Probably the sharpest blow to the spirit of educational reform and experimentation in recent years was the emasculation of Phys-Mat School No. 2 in Moscow in 1971-1972. As one of the half dozen elite schools for young scientific geniuses, it bad flourished for several years, not only feeding top students into the best universities but regularly placing winners in nationwide student olympiads. Prominent scientists and other scholars had worked without pay in many cases to develop an experimental curriculum. To a Westerner the curriculum would not seem especially innovative, but to the Soviets it was a daring departure. University professors taught classes. I was told by former students and their parents that the school developed genuine intellectual ferment unique in Soviet secondary schools. One teenager said he bad even discussed Solzhenitsyn's works with other students and informally with one unusually liberal and daring teacher. According to the Chronicle of Current Events, an unofficial human rights publication put out by dissident scientists and intellectuals until its suppression in 1973, students excelled "in establishments of higher education, not only by virtue of their high-level grounding in physics and mathematics but also because of their love of literature, their keen interest in social problems, the nature of the questions they asked lecturers in ideological disciplines, and their habit of not taking on trust anything that bad not been proven." Applications to the school soared to three or four times the number of places available.
As the logical extension of some of the educational reform theories, the intellectual climate at the school obviously troubled Communist Party conservatives. The percentage of Jewish students was very high and so was the proportion of Jewish scholars on the faculty, according to my Moscow friends. When in early 1971, one of the teachers, I. Kh. Sivashinsky, applied to emigrate to Israel, the authorities moved in on the school and began administrative harassments. According to Igor, a tall, lanky recent graduate, the pretext for administrative inspections was that New Year's Eve 1971 bad been celebrated with a roulette game. Another pretext, he said, was that a group of students had visited the Jewish synagogue in Moscow and would have gotten away without trouble for the school except that one boy wrote the school's initials on a fence near the synagogue. Purges of the faculty and student body were carried out in spring 1971, and again a year later. In one action the director and three assistants were fired; later, teachers of history and literature were forced out, an indication that the real reasons for the purge were ideological. Several other teachers, I was told, resigned in protest at these firings. Marxist-Leninist indoctrination courses were stiffened and students who did poorly in those fields, no matter how talented in science, were called on the carpet, and outside lectures by university professors dwindled to nothing.* By fall, 1972, the previous flood of applicants bad fallen off and in Igor's words, this once elite school bad become "a spiritless, gray, sorry spectacle". One of the unique qualities of this school, I was told by several people, young and old, was that in its prime it bad been not only a place of academic experimentation and excellence but of unusual candor and confidence between students and teachers. More typically, several intellectual families privately told us, children learn quite early in life about the schizophrenic split between talking freely at home but carefully conforming and concealing their views in public. "Any family whose level of education is high enough to have many books at home, talks differently at home than beyond the walls of its home and the children can feel it," said Vasily, the young math teacher; "Maybe no one tells children specifically not to speak out, hut they are canny and they learn the cynicism from their parents." Nadya, the literature teacher, acknowledged it, too. "We are part of official life," she said. "Once children pass beyond the innocence of those first years when they will do anything a teacher says, they watch what they say in front of their teachers."
In rare cases where children, in innocent naiveté, buck the political values of the system, it has a way of backfiring. I knew a 16-year-old boy, a quiet, artistic, independent lad, who told some school friends that he did not plan to join the Komsomol (Young Communist League) though it is virtually obligatory for all. His father was a Communist Party member, though passive and unenthusiastic. He knew nothing of the incident until being summoned to school the next day by the homeroom teacher, whom the family regarded as a flexible and sympathetic lady. She told the father what had been reported to her by another student. "I would rather not know this," she said, itself an unusually liberal remark for a Soviet teacher who is supposed to take seriously the Party's exhortations to monitor the moral upbringing of her students. "But you know this can be a serious matter. You are an intelligent and sophisticated father. Tell the boy that he can think what he wants but he cannot say what he wants." So the boy joined the Komsomol. _________________________________________________________________
*Much of this account comes from issue No. 27 of the Chronicle of
Current Events, October 25, 1973.