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No More Lessons From the Revolution

Post-Soviet schools in Russia have dropped the heavy-handed ideology and teaching methods. But with new freedom comes new ignorance as pupils ask, 'Lenin who?'

October 21, 1996|VANORA BENNETT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — Yuliya Parkhomenko scratched her head anxiously when asked what she knew about Vladimir I. Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union, whose bearded likeness could until recently be seen on any wall or town square and whose name was added, mantra-like, to the names of most Soviet institutions.

"Lenin?" the 10-year-old repeated with wonder. "Well . . . he's dead. . . ."

She paused, fidgeting with her blond braid. Suddenly a huge grin lighted up her face.

"And he used to play in a rock band called the Beatles," she finished triumphantly.

Less than a decade ago, the big sisters and brothers of today's Russian schoolchildren wore red neckties to school and learned how to load Kalashnikovs in case the "decaying West," boogeyman enemy of Soviet propaganda, attacked their country.

But this fall's students, in their jeans and rucksacks, cannot imagine the time before the Communist Party was driven from power and the Soviet state was dismantled. No longer force-fed politics by their teachers, they have little idea what Russia was like before capitalism.

The job of fashioning a school program that will equip this new generation to exist in a world without Marxism-Leninism has fallen to teachers, education officials and parents--all adults with roots firmly in the vanished old world.

With little money and even less understanding of what their children's future might hold, they have nevertheless thrown themselves into the giant educational experiment with enthusiasm.

"We are not talking about a revolution in education here but about several years of very rapid evolution," said Alexander P. Kuzyakin, head of public relations at the Russian General and Professional Education Ministry.

He emphasized that academic accomplishment remains at its high Soviet levels despite the changes.

Soviet schools prided themselves on strict rote learning of large numbers of facts, emphasized science and math training because state engineering requirements after World War II created a need for applied science experts, and accomplished almost complete literacy in what was formerly a largely uneducated peasant population.

Yuliya's school, No. 1289, still looks the way it did in the old days--if only on the outside. Respectable housing blocks line a shabby road out front. Birch trees wilt behind iron railings. Mothers in perms and lipstick stream past, holding the hands of brightly chattering daughters or sons.

But these children are talking about computers, in-line skates and compact discs.

Like their conversation, what goes on inside the school has changed beyond recognition, according to Vice Principal Marina S. Kamenskaya, a devoted teacher with a graying bob and ironic smile.

"The approach is different," she said. "There is no Soviet triumphalism, no more 'This is the best-in-the-world system which provides the best-in-the-world opportunities.' "

Fileting the education system of its most obvious Soviet bones was easy. Most children simply stopped joining the "voluntary" junior party organs--the Young Pioneers and later the Communist Youth League--that once ensured them success in later life, although the organizations have not formally been disbanded.

Soviet Communist Party History is not taught. Nor is Civil Defense--preparation for World War III.

And at School No. 1289, the pupils voted to do away with uniforms four years ago.

The old educational monolith--in which every Soviet pupil turned the same page of the same standard textbook on the same day in every school across 11 time zones--has been pulled apart.

Now schools choose from three flexible components--a national curriculum, regional culture and languages, and individual school specialties--to ensure that pupils get the most appropriate mix of subjects. Teachers pick their own textbooks from a bewildering array being put out by the Education Ministry.

"Before, it was a problem for us to follow the same stuff because all of us had different inclinations, interests, likes and dislikes. Now there's such a choice of new books that we can be at a loss," Kamenskaya said.

There are still die-hard teachers nostalgic for tried and tested Soviet methods, she said. But parents quietly get private tutors if their children are assigned one of these veterans, Kamenskaya added, and "it's nice to have them anyway. They don't look inside a child's head to see what he's really thinking, but they keep good discipline, and they are a link with the past."

Any drag that teachers with Communist sympathies might exert on school reform is limited by the fact that they can no longer teach from Soviet textbooks. Old primers filled with political nostrums and tales of Young Pioneers' derring-do are not being reissued.

Freedom takes many forms. For teachers, one of the biggest joys has been a dramatic reshaping of the way Russian literature is taught.

Many of the internationally admired authors of the 20th century were banned in the Soviet Union. Famous abroad, they were known only to daring intellectuals at home.

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