Russian Education: A Status Report

“Soviet education had shortcomings, but what has followed the collapse of the union in 1992 appears to be worse,” according to an article titled “Russia: Unlearned,” which appeared in The Economist (July 30, 1994). “One reason for declining standards is chaos in this school curriculum … Another reason is the absence of money. Last year the government spent 7 trillion roubles ($7.5 billion), which does not go far in a country with 21 million children in secondary education.”

“In a country that once prided itself on high—and uniform—standards and a curriculum cast in iron, courses and instruction now vary wildly even from public school to public school … The education system in the post-Communist era has become so balkanized that even along the same school corridor, the teaching varies from room to roo,” according to The New York Times, “In Russian Education, Growing Class Distinction” (May 22, 1994). Yet for some, the article notes, little has changed. “Educational reformers are finding that many schools relish their freedom not to change. So far, fewer than a third of the country’s 67,000 schools have adopted the new program. Most … are muddling through with some of the new and much of the old.”

The seriousness of the crisis in education in Russia, a crisis which Western governments have largely overlooked, is captured in a new book entitled Education and Society in the New Russia: “After decades of subordination to the goals of the communist regime, educators in Russia now find themselves part of a fundamental social, economy and political transformation. The difference between now and earlier times, however, is that the central authorities are weak, the path ahead ill-defined, and the finances necessary for the task unavailable… The Russian education system is ill-equipped to deal with the new situation. And yet, if the transformation currently under way is to solve the long-term problems of the nation, the schools must play a major part” (p. xiii).

Reforming one of the world’s largest educational systems is an enormous task even when the government is firmly committed to the challenge and when economic and political life is relatively stable. Unfortunately, the Russian educational establishment has strongly opposing views on reform and the government has not prioritized education in its distribution of federal funds.

In the words of Russia’s Education Minister Yevgeny V. Tkachenko, “You can hear that our schools are fantastic now or that they are the worst, and both will be true. We are in a transitional phase … The real problem is that education is no longer a priority in [Russian] society.”

The Growth of Private Schools in Russia

One surprising result of the crisis in Russian education has been the emergence of private elementary, secondary, and post-secondary schools. The New York Times (May 22, 1994) made this observation: “To Russians long accustomed to free and relatively equal schooling, the appearance of hundreds of private schools is mind-boggling.”

Another source reported that “Private schools, long banned in a society where education was regimented indoctrination, are suddenly flourishing in Russia. more than 500 have appeared in the past three years” (“Russia’s New Rich Turn to Private Schools,” The Washington Post, September 30, 1994). The establishment of these new private schools has stirred a growing controversy in Russia. In fact, the Post article noted that a bill was approved in the Federal Council, the upper house of the parliament, which would ban any private school that does not own its own facility. If approved by the lower house, “the bill would effectively eliminate almost all of Russia’s private schools.”

An editorial in The Moscow Times, a leading English language newspaper, illustrates the strong feelings that exist on this subject. “Of the 165 licensed private schools in Moscow, only 18 are accredited, meaning that they have the right to issue state graduation papers The others, in reality, have no business educating our children” (“The School Dilemma,” September 22, 1994).

Although there are 1,250 state schools in Moscow and approximately 165 private schools which educate less than 1 percent of the students in Moscow, the presence of the private academies is viewed by some politicians and educators as a threat. others support the new private school movement. The Moscow News, for example, in an article entitled “War Declared on Private Schools” (September 2-8, 1994), described the proposed bill before the Federation Council and noted that “if officials emerge victorious, they will regain their monopoly over our children’s minds.” The article concluded that Russian education “bureaucrats are obviously trying to get rid of the competition.”

Leading education ministry officials in the Yeltsin government are firmly committed to supporting private education in Russia, despite the resistance in the parliament and in conservative education circles, where many are unreformed advocates of Marxism-Leninism. Dr. Vladimir Kinelev, head of the Russian State Committee for Higher Education, supports a “multilevel system of higher education” which includes private insitutions as well as state-approved universities (ITAR-TASS, March 23, 1994). yeltsin used similar language when he noted his alarm about the crisis in Russian higher education and stated his support for both state-run universities and “the emerging alternative forms” of education, a euphemism for private schools (ITAR-TASS, May 17, 1994).

Dr. Alexander Asmolov, the Deputy Minister of Education, stated his support for private education in even bolder terms: “As far as private education is concerned, I say: yes, yes, yes! It must be developed along with state and family education. Private education is an experimental round for schools as a whole… Moreover, private schools increase the right of choice. Now that the country is heading for civil society, the word ‘choice’ must become key. If we strangle private education, we will deprive Russian schools of many breakthroughs made over the past three years” (The Moscow News, September l2-8, 1994, p. 8).

After four years of working with Russian educators, I am convinced that Alexander Solzhenitsyn got it right when he wrote back in 1974: “This is what the Russian people must do: … It must concentrate on its inner tasks: on healing its soul, educating its children, putting its own house in order. The healing of our souls! Nothing now is more important to us after all we have lived through, after our long complicity in lies and even crimes” (From Under the Rubble, p. 140). As Christian educators, committed to the emergence of a new democratic Russia in which freedom of conscience and human rights are treasured, this historic opportunity to support the reform of Russian higher education must not be lost.