The first day of school is always a really big deal in Russia.
Parents and pupils gather in schoolyards around the country to hear speeches and watch often-elaborate performances prepared over the summer by teachers. There are flags, balloons, and, sometimes, sing-alongs. There is the symbolic ringing of the first bell, and each school's oldest students traditionally seek out the youngest kids, take them by the hand, and lead them to their very first class.
Little about that ritual has changed in decades. The unprecedented prosperity Russia has enjoyed over past 15 years or so brought bigger education budgets and better equipped schools. The crowds of parents on the first day began to appear much better dressed, while the kids began to look just like their Western counterparts, decked out with designer backpacks, and usually lugging iPads or smartphones. And school-opening ceremonies became more extravagant.
The spirit this year was much the same, but with an inescapable undertone of worry.
Russia's deepening recession, and the soaring inflation brought on by the sharp ruble devaluation, has pushed the poverty rate for Russian families to 16 percent – reversing a key Putin-era trend. An August poll by the VTsIOM public opinion agency found that the cost of outfitting a child for school jumped by more than half in the past year, to about $350, an increasingly onerous sum for many Russian families.
"It's certainly more expensive than previous years," says Alsu Diktyasheva, a Moscow-area mother, who says she managed to outfit her first-grade son with requisite uniform, gym shoes, notebooks, and other school supplies for about $200.
Many observers noted far fewer bouquets this year in the hands of pupils heading into school. Bringing flowers to teacher on opening day is a deeply rooted custom. But with 80 percent of flowers on the Russian market imported from Europe, the prices have doubled while the Kremlin's policy of counter-sanctions has severely restricted supply. It may not have helped that, a couple of weeks before first day of school, Russian authorities ordered the destruction of 183 shipments of "infected" Dutch flowers, apparently as a political warning to the country that supplies much of Russia's $2.5 billion annual flower market.
Thanks to a mini-baby boom amid the Putin-era prosperity, the total number of school kids is set to grow from around 14 million to over 16 million in the next five years, putting fresh stresses on the system. The country's 1 million teachers, who earn an average $600 monthly, have yet to start complaining, but some experts warn it's only a matter of time.
Over the past decade Russian schools have been partially freed from tough Soviet-era requirements to hew to a single curriculum, creating a surprisingly wide spectrum of choices for parents, particularly in large cities like Moscow.
But with the new choices have come added costs, and many schools demand fees for security, sports, musical classes, and other "extras."
"The problem with these extra payment requirements is that they are not transparent," says Yevgeny Bunimovich, ombudsman for children's rights in Moscow. "In the past we received a lot of complaints about that, but the situation is changing in positive ways. There's been a real growth in parent-teacher-student councils, where these issues can be raised. In Moscow we see these councils everywhere now, and I think this tendency for more parental control is on the rise. Schools now have their own Internet sites, where they are obliged to make full reports on expenditures."
German Avdyushin, chairman of a parent's organization in Yekaterinburg, in the Urals, says that with the economic downturn, struggles are growing over the extra fees many schools demand.
"Parents are becoming much more conscious about this, and we get a lot of calls about whether they should pay or not," he says. "Some agree to pay, but a lot of people remember that the constitution says education is supposed to be free in this country, and think school staff and local authorities should work harder to make it so."
More recent efforts to restore a single basic curriculum are generating controversy. Some government initiatives have been well-received, such as a new requirement that all Russian schoolchildren will study at least two foreign languages.
A few years ago the Kremlin mandated the teaching of "religion" as a subject in Russian schools. But implementation has been spotty and, not surprisingly, has given the powerful Russian Orthodox Church unprecedented access to Russian classrooms at the expense of other faiths. The idea of introducing a single history textbook for Russian schools has led to major disputes, and a few almost comical excesses, such as a new text that claims Russians founded Jerusalem and Babylon.
Polls suggest that most Russians remain dissatisfied with their school system. Asked by the independent Levada Center last month whether they think their children are receiving better schooling that they got, only 12 percent of parents said yes. A third believed it was about the same, but 48 percent thought it was worse.