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.
The neighborhood was Lyublino, an area of iron foundries, oil refineries and railway depots since the Soviet era of rapid urbanization. The students were just a generation or so removed from the grinding peasant poverty of their grandparents. "Village kids," the teacher called them, though they lived on the rim of the modern Moscow of 13 million. There were no great post-Soviet success stories among their parents. Most households made do with less than the city average income of $600 a month.
Nearly all the 29 students in the class hoped to major in economics or computers in college. The girls wore clothes as fashionable as they could afford and flipped through Cosmopolitan when they were bored. The boys affected poses of disinterest and blared music from a boom box during breaks. They all had cell phones. "They're very practical," Irina Viktorovna said.
Tanya had just a short walk from school from the three-room apartment where she had lived since she was born. Her mother worked at a factory producing medical equipment. Another student, Lyudmila Kolpakova, known by her nickname Lusya, was the only child of a truck driver and a nurse. Anton Tretyakov, a perennial cutup with a streak of intellectual curiosity, was the son of a jack-of-all-trades father currently working as a plumbing distributor.
At 45, Irina Viktorovna was the same age as most of her students' parents. She had risen to deputy director of School No. 775, whose 800 students crammed into a decrepit former hospital where no more than 500 were meant to learn. Even as a top administrator, she earned just $200 a month.
But she believed her job was crucial, preparing students to be citizens of a Russia teetering between democracy and the leftovers of dictatorship. She planned not to bother them with tests or essays and blamed herself if they were passing notes or dozing off.
"For me the most important thing is that they can find their place in political life, so they know what things are happening in public life," she said as the year began. "I want history to serve them for the future."
'A New System'
One day in late October, the class was caught up in a fast-paced discussion of why totalitarianism arose in 20th-century Europe: social inequality, global economic crisis, the post-World War I settlement.
Tanya interjected with the word she often employed when talking about the Soviet Union, or Joseph Stalin, or socialism: "Genius." Fascism and communism, she said, "were systems of genius."
Irina Viktorovna tried not to overreact. "What was so genius about it?" she asked.
"One person managed to restore the country, was able to rule it," Tanya replied, "and that was a new system for the world."
Lusya, Tanya's curly-haired rival for leadership among the girls, interrupted from the front-row seat where she always sat. She considered herself a moderate compared with Tanya, but also confided after class that "if you have complete freedom, there will be chaos."
Lusya said totalitarianism was not a "system of genius." But, she added, authoritarianism was. In an authoritarian state, she insisted, "you can think and say whatever you want," as long as you never directly challenge power.
Irina Viktorovna thought this was a teaching moment if ever she'd seen one. She decided to talk about the forest and the trees.
In a democracy, she said, it is the individual trees in the forest that matter. Under totalitarianism, it is the forest that matters and the trees are an anonymous mass. "Now tell me, please, where you would like to live: in a society where you are a mass or a society where your interests, individual interests, are respected?"
"Where are such societies?" Anton and Lusya interrupted in one voice. "Societies where interests are respected don't exist," Lusya added.
"Will you stop that?" the teacher said. "What you are doing now is called demagoguery." She called for hands to be raised, for all those "who think they would rather live in a society where their interests are respected." Most, the silent majority, raised their hands.
"And now those who think it is better to live in a society where your interests are lost, ignored, and where you turn into a mass?"
Tanya and Lusya raised their hands.
Irina Viktorovna was still thinking about trees. "You can't chop wood without making chips fly," she said. So who wants to be a wood chip? she asked. No one volunteered. "Then I do not understand where this wish to be dissolved in the mass is coming from," she said.
Tanya replied: "I personally have not seen an example of the first type of society and I know examples of the second type."
Said the teacher: "Even if you haven't seen such a society, don't you want to try to create one in your own country, or shall we continue to live like we used to?"
"It will not work out," Tanya said. "If we can do whatever we want, it's going to be a disaster."
Anton was stuck on the trees, and how the metaphor related to his teenage life.
