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Educators Propose Muting Voices of Soviet-Era Dissidents

'Patriotic' works would replace many tragic accounts of repression in a new reading list.

July 29, 2003|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — More than a decade after political reforms opened the floodgates to critical examinations of the Soviet past, a quiet move is underway to rein in the teaching of Russian literature, underplaying dissident novels such as "Dr. Zhivago" and the chilling tales of Soviet prison camps in favor of more "patriotic" works.

An overhaul of the required reading list for high school students proposes a return to the classic works that youngsters read in the 1970s -- books by Maxim Gorky, Alexander Fadeyev's "The Rout," a gory tribute to the Red guerrillas during Russia's civil war, and all four volumes of Mikhail Sholokhov's "Quiet Don" series, the epic story of the Don Cossacks' tragic struggle for independence.

A group of prominent liberal writers has launched a campaign against the proposed revisions, accusing the government of allowing "the forces of the past ... to deal a blow to the future" by playing down in the classroom the tragedy of Soviet totalitarianism.

Nowhere on the list, they say, are once-banned books such as Varlam Shalamov's "Kolyma Tales," his famous collection written after 17 years in a Siberian labor camp. Instead of "Dr. Zhivago," Nobel laureate Boris Pasternak's indictment of the Bolsheviks, students are asked to read a quartet of Pasternak's poems.

At first, a study committee composed largely of Soviet-era textbook authors even proposed leaving out most of the work of poet Anna Akhmatova -- known for her searing indictments of hardships under Bolshevism and her poignant anguish over her son's imprisonment. An original draft suggested including only a few patriotic poems she had penned.

"We are worried about falling away into restoration and conservatism, which jeopardizes the molding of a democratic and socially responsible consciousness for future generations," the liberal writers said in a letter published early this month. "Soviet canons still threaten the truly historical knowledge acquired by us over the past decade -- the knowledge of the repressive totalitarian regime and its grave consequences for the people, the country and its culture."

The debate is critical and highly emotional, since literature, far more than history, civics or social studies, is the vehicle by which Russians have always taught and understood the world around them.

"Basically, the weight of teaching children to think critically, to be freedom-loving, to teach them to be tolerant, to have an ability to understand someone else's opinion and realize the fact there is no single truth, all of those things have been done by literature," said Yevgeny Saburov, a former Crimean leader who is on a national council reviewing the proposed curriculum changes.

But he said the task of drawing up the new literature teaching standards was inexplicably handed to a group of textbook authors from the Soviet era "who have a very strong and hard-wired Soviet past.... How that happened, I cannot explain, and when we saw what was the result, we were terrified."

In addition to the revised reading list, he said, the committee set out new goals for the teaching of literature, including the development of "patriotism" and "to form a universally educated person."

"That is a cliche that comes straight from Soviet times," Saburov said. "What has happened is the entire theme of Stalinist repression in this country has somehow been removed from this list."

With a public outcry brewing, the government asked Saburov to form a second committee to come up with an alternative list. On that new list, for example, is Akhmatova's work "Requiem," which includes these famous lines:

I should like to call you all by name,

But they have lost the lists ...

I remember them always and everywhere,

And if they shut my tormented mouth,

Through which a hundred million of my people cry,

Let them remember me also...

Works by Osip Mandelstam, who died in Stalin's gulag and is often described as one of the finest 20th century Russian poets, are also on the new list. Saburov's group also locked horns with the authors of the original list -- who have kept a very low profile, and whose names have not been publicized -- by advising against reading all 1,000-plus pages of Sholokhov's "Quiet Don," an undertaking they said would take students so long they wouldn't have time for other books.

Neither of the competing lists has been approved by Education Minister Vladimir M. Filippov, who has called a series of public hearings later this summer before coming to a decision.

Anatoly A. Pinsky, a physics teacher who is advising the minister on the issue, said an important goal of the curriculum revision is not political but practical: making sure students have enough time for all their studies.

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