MOSCOW — When you visit a recently independent nation, ask what kind of elementary school textbooks their kids are reading. I must say the textbooks my kids use are horrific.
Technically, the Russian Federation is a new country, founded on the ruins of the former Soviet Union together with its peers like Ukraine or Belarus. You would expect that its schools would make an attempt to re-evaluate the past, particularly the past as dark and inglorious as that of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. You would be wrong.
My twins will be third-graders this fall, and it is already difficult to explain to them why the books they use are so obviously moronic — especially when they carry the stamp of approval by the Ministry of Education.
Historical references in the textbooks are most disturbing. I could live with patriotic references to World War II, but paragraphs like “Moscow is a heroic city, the capital of the Motherland. Every person wants to visit Moscow to see Red Square and the Kremlin” stink.
As for heroes, the list suggested in the textbook consists almost exclusively of generals. How am I supposed to react to the statement that people like Adm. Fedor Ushakov or Generalissimo Alexander Suvorov became famous because they “protected the Motherland on land and sea”? The amphibious gentlemen in question came to prominence for the strictly opposite reason: They attacked other countries, building the ill-fated and mean Russian empire.
What drives my kids nuts is that the textbooks are very much village-oriented. They are using texts from the 1930s, when the vast majority of Russian kids lived in the countryside. Maybe 70 years ago texts starting like “The marshland cranberries have ripened” or “I remember two trees at our fence, a svelte maple tree and a crooked squeaky willow” did make sense, but in 2002 they are not exactly relevant.
What my kids and I really hate are the innumerable ancient proverbs studding every textbook, such as “Morning dew is useful like happy tears,” or “Not dew but sweat brings good harvest,” or “Summer brings, winter eats,” or “A cold May promises plenty of wheat.”
My favorite is a story about a peasant lad who had been drafted into the navy and asked his brother to send him “a little spike of wheat.” Gee, “a little spike of wheat”? Why didn’t he ask for a pizza or a DVD, my kids may ask?
Should I explain to them that 70 years ago Russia used to be an agriculturally sentimental society? Or should I just plainly say the story was shameless propaganda from the start and that in the 1930s the elder brother must have asked not for “a little spike of wheat” but for a sound loaf of bread, for they kept him hungry in Joseph Stalin’s navy?
Another great story is a boastful — and phony — agricultural account dating from the 1930s again: “In the past, people did not grow watermelons in the vicinity of Moscow, but now they do. They did not use to grow grapes there, now they grow them.” Well, I have heard about morons who attempted to grow even pineapples in the vicinity of Moscow, but that was just as futile as growing watermelons or grapes there. “The vicinity of Moscow” is lucky if it gets enough sun to let cucumbers outgrow the size of the original seed.
Should I tell my kids the story about Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who was exactly that type of a cheerful fool, for he made people plant corn in the Arctic?
Combing the textbooks in search of something modern and relevant, I came across a promising name — “Bob.” However, it appeared to be a dog’s name in a story by Leo Tolstoy.
Speaking of Tolstoy. When I learned he was part of the summer reading, I beamed with joy. But parental and aesthetic joys are equally short-lived. The kind of texts the editors of the volume selected is amazing. I am not saying that 9-year-olds should read the description of Natasha’s first ball or the story of Anna Karenina’s disgrace, but they should be spared the indignities of reading bad Tolstoy. By the end of his life, the great man had become obsessed with cheap preaching and moralizing.
Once upon a time there was a gardener, a story starts. When he was dying, he told his sons, “I’ve buried a treasure in our garden.” After his death, his stupid sons start digging up soil looking for it. They don’t find a treasure because there isn’t one, but the digging they do is good for the garden and brings them plenty of fruit. “And they became rich,” the story concludes.
I am not sure the story conveys the kind of family bliss I like. The sons look like greedy idiots to me, while their venerable father is portrayed as a nasty schemer and too lazy to cultivate his own garden properly. Besides, who would believe in 2002 that one could become rich by selling fruit?
I don’t know about your kids, but my son and daughter get really angry when they cannot understand what they read. “This is supposed to be in Russian, right?” they ask venomously. I am not sure they need to know terms like “threshing-floor” or “harrow” (by the way, do you know exactly what a harrow is supposed to do?). Or how about a riddle: “There is a babushka sitting on a bed and her dress is patched” (Onion?).
All right. The textbook authors have taken out stuff about Lenin (just as their predecessors 40 years ago took out stuff about Stalin), but the way they filled the gaps is really puzzling.
Of course, it would be excessive to put in stories about the stock exchange and the European Union, but how can one possibly expect the McDonald’s generation to appreciate an invitation to eat mashed turnips? Or am I missing something and the Russian economy is doing even worse than I thought?
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.