A city where history is all in the name

28th March 2008 at 00:00
The school run works differently in St Petersburg. Most families do not have a car of their own, so they just hop into other people's. Travelling to school with Sasha, my host, involves stopping a car, agreeing a fare and getting in.

In Scotland, we still have a few staffroom dinosaurs who long for a return of the belt. In Russian staffrooms, the lament, from some teachers, is for the return of Communism.

The demise of Leninism, some teachers argue, has been accompanied by an increase in indiscipline. Yet all the schools I visit have excellent discipline. Indeed, such was the rigidity and straightness of pupils' backs in some classrooms, I worried about possible damage.

The friendly director of one of the schools tells me a joke (a Russian joke). An old Russian lady was asked: where were you born?; where did you go to school?; where do you live now?; and where would you like to live? And her answers were: St Petersburg, Petrograd, Leningrad and St Petersburg. They are all the same place, of course. But each name has important connotations.

The Russians have a healthy appetite for history. Bookshops are packed full of history books and the content of history lessons is a hot topic in many newspaper columns. The government wants to change the way history is taught in Russian schools and has ordered new textbooks, which some teachers say gloss over atrocities such as the crimes of Stalin.

President Putin recently told a group of history teachers that, though Russian history has "problematic pages", they are fewer and not as terrible as those of other countries.

Some teachers agree it is their duty to help make children proud of their country, while others argue it is more important to examine past mistakes in order not to repeat them.

Russia's population is shrinking at an alarming rate. The United Nations has warned that, unless remedial action is taken, Russia's population slump will have a disastrous effect on the country's economy and, of course, its schools. Part of the solution is to reduce the appallingly high number of premature deaths which are a result of a national fondness for alcohol.

In the citizenship class, I observe a lesson about the dangers of alcohol. In 45 minutes the teacher has outlined the damage alcohol does to human organs and bravely challenged the unwarranted status of the drunken hero. He was a fine teacher and his lesson, I believe, was having a huge impact on the young minds in front of him.

Outside the school, I observe the practical side of a Russian citizenship course. A group of 15-year-olds are helping to tidy a nearby park. Enthusiastic is not the word to describe the pupils' mood. "We have to do something useful every week," one pupil complains.

"We have to give up part of our summer vacation to clean the school before the start of the new term," her friend adds.

"In Leningrad," I could just about hear the staffroom dinosaurs saying, "their attitude would have been entirely different."

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