The View from here - Russia - When the past is truly another country
Pushy parents, ignorance of Soviet history and whether children should be separated according to background are all topics that have been explored by a new talk show in Russia, Shkola.LIVE (School.LIVE).
Launched this autumn by three major news agencies - a local Muscovite newspaper, a radio station and the national news agency RIA Novosti - the hour-long show earnestly uses education to hold up a mirror to society. Although the presentation is slick, there is next to no mirth; children's education is sacrosanct, the tone suggests.
Each week covers a different subject. In one episode, a parent who gets involved in extracurricular sport was interviewed; in another, a teacher spoke about new textbooks on the Stalinist period.
One high-profile interviewee was Svetlana Zhurova, formerly a speed-skating gold medallist at the 2006 Winter Olympics and now a politician with strident views. She responded to a question on the idea of "strong" and "weak" students by defying the distinction altogether. "They are all strong," she said, adding that children are held back by background only.
All this is indicative of the massive changes that have occurred in Russia since the fall of Communism. A programme such as Shkola.LIVE would have been unimaginable then, with its frank debate and contributions from disarmingly authoritative 16-year-old pupils.
Yet there is one area where the young are not so clued up: what happened before 1991, when the Soviet Union fell apart. In a programme entitled In the Name of Stalin, broadcast the day after the 95th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the guests discussed research by Levada-Center, a Moscow-based sociological research group.
The centre had asked 16- to 18-year-olds about their knowledge of key episodes in Soviet history. They proved to be particularly ill-informed about the post-war period: 44 per cent were unaware of the persecution of dissidents during Brezhnev's rule, while 54 per cent were clueless about the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia in 1956 and 1968, respectively. Teenagers could not muster interest in events that occurred in a country "which is no longer on the map", one contributor said.
The findings were perhaps surprising considering the theme of the 22 November show. Entitled Parents at School: A Help or Hindrance?, the programme discussed how parents had become ever more active in monitoring their children's education. One Moscow headteacher spoke wearily of getting "five or six letters" a day from parents. It was, he said, unprecedented in "30 years working in schools".