Russian Rich Race to Elite Schools
Russian private schools replace Soviet-style education with study in classics, computers, and czars
ZHUKOVKA, RUSSIA — AT the Humanitarian Classical Gymnasium in this elite Moscow suburb, a small group of children whose parents can afford the $500 monthly tuition are learning much more than reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic.
The gymnasium, a colonnaded cream-and-lemon building that once was a private sports club for high-ranking Communist Party officials, bases its curriculum on prerevolutionary traditions, which are making a comeback in the materialistic new Russia.
To keep the genteel pre-1917 spirit alive, Principal Tatyana Kravtsova says, the 80 specially selected students aged 7 to 15 supplement a core of basic subjects with courses in modern languages, Latin, and ancient Greek, along with weekly lessons in etiquette and behavior.
''How one carries oneself tells a lot about one as an individual,'' explains Ms. Kravtsova, perched on a bench in the gymnasium's leafy front courtyard with her long black skirt modestly covering her ankles. She stresses the importance of entertaining guests properly, as well as mastering the correct usage of knives and forks. ''Most of our students know how to behave already, because they all come from such good families,'' she adds.
Russian state schools are largely overcrowded and understaffed, with vastly underpaid teachers, so an increasing number of parents with money are sending their children to specialty schools.
The gymnasium, founded last year, is one of the most expensive of the roughly 500 private schools nationwide that have opened since 1990, when the then-Soviet government relaxed its laws to provide for alternative education. It caters to the sons and daughters of Moscow's nouveau riche: bankers and businessmen who can afford the hefty tuition -- more than three times the average monthly salary here.
''We support the concept of non-state schools,'' says Olga Derzhitskaya, who oversees private schools for the Moscow Department of Education. She says only about 2,000 children in Moscow study privately, compared to the 1.7 million who attend public schools. ''So I wouldn't say the emergence of those schools reflects negatively on the public school system.''
In fact, Russia's 67,000 public schools, while still deeply troubled financially, have changed significantly following the 1991 Soviet collapse.
No longer are children forced to wear scratchy polyester uniforms or become members of the Young Pioneer organization for budding communists. ''Grandpa Lenin'' has disappeared from textbooks, and classes on Marxism and the Communist Party are extinct. New history books are appearing, with events such as the murder of Czar Nicholas II by the Bolsheviks and the Soviet expulsion of dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn mentioned for the first time.
But for some, the changes were not deep enough. ''I didn't like the psychological climate of the state schools. There were always too many obligations the children were forced to fulfill,'' says Natalya Voistrikova, who co-founded the Alef school to give her students a better education. ''They had to wear uniforms, sit a certain way, and do their homework according to government standards,'' she says of the state schools. ''They never took individuals into account.''
Alef's students, many of whose parents are journalists, pay $250 monthly to attend the school, a squat building that formerly was a government-run day-care center. They are encouraged to talk freely during class, where the teacher-student ratio averages about 1 to 10. Student artwork covers the hallways, in contrast to many public schools where Lenin murals -- many of which are done in tile mosaic and are difficult to remove -- still plaster many walls.
In addition to rigorous academics, Alef students ski and figure skate in winter, and they swim in the warmer months.
''I didn't like my public school. The lessons weren't interesting and the teachers were too strict,'' says 11-year-old Sveta Trokhina, who is in her third year at Alef. Although her favorite class is art history, she says her mind is set on a career in business. ''It may sound funny, but I want to be a sales assistant in a cooperative store,'' she says. ''I love to count money.''
Across town, older students study at the Christian Humanitarian Lyce, housed in the top three floors of the centrally located Engineering Transport Institute. There, the emphasis is less on future careers and more on spiritual development.
''We consider Russia to be a Christian country,'' says principal Aleksei Morozov in his large dusty office, where icons adorn some walls. The school accepts Christians of all denominations, and is sponsored in part by the Russian Orthodox, Baptist, Episcopalian, Seventh-Day Adventist, and Roman Catholic churches.
''Getting a religious education is important to me,'' says Karina Stepanyan, who takes several religion classes alongside her regular academic subjects, which include computers and economics. ''In regular schools, they never talked about it.''
But in order to enjoy the benefits such private schools have to offer, most students must be rich. Back at the gymnasium, students often arrive in the mornings in the back of a chauffeur-driven BMW or Mercedes-Benz. Nestled in a high-security compound of former Party dachas near the Kremlin, the school is patrolled by armed security guards in camouflage fatigues, who protect their charges from potential kidnappers.
Like the sons and daughters of their Communist Party predecessors, some of the students after graduation will enroll in Moscow's prestigious Institute of International Relations, the diplomatic training ground for the Soviet Union's ''Golden Youth,'' thanks to an agreement between the Institute and Kravtsova.
For now, the students are hard to distinguish from other wealthy Russian kids in their Levis, Mickey Mouse T-shirts, and Reeboks with psychedelic laces. Soon, however, they will be required to wear dress uniforms that mimic classical styles.
''There are very nice people here,'' says Helena Solomina, 14, whose father runs his own insurance company. ''I like it when people are polite.''