Post-Soviet lessons to create new model citizen

13th February 1998 at 00:00
RUSSIA. Schools in Moscow are introducing civics classes for the first time in nearly a decade since the Soviet social conduct sessions had schoolchildren reciting lists of Communist laws.

The courses, emphasising the importance to democracy of an aware citizenry, follow a two-year trial in 70 city schools and piloting in more than 20 provincial regions over the past five years.

Full implementation in Moscow was due to begin last term but has been hampered by distribution delays in the 500,000 copies of coursework guides ordered by city education chiefs. The one-hour-a-week classes are expected to become a regular feature of the curriculum for all the capital's 10 to 14-year-olds this year.

They pose questions such as, "Is a citizen necessarily someone who takes up arms to defend the fatherland?", "What are the legal consequences of telephone terrorism?", and "Why is 'tradition' not a valid reason for drinking?" alongside explanations of Russia's current criminal and civil codes and accounts from teenage delinquents who have spent time in prison having already tasted the consequences of breaking the rules.

The part that an informed, motivated citizen can play in developing a civil society is hammered home through references to Russia's bloody past: Stalin's murderous epoch and the wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya are used to shock pupils into understanding that the price of democracy is eternal vigilance.

"Each person has a choice: to become a screw, waiting for the turn of the screwdriver, or a citizen influencing the fate of the country," the coursework guide states.

Moves to introduce civics classes reflect a growing awareness of the need to reform a legal framework still shackled to Soviet judicial codes. Education authorities and legal academies are encouraging judicial revisions, believing that economic and social reforms cannot succeed without them.

President Yeltsin has announced 1998 as Russia's Year of Human Rights and a national essay and a poster competition backed by the British Embassy and Russian education journal Uchitelskaya Gazetta (Teacher's Gazette) on the theme of "I have the right toI" was launched in Moscow last week.

Konstantin Krakowski, an expert on human rights and founder member of the Network for Democracy - backed by the British-based Citizenship Foundation - in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, said that the key challenge was the development of a new generation of legally aware citizens.

At Rostov's Law Lycee, a private college which prepares 16 and 17-year-olds for university entrance, students use workshops, lectures and role-play to test the strength and flexibility of the legal code.

Pupils in Volgograd, one of the provincial cities which has set up courses in civic awareness and personal security, have been attending lessons in civic conduct for the past three years.

Vladimir Antonov, head of Volgograd education authority's innovation department, said: "Statistics show that most people just don't know how to behave in the criminal and threatening situations so prevalent now. We want our children to be prepared, not just physically, but mentally."

But some students think the courses are a waste of time: secondary school pupil Andrei Tomashev said poverty and too much spare time was at the root of most crime and until this was tackled life would remain much riskier than in the past.

Nick Holdsworth

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