Up to the end of the 19th century foreign students had not been studying at the universities of tsar Russia. We do not count in the Polish and Finnish ones, for at that time Poland and Finland were parts of the Russian Empire. On the contrary, since the mid-1700s Russian youth mainly went to Europe to get education, most of them to Germany, and which is more, the state paid for it. Thus, Russian government trained future professors and scholars for the country in the universities of Gottingen, Berlin and Munich.
For the first time the state of things changed in 1870s, when the Russian government, from the royal assent of Alexander II, invited Bulgarian and Serbian students to study at Russian higher educational establishments with provision of special grants for them. This step was a consistent continuation of the aid given by Russia to the Balkan States for liberating from the Turkish oppression and corresponded to the most important geopolitical aims of Russia – having Serbia and Bulgaria as friendly states.
The next stage of providing educational service to citizens of other counties took place after the Great October Revolution in Russia, when by the special Decree of the Council of People's Commissars of Russian Soviet Federative Republic of 8 July 1921 foreign citizens were granted a full right for free higher education and guaranteed consequent job placement in Russia. According to the data we have nowadays, at that time more than 4 million foreign nationals resided in Russia, and many of them aspired to get education at the Soviet universities and apply the obtained skills in Russia or in their native lands.
First of all, it was decided to invite the Eastern residents to the universities. Comprehensive aid to the Eastern states, including cultural one, was an important strategic object for the Soviet government, for 1920s were years of a severe battle of the colonial and dependent Eastern countries for freedom and independence.
The first foreign students in the Soviet Russia were Mongolian citizens – in 1921 the Soviet universities admitted 15 “pioneers” from Mongolia. In the next two decades their number grew significantly. Thus, from 1930 to 1940 higher educational establishments of the USSR graduated 500 Mongolian citizens. Then, in 1922 and 1923, universities of Moscow and some other cities of the Soviet Russia admitted students from Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and other countries. In particular, 100 places at Soviet universities were allotted for Turkish students in the academic year 1922/1923, and 100 places – for Iranian students in 1923/1924. Every year the amount of foreign students increased. Most of the students from Eastern countries studied at a specially created Soviet international university – Communist University of the Toilers of the East (KUTV), founded in 1921 in Tashkent. The first graduation which included students of 50 nations and national groups of the East took place in 1925. The welcoming speech was delivered to the graduates by Stalin himself. He spoke about the great importance of training of future workers both for the Soviet republics and friendly states, first of all, for the countries of the East fighting for their independence.
In the ‘30s of the last century the amount of foreign students in universities of Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev and other cities decreased because of the new course of the USSR towards isolation from the rest of the world. Though, communist emigrants from Europe who came to the USSR with the assistance of Communist International organization began to apply to some Soviet universities, trade union colleges and Communist Party colleges. For security reasons, this fact was not made public, but there is data that in those years more than 200 students from Germany, Spain, Italy, Bulgaria, Hungary and some other countries studied at Soviet higher educational establishments.