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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Back to School: Texts Turn Page on Soviet Era

As Russian children head back to school on Wednesday, they face changes in the curriculum representing the most sweeping educational reform in decades.


The changes, designed to pull Russian classrooms out of the propaganda-laden Soviet era, include the introduction of about 200 new textbooks.


The texts seek to restore balance to the teaching of history, downplay ideology in literature, acknowledge the existence of a positive role of religion in world affairs and eliminate communist rhetoric, according to Margarita Leonteva, head of the Russian Education Ministry's development section for secondary education.


But the reforms also give schools a great deal of latitude in deciding what to teach. This means that what children learn can vary from school to school.


Leonteva said in a telephone interview Tuesday that a third of Russian schools had chosen to overhaul their libraries completely, while another third had ordered a few new books and the remainder preferred to carry on with their present courses.


"What used to be taught was carefully controlled", Leonteva said earlier at a press conference. "For the first time teachers will really be able to choose for themselves".


The arrival of the new textbooks is an unequivocal sign that Russia has embarked on a new course for educating its next generation.


The new books make fewer political references and no longer espouse the party line, focusing instead on the new realities of Russia.


For example, Nikolai Chernyshevsky's novel "What Is To Be Done? " previously regarded as a blueprint for socialist utopia, and as such an essential part of a communist education, is now relegated to the "genre" category. Updated geography texts now refer to "the former Soviet Union".


And contrary to the traditional communist rejection of all kinds of religion, the new geography textbook, "The Economic and Social Geography of the World" says that "the overwhelming majority of the world population are believers" and suggests that believers and atheists try and find a common language.


As for history, a brochure of additional documents for the course contains extracts from the minutes of the 1903 Bolshevik Second Congress, as well as speeches by the Russian nationalist reformer Pyotr Stolypin.


The new textbooks won applause from some teachers.


"I think they are much better", Yelena Prilutskaya, a Russian literature teacher at Moscow School 274, said of the literature text books she has received. "They are much more thorough and all-encompassing in describing the development of Russian 19th-century literature".


Prilutskaya, who has been teaching for 10 years, was pleased that teachers have more control over what to study with a class.


But not all teachers contacted Tuesday were thrilled by the new books.


Nina Fyodorova, a geography teacher at School 754 in northern Moscow, commented that the 1993 textbook on world geography is more opinionated than the one she had been using.


As an example, she cited a paragraph that says that "the international economy can only be based on the market" and that "only decisive reform can bring socioeconomic revival to countries of Eastern Europe and the former U. S. S. R".


"No such assessments were made in the old textbook on the status of the Soviet Union in the world economy", she said. "Only facts were allowed".


But she did note that Soviet-era textbooks used Lenin's definitions of "rotting capitalism" and "predatory imperialism".


Fyodorova added that her school had not received any of the new geography books, so she was forced to use the old ones anyway.


"The main thing is keep the curriculum", she said. "It isn't vital that we have the new texts, although it would be helpful".


In a survey of nine Moscow schools Tuesday, seven schools said they had received the required books in time.


At School 492 in southern Moscow, the librarian reported that all new materials that the school ordered had been delivered, and that "everything was ready for Sept. 1".


But at School 148 in the Kievsky district, Liliana Ivanova, a history teacher, complained that the school had not received any of the new books that were expected.


"I don't know what we are going to do", Ivanova said. "We're waiting for 1, 800 books. There's nothing for the 9th, 10th, and 11th classes to work with at all, and we will have to pool all the books we have for the lower grades".


Officials at the Moscow City Education Department said that each individual administrative district of Moscow was responsible for book distribution to schools within its district, but that in general, distribution "is proceeding as planned".