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Russia: Politicians Play Teacher For A Day

Russian students attending the first day of classes for the new school year found themselves being lectured by a few well-known faces yesterday. Instead of speeches about education and teachers' salaries that are the tradition on the "Day of Knowledge," the country's top leaders tried their hand at actually teaching a few lessons. It's probably no coincidence that parliamentary and presidential elections are on the horizon. Our Moscow correspondent reports.

Moscow, 2 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Boris Yeltsin, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov traded politics for pedagogy for a few hours yesterday, communicating their reflections to bemused children and television viewers.

Putin is Yeltsin's hand-picked successor for president, while Luzhkov is himself considered to be a top candidate for Yeltsin's job when voters go to the polls to choose a new head of state in June 2000.

The longest class yesterday was taught by the only real professor of the lot, Luzhkov, who reminded his audience that he teaches at the Moscow Economic University. Luzhkov's lesson on "civic education" took place in a conference hall of Moscow's state school number 1206. The 45-minute lesson was transmitted live on the Moscow-controlled TV Center channel.

Luzhkov offered short reflections on the announced themes of a "beautiful union" and "world culture." Stumbling on his words, Luzhkov started a long, complicated speech, explaining that "there are unions that choose us. We are born in a family. We don't choose our parents. We don't choose our place of birth. We don't choose our family, but the family was still founded on a voluntary union."

Finally, Luzhkov cut himself short, concluding that the concept a union is "very complex."

Luzhkov also quoted the writer Lev Tolstoy, reminding the children that "there is a lot of evil in the world" but that the good will always win.

The students answered Luzhkov's questions with what seemed like pre-prepared answers, since some of the students read their replies off pieces of paper. The teacher then quoted an excerpt from a student's written assignment on the topic "If I Were Mayor..." The winning student promised to solve problems of spiritual purity and rid Moscow of drug addicts, drunks, and criminals. Luzhkov nodded approvingly.

Finally, Luzhkov promised his trademark cap or a scarf from Russian fashion designer Valentin Yudashkin to the best students in the class at the end of the year.

Meeting with university students at Moscow's prestigious State University, Putin chose to speak on lessons that must be mastered before the year 2000. He reminded the students that "the domestic dream of the Soviet paradise symbolized by freedom and sausage is almost fulfilled." As he put it, "we have enough of both."

Hinting at the upcoming presidential elections, Putin told the students that 2000 will be the year when Russians will choose the future direction of their country. "Are we going to complain about Russia's difficult fate?" Putin asked. "Are we going to say like masochists that we get the government we deserve?"

Putin -- who was presented last month by Yeltsin as his favored successor -- called on his audience to make what he called a "reasonable choice" for president.

Yeltsin -- who has been shown on television almost daily for the past two weeks -- didn't miss his hour of professorship. He met his class -- winners of international school competitions -- in the Kremlin. The lesson took place in the majestic white and gold Catherine Hall, usually reserved for meetings between the president and government officials or foreign guests.

Speaking from one end of a large oval conference table, Yeltsin towered over the heads of a dozen teenagers sitting one meter apart. The table reached mid-breast for the shorter students.

Yeltsin said the students should feel privileged to be having such an unusual lesson. "You were lucky," Yeltsin told them, "Lucky thanks to your capacities and talents." He described the Kremlin as a school where the elite of the country are "studying."

Yeltsin called the students Russia's "young elite" and appealed to their patriotism by saying he is sure that none of them will "run away," an apparent reference to the brain drain to the West that Russia's scientific community has suffered.