Last bell rings for Russian grads

Students: It's been a hard year for their nation, but seniors face the future with optimism.

June 03, 1999|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- They started school in the Soviet Union and now are graduating in Russia. While their country endured coups, the collapse of communism, parliamentary rebellions and the rise and fall of great economic aspirations, they were doing something more momentous: growing up and getting an education.

The last school bell rang in Moscow last week for 60,000 members of the high school class of 1999, and ceremonies at each of 1,400 schools offered the emerging young adults a moment to contemplate what lay ahead and to reflect on what was past.

Mikhail Mochalov, a tall, handsome 16-year-old graduating from School 1164 in inner Moscow, thoughtfully considers those historic years as he tries to decide what has been the best thing about his school career.

"The girls!" he finally answers.

Volcanic world events come and go, but kids still find a way to remain kids. And if 1999 would seem to be an inauspicious moment to be entering the adult world in Russia, with its political uncertainties and poor economic prospects, these youngsters are unbowed.

"I feel like flying," says Natasha Baikova, a 16-year-old with long red hair. "I feel like creating great things. We can overcome these difficulties. We can bring our country to a better life.

"I know all young people think that," she says, "but we can do it."

Russian children start school at age 6 or 7, and school always begins on Sept. 1, unless it falls on a weekend. On that first day of school, they gather before the school door, their arms laden with flowers for their teachers.

When these children began school in the fall of 1988, glasnost was just opening up the Soviet Union. Great hopes for the future were colliding with dark revelations from the past, but no one imagined the empire would ever crumble or that communism would collapse.

Most schoolchildren still wore the traditional uniform -- a dark brown dress with starched white pinafore for the girls and dark blue almost military-like suits for the boys.

The first day begins with the ringing of a hand-held bell, and it ends, at the 11th grade, with that bell ringing once again. All over Moscow last week, last-bell ceremonies that precede exams and graduation were held on the same day, followed in the evening by a huge outdoor dance for graduates in a square next to the Kremlin.

The thousands of students gathered there showed all the inconsistencies of life in today's Russia. Some girls still wore the traditional pinafores and hair ribbons. Others teetered along on towering platform shoes and wore tiny miniskirts.

Some bore the red sashes that mark formal occasions from weddings to graduations. Boys and girls strolled around the square until late at night, bottles of beer in hand, although they're all younger than the widely ignored legal drinking age of 21. Tiny bells were pinned to their chests. And the music rocked on.

Exams are scheduled for this next week, followed by graduation ceremonies June 25 when diplomas will be conferred, but for Moscow's 11th-graders -- Russian schools only go to 11 grades -- the last bell has already rung.

Their school years were chaotic ones for Russia's teachers. Teaching was a good job during the Soviet years, when the pay was relatively good.

But after the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, prices rose to world levels while inflation sapped the value of paychecks.

Marina Dobkina, principal of School 1164, earns about $50 a month for running the school and teaching chemistry besides. Her teachers earn an average of $40.

"Only people devoted to ideas teach now," she says.

Many Russian teachers are very angry. While striking coal miners captured worldwide attention last year, camping for weeks next to Russia's government building, known as the White House, teachers were protesting even more. In Russia's 13 most active regions, 8,408 strikes occurred last year, 5,293 of them organized by teachers who had not been paid for months. One teacher died after a hunger strike in the Volga River city of Ulyanovsk.

"Life has changed for our teachers," says Katya Artyomova, 17, "but they did their best to protect us from it. They've made school like a home for me. It's the best thing in life."

Dobkina is philosophical about her profession. "Money doesn't solve everything," she says.

Her school has 640 children in grades 1 through 11. It's an ordinary school, as opposed to those that specialize in music, dance, sports, mathematics or language. Most of her graduates will go on to a vocational college or academic institute, less expensive and less prestigious than a university.

A few years ago, many Russians feared that their children would lose all desire for an education, put off by the poor salaries of doctors and teachers, lured by the instant gratification of working in the rapidly opening retail and convenience stores here.

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