While the first good snow of the winter fell peacefully outside, grade one of Moscow Special School No. 5 cheerfully marked its first educational milestone last month: completion of the Russian reading primer.
It was an occasion for song, poetry, and solemn remembrance of the 7-year-olds, their parents and teachers, a pleasant school assembly made the more remarkable for the fact that it was being duplicated across the Soviet Union in every other first grade of the national system.
The reverence with which modern Russia treats reading is rooted in the fact that in the span of a few decades after the 1917 revolution , the Soviet Union vaulted from mass illiteracy to virtually universal literacy. As with every aspect of life in the communist state, the place of the party in this important matter was not to be overlooked on this occasion.
As the first-graders sat in ceremonial rows in the assembly hall in their finest starched white shirts and aprons (our youngest son, Chandler, among them), a tiny tot brought in a make-believe telegram from Anatoli Aleskin, a famous Soviet children's writer, who had this to say:
"Read more books, train your memory, develop your mind, build your character! You will become future builders of communism! I congratulate you."
Accompanied by the school music teacher at the upright piano, the 60-odd pupils of the two classes sang and recited verses of goodbye to their primer and the 33 letters of the Cyrillic alphabet; of the joy of being Young Octobrists, the first step into the ranks of eventual party membership for many, and of thanks to the motherland for the chance to be educated.
After teacher Lyudmila Mikhailovna called for some congratulatory words from the audience of parents (bringing a brief embarrassed silence from the grownups), one father manfully got his feet and solemnly recalled that when he was a child during World War II, life was hard and books, paper and pencils scarce.
"Perhaps you lost older uncles, a grandfather or another older relative. I lost members of my family. They were sacrificed to save the country. Life is much better now. It's important not to grow up just to be a spectator in the improvement of your country. You must be active in this work as well. . . . "
He received a heartfelt wave of applause from the other parents, while his son beamed from the rows of shkolniki.
THE 105-PAGE book of ABC's which Chandler and his classmates today officially finished (and ceremoniously sat upon for safekeeping while receiving new readers), provides an interesting guide to the world of beginning readers as seen by Soviet educational experts.
The primer looks like an traditional English primer in general approach, building from simple syllables to ever more complex words, with the context and meaning helped along by delightful multi-color drawings of a 7-year-old's habitat.
Aiding the Soviets in word-building are their endless first name diminutives, which the authors draw upon heavily: Masha, Sasha, Shura, Lara, Nina, Mila, Misha, Dima, Dasha.
From these familiar names, the text progresses to short verses, homilies and observations, such as this one entitled "Winter" on page 54: "Frosts. Snowdrifts. Patterns on the window. Here's a birdfeeder. Zina and Liza have grain. They feed the birds."
But inevitably, mixed into the Soviet version of this Shasha-and-Masha world is a Dick-and-Jane version of politics, partiotism, and party. By page 85, the children read: "There are are very important words: Octobrist, Pioneer, Communist, party, peace. There are dear, personal words: mama, comrade, school.But the most important, dearest word of all -- motherland."
ON PAGE 91, the children are introduced to Lenin, whose portrait adorns every classroom and whose body lies embalmed in his Red Square mausoleum less than a mile from the school. The two-paragraph explanation goes like this:
"Vladimir Ilyich Lenin gave his strength to the battle for the happiness of our people. Lenin founded the Communist Party. The party continued the work of Lenin. The party leads our country to a bright happy life. Lenin always cared for children. Therefore, Young Octobrists are called the grandchildren of Lenin."
There is a one-page story about a father and son who find an artillery shell fragment during a walk in the woods. The boy learns his father was wounded during the war, and he asks: "Are you also a fighter for peace, papa?"
"Of course, everyone in our country is a fighter for peace," replies the father.
In another story near the end of the primer, young Volodya atop his father's shoulder at a Red Square parade is thrilled by the military formations and notices that "the border guards march in even lines. These are the ones who guard the borders of our motherland."
Thus, literacy and loyalty, walk hand-in-hand in our Soviet school.