in my life. At the same time, he is the representative of a German family which is connected to one, which I remember laughing about in reading a post, when a romanticizing American user on this forum “Thorfinnson”, was writing about how special this family was.

    To discuss on a different topic of cultural fertility.

    There can be a benefit for creative professionals from families which are part of long-term elite, in providing them with interesting material and themes, as well as more complicated aesthetics. For prosaic reasons, such complicated aesthetics had traditionally developed in the elite class, with a such simple motive as to use shiny objects to distract people from the source of a family’s wealth. As recent examples, of where an elite family could be useful for an artist, in providing them unique themes – see e.g. Leo Tolstoy or Luchino Visconti (in cinema).

    On the other hand, as art became more abstract, this became less of a necessary condition. We can see this in the history of “classical” music, as it becomes free from religious and courtly purposes in the late 18th century.

    Then was in 19th century music, a time of real meritocracy, and resulted in domination by people of lower middle class background – from Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, Wagner, Schubert, to even later century composers like Bruckner and Mahler. (Of so-called “Great Composers”, I believe only Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky have an origin in the bourgeoisie, while maybe maybe Schumann is borderline).

    Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, Mahler, Schubert – all one generation from a real working class or peasant.

  15. Kent Nationalist says

    Some universities do interviews to narrow down candidates, but actual entrance exams are almost non-existent.

    I think interviews are only Oxford and Cambridge + medical schools.

    GCSEs and A-Levels fulfil the same selection purpose as entrance exams though. Which university someone went to is a fairly reliable signal of their intelligence. I have never met someone averagely intelligent who went to Oxford or Cambridge.

  16. Clever lower class people and stupid upper class people are just more noticeable.

  17. The Big Red Scary says

    For what it’s worth, the institutions with which I am affiliated in Moscow are meritocratic and provide stipends to students.

  18. Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, Mahler, Schubert – all one generation from a real working class or peasant.

    They operated within and were shaped by a cultural framework dominated by an aristocracy. The cliche analogy from chess that the king doesn’t move much but is the most important piece, is correct.

    Beethoven (and Beethoven) came from a family of middle-income court musicians, not workers or peasants.

  19. Astuteobservor II says

    When I read comments like this and the article linked, and compare to how super meritocratic Cal tech is. Hard to imagine this is all in the same state.

  20. Astuteobservor II says

    What makes you think there are room for 5 shitty doctors out of every 1 super doctor? That is 5 super doctors replaced by the shit doctors.

    Mental gymnastics is as strong as ever.

  21. inertial says

    Let’s give some context to the 1918/19 academic year.

    The nation is at war, and has been for 4 years. It went through several regime changes, causing general chaos. There are food shortages, heating fuel shortages (including wood), everything else shortages. There is typhoid epidemic, flu epidemic, and who knows what else epidemic. Great majority of people are merely surviving, or fighting, or both.

    While the Bolshevik leadership is not anti-intellectual, most of their follower are. Educated people are treated with suspicion. Semi-illiterate sailors join government, 14-year boys become regiment commanders. Education is not only not required for advancement, it’s usually a handicap. Or it can get you killed in some cases.

    Given such circumstances, what kind of people would want to go and study at a university? Only those who really, really, REALLY want to get an education — for its own sake and without any hope of material reward.

    Which means that you are only getting students who passed the best and the most stringent entrance exam of all.

  22. Mr. Hack says

    Way back in the day, when the commies still ran the show, school admittance was often greased with dough and other bribes to get kids in, to help improve the entrance exam scores too. Because your society was poorer in general, it wasn’t unusual for students to visit their professors with food items and a few bottles of cognac or champaign to keep the good grades coming. I’m sure that Professor Tuxedo could tell us more about this, if he’s honest. Graft and bribes weren’t invented in the 21st century. I would imagine that things haven’t changed that much today.

  23. Mr. Hack says

    See comment #22.

  24. Swedish Family says

    Which university someone went to is a fairly reliable signal of their intelligence. I have never met someone averagely intelligent who went to Oxford or Cambridge.

    Please meet Caroline Calloway:


  25. The Big Red Scary says

    I am personally involved in admissions, examinations, and theses defenses.

    Things have changed a lot.

  26. Mr. Hack says

    Are you sure this is the case everywhere? It must have been a long and uphill battle to get it to this new state of transparency and meritocracy?

  27. Philip Owen says

    There are ways in for less than ourstanding examinocrats. Classics, Latin, Greek and Ancient History as well as Theology are much easier to get into if you have studied Latin and Greek before applying to university. Since the ’70’s amost no state schools have studied Latin, far less Greek. So less able Public School pupils have been able to get into Oxbridge by having some Latin. It should be noted that Boris Johnson studied Classics and Dominic Cummings studied Ancient History.

  28. Philip Owen says

    Didn’t Putin announce the return of standardized national exams for university entry about two years ago?

  29. Dacian Julien Soros says

    Americans have no use for entrance exams, and never use standardized exams on their own. Today, Felicity Hofman pleaded guilty to buying her daughter’s undergrad degree. So looking forward to an American or British vaccine.

