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Should Russian Schools’ Opening Day Start With Students’ New Year’s Resolution (s)

Latitude – Views From Around the World
September 3, 2012, 11:52 am3 Comments
The Day of Knowledge
By MASHA GESSEN
First graders in St. Petersburg take part in a ceremony known as the “Day of Knowledge,” which traditionally marks the start to the school year in Russia.Dmitry Lovetsky/Associated PressFirst graders in St. Petersburg take part in a ceremony known as the “Day of Knowledge,” which traditionally marks the start to the school year in Russia.

MOSCOW — My kids are first-class citizens, and so are the children of about half of my friends. The other half’s children are second-class citizens. The second-class citizens had to cut their summer vacations short and rise at the crack of dawn this past Saturday to take part in a brief but bizarre ritual.

The difference between the two groups is whether the children go to public or private school. Public and private schools exist side-by-side in many countries, but Russian public and private schools seem to exist in two different countries, with public schools still firmly rooted in the Soviet Union, where they were among the many instruments of state control and propaganda. Never has this been clearer than on Saturday, Sept. 1.

The first day of September, often referred to as The Day of Knowledge, is the day when classes begin in schools across the country. The morning usually starts with a school assembly during which 11th-graders (the oldest students) take the first-graders by the hand and lead them into the school while ringing a ceremonial bell.

That is a rite of passage that has painlessly made the transition from the Soviet to the post-Soviet era. Other rituals have proved trickier. According to one tradition, a local World War II veteran has to address the assembly; 67 years after the end of the war, few able-bodied veterans remain, but local authorities scramble to find them and deliver them to both public and private institutions.

Back in the day, Communist Party representatives used to address the assemblies as well. Now some schools have replaced them with Russian Orthodox priests who lead the groups in prayer in clear violation of the Constitution, which guarantees separation of church and state. I know of only one case in which a parent took the school to task — he succeeded in stopping the prayer services.

And then there are the school principals themselves. They used to tell the kids they should grow up to be exemplary Soviet citizens and good Communists. What are they to say now?

At the private school my kids have attended for the last five years, the principal has always mentioned two tragic events that had occurred on Sept. 1. He talked of the start of World War II in 1939, and made the claim that the people who started that war clearly had not been taught the right things in school. And he talked of the 2004 hostage-taking in a school in the southern Russian city of Beslan, where 331 people died, and asked for a moment of silence. Every year I have asked anyone I could find whether these two tragedies had been mentioned at their children’s school assemblies: They had not.

This year posed an additional dilemma. Sept. 1 fell on a Saturday. Were the schools to start the year on Sept. 3? But the Day of Knowledge would be two days past its sell-by date. Start the year on Sept. 1? But then would the teachers and students have to come to school on Sunday as well and in effect start the year with a seven-day work week?

Private schools opted for Mon., Sept. 3. But public schools made no announcements at all — until Wed., Aug. 29, when the news came: The schools would hold their assemblies at 8 in the morning Sept. 1, just as they always had, then students would go home without attending class, to return for the actual start of the school year on Monday.
Masha Gessen
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A near panic broke out everywhere. Parents with children in public school rushed to fly back from the Turkish sea coast, causing flights to overflow and pandemonium to erupt in airports; they began an early move back from the dachas, causing traffic in and around Moscow to come to a standstill.

Of course, there was still the problem of what to do at the actual assembly. The father who had taken his school to task for holding a prayer service reported on his blog that first-graders recited a poem about Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, and the principal read out a dictionary definition of the word morality.

Masha Gessen is a journalist in Moscow. She is the author of “The Man Without a Face,” a biography of Vladimir Putin.

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Should Russian Schools’ Opening Day Start With Students’ New Year’s Resolution (s)

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