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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Trouble Telling a Troubled History




ST. PETERSBURG -- The lessons of war are never easy to teach - especially to the children of today's Russia. The World War II blockade of Leningrad is no exception.


As St. Petersburg somberly marked the 55th anniversary of the end of the blockade last week, Tamara Tuluzakova, principal of School No. 105 in the Vyborgsky district, is grappling with how to teach it and the war as a whole to her 667 students.


"Everyone must know the history of his country, especially those periods when people had to gather energy for its defense," says the grandmotherly Tuluzakova, who was 6 years old in 1941 and lost several relatives to the Nazi siege. "Being able to ask yourself whether you can defend your country is already a good sign of maturity."


Forgetting the war entirely would be impossible. The school building is situated at 24 Ulitsa Orbeli, just off Prospect Nepokoryonikh, which translates as Avenue of the Unconquered. Down the street is Ploshchad Muzhestva - Bravery Square - and a few tram stops from the school lies Piskaryovskoye Cemetery, common grave for over 600,000 Leningraders who died, most from hunger, during the 900-day blockade as German and Finnish troops encircled the city in 1941-43.


But besides its geography, No. 105 boasts a unique history as one of the only schools that remained open throughout the entire war. Through years of cold and hunger, children made their way to School 105, at the time located on Bobruiskaya Ulitsa - even though the Nazis bombed it, killing two teachers and three first-grade girls.


The teachers have decided that perhaps the best method is to let the survivors pass on the tale.


"We studied, we went to all our classes - we even put on theater productions," says Galina Devchekotova, 73, who attended the school during the war and came back to talk to the students.


"The blockade will live long in the hearts of Leningraders," Tuluzakova says. "We saw a certain side of the war and we can't forget that."


Ninth-grade students were visited by elderly war veterans, and gave them standing ovations. In one classroom, the teacher keeps a small but permanent blockade shrine, featuring a girl's diary and remnants of the shell that hit the school.


"In our generation, nobody talks about war," says Varya, an 11th-grader. "But when we talk to our relatives or other veterans, it drives the reality home."


The main textbook, the 1992 "History of the Fatherland," seems relatively free of holdover communist ideology. There are chapters on Stalin's lack of preparedness for the war and his secret deal with Hitler to divide up Poland and the Baltic states.


That does not mean, however, that it is suddenly easy for teachers to elucidate more difficult questions. When asked how far she strays from the old Soviet versions of the war, teacher Natalya Dunayeva admits she has difficulty with some topics.


"I can't, for instance, tell my students whether or not it would have been better to give up Leningrad" in order to save lives, Dunayeva says. "I simply don't know enough." Such issues are up for discussion.


"History is the conscience of the country. Know it, or you will have to repeat it," intones Natasha, an 11th-grader. "Just look at Stalin, who was a talented enough leader and yet led so many soldiers to a needless death."


"What might have been some of the other mistakes in our history?" Dunayeva asks her students. Stanislav, who has been reading Alexander Solzhenitsyn's anti-communist novel "The Red Wheel," brings up the unfairness of the Soviet system.


"I've read that many of the party leaders were living during the blockade as well as they had been living before it," he says.


The political arguments heat up, but some students prefer to talk about the war's personal side - the stories their own relatives tell them of starvation, being forced to eat glue and leather to survive, and watching family members die. They repeat their grandparents' tales with pride, but do they think their own generation could endure the same hardships?


"I think we could survive another blockade, because we see heroes all around us who set an example," says 11th-grader Diana. "We already know what is possible."