  30. Vishnugupta says

    I think the Swiss are on to something in terms of non selective admission to top programs.

    ETH Zurich one of the most prestigious and rigorous undergraduate programs in the sciences does not have very demanding entrance requirements so a huge number of teenagers who think studying hard sciences is a good idea get admitted and most fail and leave after one year.

    The logic being it is much less costly both for the individual and the society for you to understand that you are not cut out for the hard sciences and choose another career after trying and wasting a year as a teenager rather than keep struggling as a B-/C grade scientist and live the rest of your life as a relative failure.

  31. Kent Nationalist says

    I have met many Oxford Classicists and Theologians and they were all at least reasonably intelligent, if less so than for subjects like PPE. Learning Greek (maybe not New Testament Greek) is a fairly high bar. For some reason I’ve never been able to work out, girls who do Classics are by far the least attractive.

  32. Kent Nationalist says

    I’m sorry, I wanted to watch this but I couldn’t stand the voices for long enough.

  33. Kent Nationalist says

    So looking forward to an American or British vaccine.

    Cheating in exams is totally unknown in China and India.

  34. The Alarmist says

    US universities jumped the shark a couple decades ago. Abolishing the testing is just icing on the cake. Anybody who wants to be someone in the Criminal Elite knows there are but a handful of schools that qualify them for the club, and are therefore willing to pony up as much cash as is demanded. The rest of the proles with half a brain realise it is pointless to go deep into hock to attend lesser schools. Abolishing testing allows a school to attract folks dumb enough to go deep into debt.

    Like the US housing market, US university costs are grossly inflated by easy credit, and we are witnessing the stage where the system is becoming a red giant, running out of fuel and about to collapse into a debt supernova.

  35. Swedish Family says

    I’m sorry, I wanted to watch this but I couldn’t stand the voices for long enough.

    Yeah, it’s not a pretty sight.

  36. Anatoly, it’s worth noting that under a genuinely meritocratic system, Jews would have still been extremely heavily overrepresented in Russian universities (especially the elite ones) due to them being disproportionally represented at the right tail of the IQ bell curve. Would you have accepted this as a genuine price worth paying for meritocracy? Or would you have compromised your belief in meritocracy and supported Jewish quotas if you lived in Tsarist Russia in order to ensure that Russia’s universities weren’t producing an elite that was too different from the people who lived in Russia?

    AK: The former.

  37. Dacian Julien Soros says

    OP premise is that lack of exams is worse than having exams. Either you talk to Karlin about the virtues of the British system, or you piss off to stealing Spanish gold in order to Make Britain Great Again.

  38. roberto1 says

    Medical and dental schools do have lower academic admission standards for ” diverse” students though.

  39. Trying to jump the basic obstacles, like language requirements for paperwork – i.e. in “non-cognitively demanding environments”, I have been thrown with children of billionaire families. This is the ecology where live the German billionaires’ children.

    (And cannot express what buffoons this sector of society is, until you meet them).

    On the other hand, when you grow up and go in any “cognitively demanding environments” – then there are no children of billionaires around. Among “serious people”, the children of our financial masters are absent.

    “Cognitively demanding environments”, is one of the best ways to scare away the elite origin people, just as it is effective at removing the proletariat. Although in the latter case it is due to financial barriers to entry, while in the former it is because of environmental enfeeblement (lack of attention span, lack of motivation to study, too much safety cushion). Facing real difficulties and not merely socially conformist ones, in a persons’ external environment is, a precondition for developing self-discipline or motivation in almost anyone.

  40. Tsar Nicholas says

    British universities have long abandoned exams in favour of course work. The trouble with this is that in these days of the intent it is easy to buy custom made essays online. Even medical ones.

    You need to think of that when being treated by doctors of a certain age.

  41. Tsar Nicholas says

    The people who run Cambridge University don’t seem to be all that clever.

    They are proposing to run no face-to-face classes in 2020/1 becuase of the corona hysteria. I am not at all sure that all students are going to fork out £9000 a year for this. But besides plunging their own institution into a financial calamity the university is putting at risk the livelihoods of all those businesses that rely on students – like university cleaners and the local hospitality industry. And that will of course have a knock-on effect on all the other businesses that rely on spending from such adversely affected persons.

    During the long Brexit saga we Brits were continually reminded that the Cambridge area was one of the wealthiest in the country and that this was in no small emasure due to the citizens there being intelligent and in favour of the European Union.

  42. From the late 18th century, the musicians broke free from being entertainers for courtly patrons, and also for producing primarily for church commissions.

    Part of the first stage (1790s) of Beethoven’s manic genius, is laughing at his courtly patrons. Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, Wagner, Schubert, Bruckner and Mahler – etc, are working for wide audience (“general musical public”). Only Wagner (who in the early career was chased by Jewish moneylenders), in the later career is still relying on gullible princes to fund him – and this is because of wild non-musical extravagance of his ambitions.

    By later 19th century, even for crazily religious composer like Bruckner, only a very small part of his work is for church commissions.

