Rewriting History For Russian Classrooms

AT first sight, nothing has changed in the decor of the history classroom at School No. 1276, in central Moscow. The 31 volumes of Lenin's works still occupy a whole bookshelf close to Karl Marx's profuse writings. A lithograph of the assault on the Winter Palace, the turning point in the Bolshevik Revolution, still hangs above the blackboard.

In this seemingly eternal Soviet setting, however, the questions students ask have definitively broken loose from the communist dogma. ''Grigory Yakovlevich, what is a plebiscite?'' 14-year-old Andrei asks, his hand raised.

Grigory Yakovlevich Ionov strokes his gray beard, ponders briefly, and says: ''It's a kind of opinion poll.''

As Russians, from politicians to factory workers, continue to struggle with the dramatic changes demanded by the country's shift from communism to a more democratic and market-oriented system, nowhere are the confusions associated with this change felt more than in the schools.

If the students are struggling with a new vocabulary and new ideas, so are the teachers. While lecturing on the unification of Italy in the 19th century, Mr. Ionov lapses back, every now and then, to words like ''proletariat'' that have been so familiar in his 16-year career.

Though old habits die hard, he pledges he doesn't want to go back to the narrow ideological framework in which he operated during those years. ''Now, my main task is to make them [the students] think,'' he says.

But in today's Russia, the guidelines for this reflection are hard to hand down. The once-monolithic Soviet education system provided programs, methods, heroes, and villains for 21 million pupils taught by 1.5 million teachers in 70,000 schools. ''Its ideological might was considerable,'' recalls Alexander Ionov, Russian deputy minister of education. ''Today we are in an ideological shock, but the battle is raging,'' he adds. While society struggles to provide itself with a new national identity and to define its common values, its education system has become one of the main battlefields.

''At its heart, the battle is between nationalism and humanism,'' Mr. Ionov explains. ''The pages of our textbooks will bear the blood of this struggle.''

And nowhere is the battle fought harder than in the rewriting of history -- a key to the nation's psyche. Ionov stands in the front line favoring the teaching of Russian history in the context of world history. Ultranationalist groups promote a more exclusively Russian approach. The dispute has even reached the parliament, where an open letter recently accused a minister of distorting the country's past.

While different pressure groups try to push their agendas, and with the historical acceleration of the last five years, scholars are lagging behind. ''They tell us we will have to wait five or more years to understand how our history has changed, but we can't wait that long. We need new textbooks,'' Ionov laments.

Some manuals are slowly coming out, and some teachers have taken it upon themselves to make changes. Most teachers are being retrained slowly, but some major hiccups still occur. Last year, for example, the history test in the admission exam to the prestigious Moscow State University was canceled at the last minute.

''How could the students give new interpretations of facts if they had no new textbooks and the old ones were loaded with Soviet rubbish?'' asks Olga Medvedko, mother of one of the candidates. She recalls how, in a few weeks, her son Alexei had to swallow a whole new geography program instead. He passed.

Leaving aside the burning issue of contemporary history, Mrs. Medvedko glances through her younger daughter's manuals and tries to measure the changes. ''Seventeenth-century European history still has strong Soviet overtones with an emphasis on peasant revolts or the negative aspect of the Orthodox Church's power,'' she comments.

''The geography manual still divides the world between the capitalist countries, which exploit the poor nations, and the socialist countries, where all people are equal,'' Natasha says. ''But our teacher says that we should not pay attention to that, it's just that the book is old and the new ones haven't come to our school yet.''

In literature, changes are more obvious. Maxim Gorky, the father of socialist realism, is still taught for his undeniable literary value, but the ghostwritten works of Leonid Brezhnev no longer are in the curriculum -- to the relief of students and teachers alike.

Nor does every work have to be seen through the prism of Lenin's ''Party Organization and Party Literature,'' to judge whether one is reading ''bourgeois'' or ''proletarian'' literature.

Once-exiled, censored, or dissident writers are now taught in Russian schools, among them Boris Pasternak, Mikhail Bulgakov, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and Andrei Platanov. Medvedko is pleased to see Platanov's name in the index of her daughter's textbook. ''In the '70s it was absolutely forbidden even to mention his name. But his work circulated in [underground publications]. That's how I discovered him,'' she remembers.

The rehabilitation of those writers was one of the first effects of Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost policy, launched in 1986. The other changes in the education system have had a much slower start. Rewriting textbooks didn't begin until the early 1990s.

The Soros Foundation, a US philanthropic organization headed by Hungarian-born billionaire George Soros, is participating in this colossal task, undertaken by the Ministry of Education. ''A competition for new textbooks was opened in 1992,'' explains Ana Mouravjova, the foundation's program coordinator. ''It was open to everyone, provided the participants offered a new democratic outlook on events and an innovative methodology.'' Two hundred books have reached the final evaluation stages and are now being tested in a few classrooms across the country, dealing with economics, ecology, civics, social sciences, and history, where the needs are.

Ionov, the teacher, picks one of these new books from a shelf next to the Soviet classics. He likes them because they give him some of the guidelines he is looking for. ''The kids are used to thinking that the teacher has all the answers,'' he says. ''But how can I provide them when nobody knows how all this will end up?''

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