Willamette World News

Willamette World News

RSS Feed for This PostCurrent Article

One Girl’s Stories About the Educational System in Russia

By Mariia Ulibegova

In this article I will try to recall my most vivid memories and most distinguishing features of all the levels of Russian education I’ve been through, from learning how to write to learning how to write a thesis.

1. Looking like Hannibal Lector in all the kindergarten photos

Both of my parents were working when I was growing up, so from the age of five to the age of seven, I was dragged attended kindergarten Monday to Friday. In my kindergarten, for quite an affordable sum you got full meals three times a day, a midday nap, child-performed choreographed dance routines and musical numbers to show to parents on holidays, and simple classes for older kids. With all that, you still got several hours a day of free running in the yard, making and unmaking friends and mud finger-painting.

The kindergarten was regularly under siege from photographers. It was the mid-90s, and to have a personal camera in the family was sort of a luxury. The photographers, who had quite an eclectic set of paraphernalia to go with the camera, managed to convince every parent that it was at that specific moment (at the age of five, or five and a half, or at any time the photographer was around) that the child was at a very special age that had to be captured in the medium of photography.

The whole process was really weird to me. I mean, (usually early in the morning, for some reason, when you are hardly awake yet) you have to wait for an uncertain amount of time with other anxious kids, who don’t know what’s going on, before it’s your turn to go sit in front of a person you see for the first time in your life. That person looks at you through their apparatus and tells you to sit still, keep your back straight and smile. But why would I want to smile? I don’t know you, man. I’m hungry, and the monkey you’ve sat in my lap is scratching my leg trying to run away. How am I supposed to hold it, keep my back straight, smile and stay alive at the same time? (And to top it all, the photographer blinds you in the end with a flash!)

From that time, I have photos where I look like I’d rather take a bite out of the photographer than give him another smile. I’m not providing a photo for the sake of the pregnant and easily triggered people who might be reading this article. And also because all of those photos are printed and not electronic. Ha-ha, eat it, Facebook!

2. Studying, because everybody’s doing it

It is sort of amazing to me now to see small kids willingly (or so it seems) going to school and spending hours listening to their teachers. Recently I had an opportunity to listen to a class of 12-year-olds from Russian-speaking families being taught Russian in Salem. It was like I was back at my school in Russia. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry: the teacher, a native speaker, clearly bored and silently cursing her life in her head, in a screeching voice was commanding the pupils to repeat mechanical grammar and orthography rules by heart. And it was working! The kids were using those rules, and some were even eagerly jumping at their seats to give the answers. Which leaves me in awe of how it’s such a fragile combination of the natural curiosity and the parents’ guidance the children follow that makes them stay put. And how I know now that I can choose not to go to that class again, and they don’t and can’t.

At the age of seven I didn’t know and couldn’t not go, either. To help kids get accustomed to the ways of the real school, where you have to sit with your back straight every day for hours and free running is looked down upon, the Russian parents take children to preschool classes for a couple of months preceding the first grade.

The only thing I remember from that time is the entering exam. I had to take it to prove that I can be admitted to the class with the “hip” kids who could already read and write. We all were asked several questions that were supposed to show that we had something between our ears. Like “Where do you live?”, and if you could give a full answer all the way down to the apartment number, it meant something. Or for “What two things would you take with you on a desert island?”, “My mom and my dad” and “Salt and matches” were equally plausible answers.

In the photos below you can find me (can you?) on the first day of the first grade, which is always September 1st and is considered a holiday – “The Day of Knowledge” – throughout the country. Many kids bring flowers to give to their teachers whom they got to know in preschool. In the first photo you can see how my classmates are trying to hide behind their flowers from the heat of the sun after having stood in a neat row for an hour or two in the shadeless schoolyard listening to congratulatory speeches from the school staff and musical numbers from older kids. The second photo is taken on the same day and shows the classroom with kids’ parents sitting in the back.

Most of the class (25-30 kids) goes through grades 1 to 11 together. Throughout these years you share a desk with another person, unless you want to seem like an asocial weirdo and sit alone. If you are lucky, you get an awesome desk-mate, who helps you in times of great need by letting you cheat off their work when you suddenly realize that the class has started 15 minutes ago or that you’ve prepared a homework on the U.S. instead of the whole North America. If they refuse to help, you label them “teacher’s boy/girl” and find a kinder, nicer person to sit next to and share your stuff with. That’s how friendships are built that last for decades.

Grades 1 to 3 you have all the classes, except Art and PE, with one teacher. Grades 5 to 9 you have different teachers for each subject, but take them with the same old classmates. Grades 10 and 11 you choose a “major”: humanities, physics and computer sciences, biology (choices in my school). You lose some old friends and get some new ones.

A kid from a “good” family is also supposed to have skills that are not included in the standard secondary school curriculum: you have to play an instrument, speak a foreign language (and not gobbledigook that they teach at school and call English) and do sports. Most of those things can be done at state-sponsored specialized children’s schools for a very moderate price. These days state secondary schools can have proper facilities for that, too, but these extra courses have to be paid for, unlike the standard curriculum classes.

3. Studying, because everybody’s doing it… again

From all the people I met at school I think I know only four or five who decided to continue with vocational education. Everybody else entered higher education institutions. Not continuing with your education right away after high school is not an option, unless you want to end up sweeping the streets. Which isn’t bad in itself, but it’s hardly any kid’s dream (though it was mine for a while, right after wanting to be a cosmonaut and before wanting to be an artist). I went to study foreign languages and literature, because I couldn’t come up with anything else that I liked. I did four years of bachelor’s, and in the end I had what had been initially promised – a Proficiency level of English and a gift (or a curse, depending on how you look at it) of having a taste for good literature. But it was harsh. The following student-made graphic on the wall of my institute says it all:

To receive a bachelor’s degree at the end of four years, you have to pass a couple of state exams and defend your 50-page long “scientific research paper.” Most of the times the topics of the papers are so long and boring you stop reading the title before getting to the end.

The gift, that was most definitely not a curse, was a two-week summer camp my alma mater had at the Black Sea. Check out the view of the vicinities!

The student union would cover 80% of your expenses, but you could only go once a year and you had to show good initiative in your studies (get all As), student activities (I administered a debate club), or sports (I played volleyball and table tennis).

Ironically, this camp was categorized as a “sports and health” camp. And you could go there to swim, play volleyball and read books. But most people went to swim, party, sing songs until morning, sleep all day long and drink excessively. My lawyer has advised my not to reveal which of those things I allegedly did or didn’t do. But in general having a big hippie community literally by your side and a winery 20 minutes away didn’t help much with the health and fitness part.

Throughout my years at my institute, the university and the student union also covered almost completely my dormitory accommodations, my three jumps with a parachute, debate club expenses and medical treatment.

And that’s how I got to participate in a master’s program. Not because everybody was doing it this time. Well, sort of, but not really. Still, it’s a story for some other time.

Click here to watch an interview with Mariia Ulibegova!

Trackback URL

Sorry, comments for this entry are closed at this time.