2017 April 5

Surrealism, Soviet-Style

Topics

Director Milgram and Vice Principal Bessmyertnii

There's a perfectly good school in Russia's capital for English-speaking children of diplomats: The Anglo-American School of Moscow. And it's probably the right establishment for most Foreign Service (FS) families, who move from post to post every few years.

We were not FS. My dad was a professor of Russian history before he joined the federal workforce—as was his new boss at USIA, Greg Guroff. It just so happened that Greg, who had family in Moscow, had been working for some time to convince the FS that a Civil Service Russian specialist from the USIA Office of Research would be a benefit to the embassy. The intention, of course, was that he would be that specialist. But when the FS finally agreed to accept an “outsider” into their ranks, the Assistant Cultural Affairs Officer position was too low-level for Greg. Instead, my dad got the Moscow post with the embassy's Press & Culture section.

Then, in a curious twist of fate, the Cultural Attaché at the embassy and his family unexpectedly had to leave Moscow for a medical emergency. With no Russian-speaking senior FS officer available to replace him, Greg was tapped to fill in. So the two men were reunited in Moscow.

They both knew our years in the USSR would be a unique experience for the three children—Alec and Liza Guroff and me. So they were always on the lookout for ways to take advantage of our stay. Studying in an actual Soviet school was an obvious opportunity.

If you've seen My Two Years in a Soviet School elsewhere on this site, you may have wondered just how on earth three USA teenagers were able to enter a Cold War–era Soviet school. Read on to discover the bizarre truth, as related by the parents who arranged this educational endeavor.

The First Conversation: Opening Gambit

The task was to place three American children in a Soviet school. The accepted procedure, since all three were the offspring of diplomats serving in Moscow, was to submit our request to the Soviet government's Administration for Servicing the Diplomatic Corps (UPDK, in Russian). UPDK would then advise on finding an appropriate school, registering the children, etc.

UPDK was indeed a valuable resource. We learned about the Soviet curriculum and whether to choose a regular or “special” school. (A spetsshkola offers intensive immersion in a topic, such as a foreign language.) We also asked about sports programs, mandatory uniforms, hours of attendance, and much more. After all the discussion, we planned to visit three or four promising schools based on their location or offerings. Meanwhile, UPDK checked to see if the schools could take the children.

Our first visit was to a nearby spetsshkola that over the years had actually accepted many American students. The director (principal) received us formally, almost coolly, and quickly informed us of her willingness to enrol the children. But after she outlined the sixth- and eighth-grade curricula and answered a few questions, the interview appeared to be over. Nonplussed at the director's matter-of-factness and lack of warmth, we left feeling that many important matters had not been covered in so short a time. Clearly accepting American children to this school was “no big thing” from the director's standpoint, whereas we had been hoping that a Soviet school might look upon their presence as a special opportunity for both sides.

UPDK was not our only source for school recommendations, however. A young member of the American Field Service (AFS) teacher exchange program returned to Moscow seeking partnerships with Soviet schools in bringing together young Americans and Soviets. She was eager to reestablish contact with colleagues at her Soviet “alma mater”, a spetsshkola that she praised for the warmth and friendliness of both teachers and students. At the same time, an old Soviet friend of Greg's insisted he had to introduce us to a close friend since the war who happened to be the director of a fine school. As it turned out, both the young American and the Soviet friend were talking about the same school—Soviet School 45.

The coincidence naturally piqued our interest. But before we could visit, UPDK called with a discouraging message: School 45 regretted to inform us that it had absolutely no places left and could not possibly take the children.

This refusal only served to whet our appetites further. Eventually Greg's friend arranged an interview with the director, and on a fine spring day we arrived at School 45. The school was situated on a lovely little side street of Moscow, near a movie theater and assorted small shops. More importantly, it was in a neighborhood teeming with important Soviet academics and think tanks. School attendees were clearly among the Soviet “golden youth”—the offspring of influential movers and shakers, including high Communist Party officials.

The interview began ordinarily, as the director greeted his old war buddy warmly and shook hands with his American guests. Yet from that point on, nothing seemed quite normal. Since he had agreed to the interview, we expected the director to dismiss UPDK's official message with a wink and a knowing smile. Perhaps a confidential comment along the lines of, “Naturally, these formalities can be gotten round.”

Instead, when we brought up UPDK's response to our request, the director floored the three of us by saying, “Not only did I refuse the request—I categorically refuse it!” Far from a conspiratory smile, his expression was stern. The seriousness of the moment caught all of us off-guard—most particularly our Soviet friend. Until the end of the interview, he remained almost speechless, unable to comprehend this mortifying turn of events.