"Have you ever thought that this saying about the trees and the forest is very harmful to states that are not morally or socially ready for it, like Russia for example?" he asked. "Let's say I just decide that I will not go to class, I just decide as an individual that I do not feel like going and I don't care, but maybe my future depends on this particular class. We won't be able to do anything if some firm hand doesn't take us all and lead us to our goal.
"So I think to speak about democracy in our society, well, it is premature. Our country needs this strong hand to establish order."
"That means repressions," said Irina Viktorovna.
"So," said the teacher, "are you ready to become a wood chip?"
"Yes," he said, "if it is necessary. If it is for the sake of the people."
Irina Viktorovna didn't like the textbook the Moscow authorities had supplied to School No. 775. "Russia and the World," she thought, was flawed by omissions and oversights.
The famine resulting from the Soviet Union's forced collectivization policy, which killed an estimated 7 million people in 1932-33, was covered in one paragraph. The deaths of tens of millions in Stalin's labor camps was omitted -- because, the book's co-author said in an interview, he couldn't say for sure whether 15 million or 50 million had died.
Still, the textbook mentioned facts withheld as recently as the late 1980s. The Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939 was there, as was the American Lend-Lease program that provided the Soviets with key military aid during World War II.
Anton was so shocked to learn about that, he went home to tell his mother. She didn't believe him. All her life she had heard that the bloody sacrifice of the Soviet Union had won the war. He told her that "the U.S. played a huge role." Not so, she said, "it was 90 percent because of the heroism of Soviet soldiers."
With Tanya, too, such facts failed to persuade.
At the start of a November lesson, the class read a letter accusing Stalin of destroying the army leadership on the eve of war with Nazi Germany. The teacher had chosen it with Tanya in mind, she said later, because the letter came from "a true believer" in Soviet power.
But Tanya refused to go along. "Under Stalin, the army was not in a poor state, it was strong," she said.
She was unhappy with all this emphasis on repressions rather than Stalin's achievements in modernizing a backward country. The textbook, she was sure, was not giving "a full reflection of Stalin's policy," and neither was the teacher.
Dima, the teacher's son, took Tanya on. "Stalin destroyed practically all the command staff," he said. "The army was decapitated."
Tanya would not bend. "The army was in a great state," she insisted.
"Come on," Irina Viktorovna said. "The army in a great state surrendered half the territory of the Soviet Union."
Tanya might say Russia didn't need freedom, but she had every opportunity for free speech in Irina Viktorovna's classroom. On the question of Stalin's purges, many disagreed with her.
"Stalin's policy was against people," Anton said. "He destroyed a huge number of people, all the smart people, all the people who could have achieved something. Basically, he destroyed the human resources of the country."
But Anton and others in class harbored a nagging sense that maybe Tanya was right. "Despite the fact that all of this was destructive for our country," he said, "a solid foundation was created at that time, even though it was a bloody foundation."
Anton asked what the teacher thought. This almost always happened, and Irina Viktorovna almost always avoided answering, convinced that "if I said my opinion, they would all agree with me."
But this lesson on Stalin was different. She was sure they did not hear unvarnished appraisals of the Soviet dictator at home. Even their own family's stories were kept secret, which is why Anton said his great-grandmother had been "in the repressions, but I'm not sure."
"We should learn all the facts of our history," Irina Viktorovna told them. "We should learn our history with Stalin and Lenin and Ivan the Terrible and so on, and know who we are and what our history is. If we keep silent about facts from our history, it will never bring good results. Why? Because if we don't talk about our mistakes, we will make them again."
Pride in Stalin
By January, Tanya seemed to have softened. The topic was the Cold War and which country, the Soviet Union or the United States, was to blame. Tanya said it was the Soviets' fault. "The policy of the Soviet Union was aggressive," she said.
Why? Irina Viktorovna asked.
"Because this was a totalitarian country," Tanya responded.
Irina Viktorovna thought she had finally gotten through. "Tanya, you have changed your opinion!" said the teacher. "You are blaming Stalin for aggression."
Momentarily confused, Tanya quickly regained her bearings. "No," she said. "I am not blaming Stalin. I am proud of him, because I think it is hard to oppose the entire society, the entire world."
