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School of 'Partisans' Goes Underground in Belarus

Opposition Says Closure by Government Reflects Slow Strangulation of Civil Society

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 17, 2004; Page A21

MINSK, Belarus -- At 9 in the morning, Maxim Rust and Yevgeny Volk, two 16-year-olds, knocked quietly on the door of an apartment in a nondescript building and quickly slipped inside.

Off the narrow hallway, where ordinarily the sitting room might be, Alexander Syadyaka was teaching physics to a group of 11th-graders squeezed along two walls. Farther along, opposite the kitchen, Tatyana Maguchava was teaching English.


Tatyana Maguchava teaches English to 14-year-olds. They have had to attend the classes in an apartment since the government closed their school. (Peter Finn -- The Washington Post)

"We are an underground school," Rust said. "Our government sees a threat from educated people. They are typical Soviets. Anything that doesn't fit the system, they want to destroy it."

"We're partisans!" Volk said.

This modest apartment and three others that have been converted are all that is left of the Yakub Kolas National Humanities Lyceum, a private high school that taught an international curriculum in the Belarusian language. Stocked with university professors who wanted to champion the Belarusian language while teaching a curriculum free from state interference, the school had established a reputation for academic excellence.

But in Belarus, where education is increasingly seen as the servant of a state ideology centered on perpetuating the rule of President Alexander Lukashenko, an independent, Western-oriented institution working in a language other than Russian amounted to three strikes.

"Education," the president said last year, "is the sphere that gives intellectual and spiritual life to a person. That's why it's no space for the opposition to make their nests." In Belarus, voters go to the polls Sunday to decide whether to change their constitution and allow Lukashenko to run for a third term and to elect lawmakers to the country's 110-seat legislature.

In July 2003, 12 years after it was founded by a group of intellectuals, the high school, which had close to 200 students, was shuttered by the government. After first attempting to install a principal who didn't speak Belarusian, officials closed the school because they said its physical plant was unsafe and needed renovation.

"This school . . . fell out of the existing system of secondary education, and there were constant problems with coordination," Aleksey Vronov, head of the city of Minsk's Committee on Education, said in an interview with a local publication. "For example, it was difficult to organize training courses for teachers or to carry out audits."

The school was named after Yakub Kolas, one of the country's great poets and a leader in a 20th-century revival of Belarusian language and culture. Lukashenko, however, seems determined to Russify the country and has, at various times, proposed a union with Russia.

"The Russian language will be in Belarus as long as I am president," he said this year. "The lack of the Russian language will be the death of the state."

Students, parents and teachers took to the streets to protest the lyceum's closure and initially held classes on benches outside. Local city workers ran lawnmowers around them to drown out the ad-hoc lessons. Appeals to the courts failed. And the school, now reduced to 90 students, is essentially an illegal operation hiding out in apartments.

"It's still a great education," said Katya Tolkockachikova, 17, a student in her final year.

For the democratic opposition, which includes the school's teachers and student body, the closure is emblematic of the slow strangulation of civil society in Belarus where hundreds of nongovernmental organizations have been threatened or closed in the last 18 months.

"Our students were encouraged to speak their mind," said Uladzimir Kolas, a co-founder of the school, noting that the school had wide-ranging discussions about democracy and economic reform in Eastern Europe. "We wanted to release education from ideological dogmas."

Nor is the lyceum the only educational institution to cross the government. This summer, the private European Humanities University, which received financial support from the U.S. government, was closed. And Lukashenko, in a speech at a state college in Brest, made his disdain for the university plain. He charged that the university was designed to train "the new Belarusian elite aimed at leading Belarus to the West when the time is appropriate."

"And what about other Belarusian universities," he asked. "Who are they training? Servants and slaves for this new elite."

"We can only say 'thank you' for this estimation of our abilities," said Vladimir Dunayev, acting rector of the university, which is currently trying to resurrect itself as a distant learning center from a base in Lithuania. "But what this is actually about is the restoration of a Soviet system of higher education with total ideological control of content and total control over the behavior of students."

The high school has been able to survive because Belarusian law allows home-schooling and students can take university entrance exams at a school they have not attended. "If they remove that, I don't know how we survive," said Lavon Barsceuski, a German teacher and author, who has translated the works of Kafka, Goethe and others from German into Belarusian.

The school continues to turn out graduates prized by universities. All 30 students in this summer's graduating class, the first since the closure, went on to a university, including 17 who received places in Estonia, Germany, Poland, Lithuania and the Czech Republic.

For now, teachers continue to scurry between apartments. "The streets have become the hallways of our school," Kolas said.


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