With a frown and an increasingly agitated air, the director next launched into a tirade about why he wanted no part of American children in his school. On a recent trip to Italy (his wife's homeland), he had seen an American film entitled Class of 1984. It depicted a high school full of drug use, violent classrooms, gang wars, police in the halls, and so on. We looked at each other in total bemusement—the movie was completely unknown to us and obviously a distortion of the typical American high school scene. The whole affair was taking on an unreal, even surreal coloring. Where was the old friend of a friend who was going to talk with us about the advantages of our children receiving a Soviet education?!

Attempts to explain that our children were models of deportment and nothing like the cinematic teens were dismissed out of hand. The director overrode us vociferously: “What do we need with your children here in our good Marxist-Leninist school? Your children have capitalist bourgeois values! They don't share our values—there's just no place for them here.” More feeble attempts to convince him that all children share basic human values. Growing confusion in the American ranks. Total despair from the Soviet friend.

At this point the school's deputy director appears. He is a large, jovial man who is also the head of the school's English-language program. The American AFS teacher described him as warm, generous, and possessing a great sense of humor. The ensuing dialog resembles nothing so much as the “good cop, bad cop” routine seen so often on American TV. Clearly the head of the English program is eager to enrol three native speakers who can help the Soviet children with their English. In general, he seems much taken with the idea of having American children interact with the Soviet children. The director, however, maintains his crotchety “anti-American” position.

The conversation between the two school officials runs something along the following lines:

Director
[Showing the Dep. Dir. the roll books of registered pupils] We don't have any room for them. You can see that there's no place we could put them.
Deputy Director
Well, maybe we could shift somebody around here or there. [Examining the books] Yes, in fact we could put the older boy in this class—there's only an average number of students in that class now. And the other two could go in this sixth-grade class.
Director
We don't have enough chairs as it is. Where are we going to get chairs for them? I suppose we'll have to put our kids on the floor so that these American kids can sit in their seats!
Deputy Director
[Always in a soothing, reassuring tone] No, we can shuffle things around and dig up the chairs needed.

Is it possible, the suspicion dawns, that the director is putting on an act for our benefit (or our discomfort)? Is it maybe a joke on his old friend? Possibly it's a precautionary measure—no one can accuse this director of being soft on capitalists! All possibilities seem plausible; the mystery remains to this day.

As we finally begin to feel less uncomfortable, we even enjoy the little drama being played out before our eyes by the two school officials. Just then we hear a knock at the door, and the director calls in one of the teachers. She is a middle-aged, rather cheery woman in a white smock like a laboratory worker's coat.

Director
Ah, Anna Ivanovna, here you are! What do you think—there are some American children who want to attend our school! I've just been explaining how we don't want them here, what a bad influence they'd be. They would try to destroy our good Marxist educational system.
Teacher
What do we need them for—I can do that myself!

Smiles and suppressed laughter. The little drama has shifted even more, from mere comedy of manners to high farce.

The rest of the meeting is of a piece with the preceding—the director is gruff and deprecatory, the deputy director warm and accommodating. Gradually the latter's enthusiasm wins over the director (or at least that's how the scene is played out). Begrudgingly, the director begins to entertain at least the possibility that his school will be invaded by three Americans in the fall.

Director
You know we have very strict rules here. Uniforms are mandatory.
Americans
Yes, we had assumed that. No problem.
Director
And absolutely no jewelry—no earrings, no bracelets, no necklaces, no rings. All these sorts of things are forbidden.

This may sound surprising. But because all students must wear a uniform (and therefore all look more or less alike on the surface), the only way that wealthier pupils can show off is by wearing jewelry. And in a classless society such signs of social differentiation would lead to envy and other unhealthy inclinations.

We sympathize with the dress code. But in a most revealing aside, the director goes on to say that of course the Ministry of Education does not at all prohibit the wearing of such articles; it is his own personal decision to forbid them. The choice is left to the individual schools. The reason he can do so epitomizes a basic rule of life in the USSR and should be kept in mind at all times when trying to understand the Soviet system: Anything not strictly allowed is prohibited. Contrast this with the opposite American ethos: Anything not strictly prohibited is allowed.

The rest of the already lengthy conversation with the director covers minor concerns. In character to the end, at one point he asks: “What are we going to do about textbooks for your kids? Good Soviet taxpayers foot the bill for our kids, but who's going to pay for your kids?”