    Beethoven (and Beethoven) came from a family of middle-income court musicians, not workers or peasants.

    Beethoven’s father (who does not have a birthcertificate – was perhaps illegitimate) was beaten into being a musician, by his alcoholic father (who was son of a baker). Beethoven’s mother – is from a family of cooks. And here is the origin of the greatest genius in music history.

  43. Philip Owen says

    Plenty of field labouring jobs around Cambridge. Those onions won’t pack themselves.

  44. Yes, that’s nonsense.


    But peolpe are stupid.

  45. Good to hear your response, Anatoly! 🙂

    BTW, did Tsarist Russia actually have any universities that were genuinely meritocratic for everyone? So, no Jewish quotas or anything of that sort?

  46. From the late 18th century, the musicians broke free from being entertainers for courtly patrons, and also for producing primarily for church commissions.

    And this may be when the decline began.

    Beethoven’s father (who does not have a birth certificate – was perhaps illegitimate) was beaten into being a musician, by his alcoholic father (who was son of a baker).

    Beethoven’s father and grandfather were both professional musicians. It is unknown and cannot be known whether or not the baker great-grandfather or other ancestors dabbled in music; I suspect they did.

    Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, Wagner, Schubert, Bruckner and Mahler

    Beethoven also depended on noble patronage for much of his career.

    I think Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Bach > Brahms, Schumann, Wagner, Schubert, Bruckner and Mahler.

    Beethoven’s mother – is from a family of cooks.

    Wiki says his mother also “had family connections in the court orchestra at Bonn.” So probably a musically-inclined family.

    And here is the origin of the greatest genius in music history.

    That would probably be Mozart. Beethoven would be in second place.

  47. And this may be when the decline

    The last musician (by which I mean talented musician, as opposed to rock star playing for oligarch’s birthday party) who fully accepted to be a dancing monkey for rich people, was Haydn for the Esterhazy family – and his subservience to his employers, was more because of his modest personality.

    For example, Mozart was constantly rebellious and distaining his employers, and even enough to be “fired on his backside” (as Mozart writes) by his employer (Prince-Archbishop Colloredo) in 1777 – the year he begins to produce mature masterworks.

    Beethoven’s father and grandfather were both professional musicians

    Beethoven’s father is an alcoholic musician (without a birth certificate), who was beaten by his musician father, who was son of baker.

    Beethoven’s father was incredibly ambitious for Beethoven, in the way of abusive American parents who train their daughters to win child beauty pageants.

    So Beethoven is trained to be the next famous musical star, and he has a lot of good teachers hired by his father. But in ambitious promotion of Beethoven, his father has used a bit fraudulent methods, like lying about Beethoven’s age – and presenting him as 2-3 years younger than he actually was. This drunk fraudulent father, are not exactly a “respectable” family.

    Beethoven also depended on noble patronage

    From when he first goes to Vienna, is adopted as a kind of house entertainer by the ruling families of the city, Beethoven doesn’t exactly accept the power relation, and tried to reverse the master-slave relation.

    For example, he makes his listeners cry with a performance, and then shouts at them that they are pathetic idiots. Or he shouts and rips up the music book of the countesses who are his students.

    Or he says to his patron “Prince? There are thousands of you, but there is only one Beethoveen”. Etc.

    Some of this problem of being a poor provincial man from Bonn, hired by children of a wealthy upper class of Vienna, is quite sad for Beethoven as well – e.g. impossibility for him to date the girl he is in love with (Countess Guicciardi).

    I think Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Bach > Brahms, Schumann, Wagner, Schubert, Bruckner and Mahler.

    It’s like saying “Shakespeare and Dante is nothing compared to Homer”. All names on the list (along with some dozen of other great composers), will enrich peoples’ lives for centuries into the future.

    That would probably be Mozart. Beethoven would be in second place.

    Beethoven becomes by his late work, the most original and innovating composer ever – which is how I would define “genius”. His music goes in more unexpected direction than Bach. That’s not to say his works are better than other composer – or .e.g even when he copied Mozart.

    For example – Beethoven Piano Concerto 3, which is considered the first piano concerto for the concert instead of a salon. Inspired a lot by Mozart Piano Concerto 24. But surely most people prefer to listen to Mozart 24 – final movement in Mozart 24 is profound and concise, while in Beethoven Piano concerto 3 final movement is full of clowning.

    • Although even as a performer, by the time goes to Vienna, the friends of Mozart are shocked at his skills: e.g. ” Satan himself is hidden in that young man! I have never heard anyone play like that! He improvised on a theme which I gave him as I never even heard Mozart do”. (Josef Gelinek – friend of Mozart)

  48. The Big Red Scary says

    I never said it was the case everywhere. In particular, I have particular knowledge of a case in west Germany in which a chair of an Institut demanded payment for private lessons as a prerequisite for submitting a Diplomarbeit. The poor student in question was Ukrainian.

  49. Mr. Hack says

    Needless to say, the Ukrainian became very nostalgic for his native kapusta, and began to detest bland German sauerkraut. 🙂