June is the cruelest month for most Soviet 16-year-olds: They face four weeks of examinations for their high school diplomas. The exams started last week on a particularly grim note, with a six-hour literature essay. All they knew beforehand was that they would have a choice of three themes - one from the Russian classics, one from Soviet literature, and one ``free'' theme on a contemporary subject.
The papers are judged partly on content and partly on penmanship.
Students feel this examination has an important effect on their overall results. The essays are marked quickly, by the same examiners who will pore over later exams. The essay papers therefore predispose the examiners either for or against the students.
The son of one friend - for lack of imagination, I'll call him Sasha - spent the weekend before the literature examination in last-minute preparation and remorse that he hadn't started earlier. He and another student did their revising together, helped by their mothers. Sasha was counting on questions on Pushkin, Tolstoy, and - for the free theme - the Komsomol (Communist Youth) Congress, which was held a few weeks ago.
One parent suggested the outline for an essay on the Komsomol, another worked on Pushkin. Between them, two students prepared Tolstoy. He and his friend also prepared crib notes, more a morale booster than anything else, given the broad reach of the essay questions.
The night before the literature exam, there was a leak. A friend phoned to say that there would be a question on Chekhov.
To his regret, Sasha ignored the tip. The next day Chekhov was on the list. So was a question on Maxim Gorky - one so vague that many students apparently gratefully accepted the opportunity to stick in everything they knew about his work. Sasha, however, was saved by a question on the Komsomol. The other examinations include a written mathematics test and orals on literature; physics and chemistry; and history and social studies.
In the literature oral, the student faces a board of three examiners. The examiners have 26 cards, each with two questions on them, covering the whole of the syllabus. The question can call for the student to recite a specific poem, or to speak on an aspect of a writer's work. The oral examination that most students are said to be most worried about, however, is the joint history and social sciences test. The social sciences segment calls on the students to define Marxist terms and political concepts. But, they say, since Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev took over in 1985 and launched his reform program, most of the definitions have changed.