Outside the classroom, Russia's elections were approaching and this, too, meant a question Irina Viktorovna could not avoid. Before the March 14 balloting they all knew Putin would win, she told the class she would vote for Irina Khakamada, a presidential critic who didn't even have backing from her own Western-oriented reform party.
The students were surprised. "They kept asking me, 'Why do you not like Putin?' I said he does not even pretend to be a democrat," Irina Viktorovna recalled.
A show of hands revealed that most of their parents planned to vote for the president. Many were like Lusya's parents, who told her, "Why should we vote against him when he will win anyway?" They were "like the mass in Russia," Lusya observed.
Tanya's parents exercised an option on the Russian ballot to vote "against all" rather than for Putin. She thought that was the right choice. Despite her belief in the Soviet Union, she saw today's Communists as a pale echo of their predecessors, "embarrassing for Russia because they've lost their ideology."
A few weeks after the election, which Putin won in a landslide, Irina Viktorovna circled back to the past, returning to the enduring imprint of Soviet life on today's Russia.
"What is conformism?" she asked.
The class was silent. All year, Irina Viktorovna had heard Tanya idealize a Soviet society she had never lived in. Now, for once, Tanya had no ready answer.
So the teacher told them what it had been like to be a Young Pioneer, about parades where children stood in huge ranks, "such a beautiful line of identical white blouses, a line of identical red Pioneer ties and ribbons!"
She told them how it was to stand in that line, about the feeling "that comes up from the very depth of your soul. You feel almost happy that you belong to this huge power. You have this feeling of security and a feeling of, if not happiness, then something very close to it, because you think that you can rely on this huge power.
"But what if you do something wrong? They pull you out of this rank, put you in front of the other Pioneers and start scolding you. All the other kids stare at that one Pioneer in the middle, their eyes saying, 'Shame on you.' Imagine what this one person must feel, being alone face to face with this huge mass. A kid starts crying, ready to promise anything, to do anything only to have a chance to get back to his place in the rank, to blend in and be the same as everybody else. For that, he is ready to give anything away."
For once, the class was spellbound.
Irina Viktorovna quoted the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, a Soviet icon now known mostly to them as the name of a subway station in downtown Moscow. He had written glowingly about Soviet society as "a hand of a million fingers, squeezed in one wrist smashing everything."
She tried to explain. Soviet society was powerful, but an individual "couldn't be but 'one-millionth fraction of a ton,' " she said, quoting Soviet exile Yevgeny Zamyatin. "Do you understand the difference?"
Splitting the Difference
"Tanya's really changed," Irina Viktorovna said as sunny late April turned to a blustery May. On the eve of the high school graduation, Irina Viktorovna thought that Tanya was listening more and advocating less.
But Tanya pronounced herself unmoved. "Irina Viktorovna tells me I'm not right. I would just say I'll only change my mind when I really see I'm not right," she said after class. She was sitting on the hard bench next to the window that looked out on a gritty field of hastily built new apartment towers in pastel colors.
She still said Stalin was "a person of genius" and she still planned to major in economics. "Putin is not moving Russia ahead," she said. "We're just swimming with the current."
Tanya said she "loved" the chance to speak her mind freely in Irina Viktorovna's class and knew she wouldn't have been able to do so in Stalin's time. "It's a plus," she allowed, "but only a very little one."
As Tanya held firm, Anton, Lusya and many others were determined to split the difference, to find an acceptable middle between their classmate and their teacher, "something of democracy, something of authoritarianism," as Lusya put it.
No longer the optimist of September, Irina Viktorovna now said she had a more modest goal in mind, "to move their brains in certain directions." She knew Tanya believed she hadn't changed but still thought her lessons had made an impact. "She's not as categorical as she used to be," the teacher said.
In a way, Irina Viktorovna was glad the students could only idealize Soviet life, that they had never experienced the repressive system. Maybe, she said, Russia would embrace freedom, in three generations or so, assuming nothing terrible happened.
"They are not really for democracy," she said. "But at least something is going on in their minds."