In the best state universities of the former USSR such as my alma mater the Moscow State University the students of physics needed six years to complete the whole university program (four years for the graduation and two years for the diplome which is equivalent to the M.S. degree in US). Each academic year consisted of two semesters, after finishing each the student must pass the oral exams over the most important majors that he (she) learned during the semester. Usually there were four to five exams per each semester. The first three years were devoted to the subjects of general requirement such as mathematical analysis, analytical geometry, general physics, optics, quantum mechanics, etc. After finishing the third year the student must choose his (her) special field according to which he (she) would be enrolled in some department of the faculty of physics such as department of quantum statistics and field theory (headed by acad. N.N. Bogolyubov in my time), to which I was enrolled. The last two years were devoted to the diplome thesis (M.S. thesis) under the supervision of a thesis advisor. For many excellent students the content of the diplome work, in fact, consisted of their first research paper(s). The student finished the university after defending the thesis at his (her) department. If the thesis was held succesfully the student received the diplome from the university*). The Russian evaluation scale consisted of three ranks: "excellent" (5 scores), "good" (4 scores) and "satisfactory" (3 scores). If the knowledge of the student was lower than "satisfactory" he (she) could try to pass the exam up to two more times. If the student still failed he (she) would be excluded from the university. If during all the six years the student received "excellent" scores for 75% of the majors on the exams and "good" for the rest, and if his (her) diplome thesis also received "excellent", the student would receive a diplome with distinction (the so-called "red" diplome because of its red cover and the words "with distinction" below the "Diplome") . Otherwise the student would get an usual diplome (the so-called blue diplome because of its blue cover). The red diplome was handed by the dean of the faculty of physics to the holder at a special ceremony.
A red diplome has been issued to me on January 31, 1982 by the Moscow State University.
*) In the former USSR there was no separate B.S. degree conferred by a four-year term. Therefore the diplome, which was issued after six years based on a successful diplome thesis, was equivalent to the M.S. degree in the US or Japan. This system has changed recently. The present formal system at the Moscow State University is composed of a four-year undegraduate course to earn a BS and a two-year course to get an MS. For more information on this click here.