#11 - JRL 7261
July 23, 2003
Flap Over Required School Reading
By Oksana Yablokova
The Education Ministry is drawing up a new list of required reading for schoolchildren that has a group of prominent writers steaming.
They fear that even 12 years after the Soviet collapse the government is moving to give preference to big Soviet-era authors and effectively gloss over the country's tragic past by ignoring those who wrote about it.
The Education Ministry said its final list is far from decided and that the main aim of the overhaul is to make school a little easier for children currently overburdened with homework.
As it is now, schoolchildren from the fifth to 11th grades have to read a group of novels and poems from a required reading list of more than 30 authors. In addition, teachers have the option of assigning writings from a recommended reading list of 25 authors.
The bulk of the required list has remained unchanged for decades, with several generations of Russians growing up on Fyodor Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment," Alexander Pushkin's "Yevgeny Onegin," Ivan Turgenev's "Fathers and Sons," Leo Tolstoy's "War and Peace," Alexander Griboyedov's "Woe From Wit" and Nikolai Gogol's "Dead Souls."
Nobel-Prize winning dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn was added to the recommended list shortly after perestroika.
The names of 20th-century authors have been modified over the past 15 years to exclude those who focused on Communist ideology, such as Nikolai Ostrovsky and Alexander Fadeyev, in favor of Mikhail Bulgakov, Anna Akhmatova and Nobel laureate poet Boris Pasternak. Four of Pasternak's poems are required reading.
But 13 well-known writers -- including poet Andrei Voznesensky and authors Boris Vasilyev, Vladimir Voinovich and Fazil Iskander -- sent an open letter to Education Minister Vladimir Filippov late last week urging him to drop authors whose books are vital to understanding the tragic Soviet history.
"Soviet canons are continuing to push out true historical knowledge that has been acquired on the totalitarian regime and its hard consequences on the people, country and culture," said the letter, which was published in Izvestia on Saturday.
"I have not had a chance to scrutinize all of the list, but from what I have seen there is a tendency to remove as many tragic books as possible and somehow smooth over the tragic history of the Soviet years," Iskander said by telephone Monday.
Education Ministry officials who are drafting the new list, which will come into force in 2005, said the letter took them by surprise. They said some of the authors they are asked to keep on the required reading list -- such as dissident writer Varlam Shalamov and poet Osip Mandelstam -- have never been on the list and, therefore, cannot be dropped.
Filippov said Tuesday in televised remarks that the list is still being hammered out and that making any judgment about it would be premature.
"The list is being changed in such a way that the works of some authors are not being named in order to allow each teacher to have more choices from the recommended works," said an Education Ministry official, who asked not to be identified.
Anatoly Pinsky, an adviser to Filippov and a respected teacher, conceded that the ministry has been discussing putting back on the required list authors such as 19th-century revolutionary novelist Nikolai Chernyshevsky and Communist favorite Fadeyev.
He said Akhmatova's presence tentatively has been cut from eight to three poems, adding that something had to be sacrificed to ease the reading program.
"There is less of Akhmatova but "Quietly Flows the Don" is gone as well," Pinsky said, referring to the book by Nobel Prize-winning author Mikhail Sholokhov.
Yevgeny Bunimovich, a Moscow City Duma deputy and a schoolteacher, said the debate about the reading list is a little melodramatic.
"Even if something significant is officially dropped from the school program, the teachers who included Mandelstam and Akhmatova in their teaching plans before will continue doing so," he said.
"A decision that would probably please everybody these days would be to include all the debated authors on the list. But this would be impossible, bearing in mind that the main reason for updating it is to ease the burden of studies on already overloaded schoolchildren," he said.
Iskander, however, questioned whether the changes were actually being made to ease the burden.
"Is this to create an impression on the minds of the younger generation that there was nothing particularly tragic in Soviet history?" Iskander said.
"They have done it smartly with Mandelstam and Tsvetayeva by including on the required list only their works from the pre-revolutionary period, while their best works were written on the most tragic years of Soviet history," he said.
Marina Tsvetayeva and Mandelstam are on the recommended reading list along with seven other poets from the turn of the 20th century.