A few more parting shots, a few more grumbles about the whole matter, and a promise to meet again—this time with the children and the teachers—finally brings the interview to an end. As the three of us leave the school and drive away, it's clear that Greg's Soviet friend is still in something resembling shock. We are left to marvel at what must be one of the driest wits in all Moscow.

Second Conversation: Endgame

As we enter the director's office, he rises to greet us, all affability and pleasantness. There is a smile on his face. (The face resembles no one so much as a thin Phil Silvers, when he played Sgt. Bilko—and there may be other similarities between the two in character and style.) Shortly, however, he falls into his more usual demeanor—a gruff, bantering approach that caught us off guard on our first visit. This time we are prepared.

All of us—children and parents—are anxious to find out more about the first day of school, the daily routine, classes, etc. The director has called into his office one of the children's teachers, and she greets us with: “Which is my papa?” (Which is the father of the boy I'll have, she means.) She is the eighth-grade teacher and will have the oldest of the three children. She waltzes out of the room thereafter, smiling, speaking in English, slightly disheveled but warm-hearted. She resembles a young Elsa Lanchester.

The director tries to reach the teacher of the other two children. His phone system—a large console with many buttons and two different receivers—is both a blessing and a curse, it would appear. The phone begins to ring almost immediately after we've settled into our chairs. “No, not now. Later,” he barks to a second caller. A more persistent caller can't be put off, so the director explains why he's tied up: “Important international negotiations. Yeah. Some Americans. No I didn't want to, but they forced me!” The conversation winds down, and the director finally hangs up. He again tries to reach the missing teacher. Several buttons are depressed; none of his efforts are rewarded. At last someone answers: “Not there?” The receiver is replaced, the director muttering under his breath.

Soon, however, the teacher appears on her own. She is young, not expansive but friendly. The children would seem to be in good hands with her. For starters, we want to know the children's schedules. (The eighth-grade teacher seemed not fully aware of what program was intended for her charge.) The sixth-grade teacher, on the other hand, has all the details and proceeds to give us each a copy of the first day's schedule.

We have many questions beyond the classroom schedules. Between the straightforward give-and-take of the questions and answers, the director has been his usual self. At one point he assures us that he really doesn't want to have the children in his school. At another, on learning that one of our wives teaches at the Anglo-American School, he delivers a derogatory remark about that institution. But at the same time, he is obviously very interested in the school. His curiosity as an educator is always apparent. He is interested to learn that the same building houses a Japanese and a Swedish school, and that the Japanese school is already in session before the American and Soviet schools. He is also shrewd in his comments; he notes that there is one thing about the American school that he envies—their Xerox machine. He adds that “We don't have one—no funds.” It appears that although the school does not lack for money, a Xerox machine is a luxury that does not appear in the plan for Moscow schools.

About the first day we ask, “When should the children show up? Can we accompany them?” We're told that if it's a sunny day, the entire school will assemble in a little stadium behind the school building, outdooors, for opening ceremonies. Parents are welcome. But if it's cold and rainy, the children must come into the school building and go upstairs to their rooms. “You're not allowed in in that case,” the director hurries to add. “We've got absolutely no use for you there!” Then, on the same note, he says: “But you're not the worst pedagogical example. You know who the worst pedagogs are? Babushkas!” (Russian “grannies”)

About equipment: do they get their books in advance or on that day? “All Soviet citizens get their textbooks free! I don't know what the hell we're going to do with you!” We offer to pay in the same tongue-in-cheek style. He “relents”—the children will get their textbooks on the first day, along with all the other children.

The deputy director has been present for most of the conversation. He is a big, warm, and friendly man, with a candid way about him and a fine sense of humor that is totally different from the director's. But he too likes to play. When the subject of language comes up, he points out that the English classes at the school will probably be too “primitive” for the children and makes a modest proposal. “We would like to make use of the children for our program—we'd like to exploit them,” he says with a wink. (This dig at standard Marxist jargon about the exploitation of the working class becomes a weird portent of things to come. Later in the year, the three American kids are unabashedly (shamelessly?) recruited to represent the school at a city-wide contest in the English language!)

They also promise to try to arrange Russian language lessons for the children. We assure them that whatever they come up with will no doubt be suitable.

More discussion follows. We propose showing some classic American movies for the school. After some other pleasantries, it's time to depart. Once again an interview with the director and his deputy has been almost surreal.