Doubtful About Democracy
Russia's Next Generation Sees Some Virtue in Past
By Susan B. Glasser
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 27, 2004; Page A01
MOSCOW -- Tanya Levina knew the answer. She was absolutely sure of it. Lenin, she said, had been right after all.
It was September, the beginning of the last year of high school for a class of Russian teenagers on the southeastern edge of Moscow. They were talking about the revolution that gave birth to the Soviet Union, and Tanya was preaching its virtues to her fellow students.
"The notion of democratic freedom is alien to Russian society," she argued. True, the Bolsheviks had illegally seized power in 1917, but still, even now, knowing about Stalin and the camps and all that came later, "It was the best choice for Russia."
Her teacher could not have disagreed more. Irina Suvolokina was committed to teaching the truth about Soviet history: its party-led dictatorship, reckless waste of human life and centrally planned economic folly. It was a version that once would have landed her in jail.
But her greatest challenge on this day came not from repressive authorities, but from skeptical students. Suvolokina had nine months to change, or at least open, their minds, starting with her most outspoken student. If she could convert Tanya, she figured, the rest of the class would follow.
"It's not the end, it's the beginning," she said. "When they finish, they'll all be Republicans and Democrats like in America."
Suvolokina knew how daunting the task would be. Although not one of the students was old enough to remember the Soviet Union that collapsed when they were preschoolers, many heads nodded when Tanya said the communist past was more suited to Russia than the capitalist present.
At 17, these children of Russia's brief embrace of democracy began their 11th year in school -- and final year of high school -- largely uncertain that this was the right course for their country. Back in the 1990s, it had been an article of faith that this next generation, unencumbered by a Soviet upbringing, would reject the politics of the past. But it didn't turn out that way. Freer than any generation before them, they just weren't sure they wanted it.
Inside School No. 775 on Moscow's industrial outskirts, Irina Suvolokina was addressed as Irina Viktorovna, following a Russian tradition in which a patronymic is used to show respect. Her students were proxies for the larger debate facing Russian society. President Vladimir Putin spoke of democracy while his critics called him a dictator in the making. Commentators debated whether Western-style liberal democracy made sense for a country with a 1,000-year tradition of autocratic rule. History class seemed more relevant than ever now that Russia was up for grabs.
And from the start of the year, Tanya set the tone. The daughter of an officer in the successor to the KGB, she liked rap music and Beethoven and planned to study economics -- the capitalist kind -- at college. She was certain that in fast-changing Moscow she had no choice but to "live for today," and that "communism is the better system for Russia."
When Irina Viktorovna divided her students into sections to debate the revolution and bloody civil war that followed, it was Tanya who huddled with one group of girls to pronounce the Bolsheviks a success. "The results were positive," she said. "The Bolsheviks concentrated the entire country in their hands. They had concrete ideas, concrete goals and concrete plans for the development of this society."
A group of boys disagreed. "Lenin led the country to an extreme," said their leader, Vanya Gogolev. "The extreme was dictatorship."
The teacher handed out a questionnaire. Whose side would you have been on in 1917?
The Bolshevik cause, advocated by Tanya, won with 10 votes. The short-lived provisional government overthrown by the Bolsheviks got seven votes. Two students voted for the restoration of the czar. The rest declined to state a position.
When Irina Viktorovna started as a history teacher at School No. 775 in 1980, there were no debates among students, no disagreements with the teacher. She dutifully recounted the history of Communist Party congresses and Soviet triumphs as decreed in the single national textbook. Discipline was strict. Stalinism was an all but forbidden subject.
"In my classes then, I never pronounced the words, 'What do you think?' " she recalled. "You were supposed to learn and then answer exactly the way I told you."
Now the teacher found Tanyas in all her classes, students she believed were still being raised by "Soviet parents in Soviet homes." She had known this group since they were third-graders, and they were all neighborhood kids like her son Dima, who was also in the class.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company