Underpaid teachers and unheated classrooms are only a few of the urgent problems facing Russian schools, which begin a new year tomorrow. RFE/RL correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports on Russian teachers' woes and public concern about an area that officials now say is essential to Russia's national security.
Moscow, 31 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- As schoolchildren across Russia start a new year tomorrow (Sept 1), the acute poverty of the country's teachers is now so public an issue that it has become the subject of a clothes-washing powder television advertisement.
The TV commercial shows a schoolteacher fretting that she has to set a good example, but can afford only one jumper that is frayed from constant washing. A Western powder brand promises that repeated washes will not wear out the teacher's single classroom garment.
Officials claim that under President Vladimir Putin schools are getting more government attention. Yesterday, Education Minister Vladimir Filippov spoke of a planned budget increase for education and the back-payment of most teacher salaries. But many teachers -- especially in Russia's far-flung regions -- and parents tell a different story.
Teachers participating in a meeting last week in Saransk Mordovia, in the Volga region, told RFE/RL's Russian service that they lacked everything, from classroom furniture to their own salaries. A teacher in a Mordovan village school, Maria Lugunkina, complained of being paid in vodka that she has to sell on the local market.
"I've been working in school for 20 years, and lately they've begun to pay us with vodka. How am I suppose to be an authority figure for the children if I go [to the market] and sell vodka? I'm a teacher in a country school, I have to talk to the villagers, I just feel ashamed in front of the people."
Galina, a teacher in Volgograd, told RFE/RL that she does get paid on time -- but only the equivalent of $18 (about 500 rubles) a month. She makes ends meet by writing essays for Russian literature students, earning about eight dollars for a 30-page research assignment.
It's not surprising, then, that many teachers take bribes from parents, a practice that is quite common in Moscow as well as in the regions. Raissa Karpova, the mother of a school-age boy, says that she can buy high marks for her son.
"My son is in school. In math he has a four [average grade]. In order to get a five [the best mark], it's necessary to give the teacher a present. some teachers even hint at what they would like -- it's not like you can bring them any thing! You give them the gift, and then you get a five."
Classroom conditions leave a lot to be desired, too. Lyubov Kezin, head of Moscow's education committee, said last week that 10 schools in the capital have no electricity because of unpaid bills. That led Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov to order the repayment of all energy debts, which could threaten hundreds of institutions with heating and electricity cuts.
As a result of all this, many experienced teachers have given up their jobs for better salaries elsewhere. Recently, the Russian newspaper "Sevodnya" estimated the federation lacked some 50 000 teachers. The State Duma's deputy speaker, Boris Nemtsov -- a supporter of sweeping education reforms -- recently quipped that "the most astonishing thing about the Russian school is that it still exists."
Once the pride of Soviet propaganda, education -- like most other state-financed sectors -- has suffered from the post-Soviet economic crisis. But since Putin's accession to power, authorities have begun calling education to a "national security priority" for Russia. They say that without educated specialists to conceive ultra-modern missiles and super-powerful computers, the country cannot fulfill its ambitions.
Education has therefore become a formal part of Russia's new national security doctrine. Former Kremlin Security Council boss Andrey Kokoshin, now considered an influential Duma deputy, recently said that a modern economy must be based first and foremost on the effective use of what he called its "human capital" meaning in intellectual potential in science, education and culture.
The Public Council for Developing Education, a new body set up with Education Minster Filippov's approval, is designed to lobby these ideas among law-makers so they will agree to a budget increase for education. The head of Ekho Moskvy radio, Aleksey Venediktov -- who is one of the Council's founding members -- explains that there is a direct link between this month's series of national catastrophes and declining educational standards. He says:
"Modernizing education means preventing what happened to the Kursk [submarine], to the [Ostankino] television tower. I'll remind you of a little story. When the Americans realized in the 1950s that they were behind the Soviet Union in space technology, more funds were thrown into high-school education, mass education, elite education. Experts agree that thanks to that decision by [the U.S.] Congress in the '50s, America caught up with us in the 1960's in space [conquest technology]."
Proposals made by the council, and supported by the Education Minister, include tax breaks for private investments in education, a single state exam that would give all students an equal chance by ending the practice of bribing teachers, and a more comprehensive military service deferment for those continuing studies. Filippov is expected to present what has been billed as a "new education doctrine" to the government in two weeks. But only the adoption by the Duma of the new 2001 budget this autumn will show whether education -- or the military -- will get extra funds.