Mrs. Peterson: Life During the Collapse of the Soviet Union

Ben Ryan, Staff

Mariya Peterson: from her education in the Soviet Union, to its collapse, and her eventual move to America, Mrs. Peterson has one of the most, if not the most, interesting origins of anyone at the school.

Known for her enthusiasm and distinct Russian accent, Mrs. Peterson’s courses are intense. After all, she teaches AP Calculus, the hardest math class in school.

This article, however, is not written about Mrs. Peterson’s teaching techniques; instead, this is about her story, which is, to say the least, riveting:

“I was born in Russia” she explains, where she went to primary school. “My family moved to Ukraine, which, at that time was part of the Soviet Union.”

To her, secondary school in Ukraine could only be described as “intense. There was no choice in your education. Students went to school 6 days a week. There were no class levels like honors; there were no elective” she explained. “All schools had uniforms.”

In order to proceed through school, students had to take a difficult exit exam at the end of every school year, culminating in an extremely stressful test for graduation from high school.

Mrs. Peterson explained how in the Soviet Union, children were expected to mature quickly; children could be legally left to fend for themselves at 7, and were expected to be married by age 20. One’s major in school must be decided by 17, when most students graduated from high school.

“When I graduated from high school, I had only had 10 years of schooling. I was a sophomore in college by 18.” She majored in math.

“Colleges were free, but you had to get there.” Mrs. Peterson adds, “To get into those colleges is a lot harder than American college.”

After passing a difficult entrance exam and learning to cope with the intensity of Soviet college, perks began to emerge. “The cool thing is I got paid to go to college. The communists believed that education was so important, deserving people should be encouraged. I got about half of what my mother was being paid.”

In October 1991, only a few months after Peterson graduated and only weeks after getting her first job as a math teacher, the Soviet Union collapsed. Life became hard for Peterson and her family. New governments and economies had to reemerge from the ashes of the Soviet Union, and families went from prioritizing trivialities to having to focus completely on survival.

“You aren’t interested in your job, or, you know, what book you want to read when you get home,” she described of those confusing days. “You worry about what you are going to eat, how you are going to feed your kids, and how to get things like soap.”

“You could not buy soap because it was not delivered to stores. You had to wait. A line of hundreds and hundreds of people would form and wait for foods like cheese and chicken. People would spend hours in these lines. Life was so scary; you constantly lived on the edge of survival,” she explained.

“Picture a grocery store,” she continued. “If you went into a grocery store in 1992 it was empty. There was nothing on the shelves, there were no people; there was nothing to eat.”

After working for several years, the situation became so bad Peterson was forced to find a new job. According to her, a teacher at this time was only being paid what was about $250 dollars a month. After the government stopped paying pensions to her parents, Peterson had to use this money to buy food for her entire family.

This situation was common in her area. Because the economy was so bad there was no way to take out a mortgage. The only way to buy a house was to pay for it in cash. This forced most young people to live with their parents. This resulted in 2 or 3 families living in small 3 room apartments.

Fortunately for Peterson, she managed to get a job for a private company and was responsible for managing a supermarket. “I could not buy my own place, but I did not have to worry about food,” she explained. “I was living alright.”
Finally things turned around for her.

“When I was working in that business, I met my husband: an American working for IBM. He spent a lot of time in Ukraine and Russia. In 2001, I moved to the states” Mrs. Peterson explained.

From there, a new problem emerged. “I spoke no English. I knew two words: hello and goodbye.” Luckily she found a local student who could speak Russian. “She helped me with English, I helped her in math.” A year and a half later, she got a job in Bethel.

There are a lot of rumors about Mrs. Peterson’s sports career, namely that she was on an Olympic rowing team. While she was not in the Olympics, she was on the team that one the Ukrainian national rowing championship three times from 1993 to 1995. After hearing her inspirational and amazing life story, it’s really no wonder that so many students believe Mrs. Peterson is a true Olympian.