Education Debate 2000
It seems to me I have heard this debate before, or at least, I have read about it. It didn't get reported directly in the Radio Moscow English language broadcasts I have heard, but their insistence in those days that The Soviet Union was a truly democratic state, and the examples of free speech and petition they occasionally cited, did carry the message I can with a little imagination reproduce here. I have other evidence, too, as for example the stories I have heard from people who once lived there, or in other states of Eastern Europe.
The debate I refer to is the sort of public debate even we Americans consider part of our democratic heritage: Who will be the new School commissioner? Will the school principals be held to account, or will the obvious failures just get shuffled to other schools while "fresh blood" comes into our district (fresh to us, maybe, but likely ridden out of the last one on a rail). How can a citizens' committee get some decent textbooks in middle school algebra, when the local bureaucracy is quite content with the trash they are using now? And spending the rest of their Federal money training new teachers to follow the old ways?
Education is not the only matter of public concern. In the Soviet Union food was probably of more importance to the man in the street than education, certainly too important to be left in private hands. Why are the lines so long at the groceries? Why does Tzemskoya get all the good apples while we here in Zhuskov get the moldy ones? Doesn't our representative in the Kremlin care about us? Such a time-server, and at such a salary; if we didn't grow our own beets we'd have no way to make a decent borscht in the winter.
Pravda was full of complaints, evidence of freedom of speech and press. Certain kinds of complaints were illegal, of course, racism and anti-Semitism being against Soviet law. Not like the United States, for example, where anti-Semitism is legal, as Pravda often explained. But legal Russian complaints abounded: the food distribution system, the rationing of positions on the waiting line for new apartments, the way some public officials favored their friends in granting them permits to live in Leningrad or Kiev, when so many worthier people wanted to live there.
You could get shoes if your feet were size 9, but try to get a pair of leather boots in size 11! Go tell the manager; see where you'll get. He's doing his best, after all. He might even answer the letter to Pravda, saying that his plan was not at fault, but that people were suddenly growing larger feet; and then sometimes a special shipment of size 11 boots would suddenly fill his warehouse. The nation cared, after all; it tried, it was in the Five Year Plan -- but who is perfect?
In the longer run, he might explain, he has other problems, not of his own making: The salaries of his help are shameful, and while he has training sessions every summer there are some of them who don't seem to learn. What can you do? Fire them? Go fight City Hall.
Some Russians lived in Moscow anyhow, even without permits, and slept on the floors of friends' apartments. They didn't have proper jobs, either, and so would have been arrested as hooligans if they were discovered, but a small payoff to the local concierge took care of that. To live, they took the train to Yaroslav (cheap train, public transportation, much cheaper than in western Europe or the USA, because it was transportation for people, not profit), bought some large sacks of apples and brought them back to Zhuskov, where good apples were scarce. You could earn back the train fare, with money and apples to spare, if you sold them on the streets when the policemen (for a small price) were looking the other way. Profiteering, price gouging. Other underground Russians gave geography and physics lessons on the sly, as well, to parents who didn't have Moscow-quality schools in Zhuskov, or care much about inequality of opportunity, but wanted their kids to have a dacha in the country some day. Physics lessons, good apples and kielbasa, whatever you could get, even if the Ministry was as distant as Kafka's Castle.
The high bourgeoisie didn't have these problems, though of course they weren't called bourgeoisie. They were civic officials, members of the Writers Union, the Artists' Union, scientists in Magnetogorsk, executives in State industries and bureaus of all sorts, including Education, Transport, Security and Agriculture (Division of Healthful Fruit). They had dining rooms in their office buildings, with no shortages of apples (or waiters), no matter what city they were in, though bigger cities tended to be better provided at that level.
All children in the Soviet Union got the same education, a fine education, a free education, but it was amazing how many scientists and writers came from families who already lived in Moscow and Leningrad, and had positions of some distinction, and had placed their children in Moscow schools and even in Moscow University despite a guaranteed free nationwide access to equal opportunity education. Could it be that Moscow-born children had better genes? I don't believe that particular question ever came up in a column in Pravda.
In Rochester, NY, we don't have Zhuskov's apple problem, though our school problems are not much different from those in Los Angeles. In the case of apples, and kielbasas for those who want them, Wegman's pays the going rate to truckers, who are only in it for the money, to bring the food to their shelves. If Wegman's apples are moldy we go to Top’s. If Wegman's and Top’s are both bad providers of fruit, I expect there is a Kroger watching from Syracuse or Buffalo, waiting for a chance to bring us better fruit, greedy for the money. There is no public apple supply at all.
In consequence of this anarchy in apples, the appointment of a new District Manager of the enormous Wegman chain of supermarkets elicits only a note in the financial pages, not an editorial about his background. Food-conscious citizens here pay no attention. If Wegman's hires some guy who recently bankrupted all the 7-11 Stores in Yonkers, that's their lookout, not the concern of some public citizens' watchdog group. We can manage with Top’s if we have to, and there is always Kroger's, and an infinitude of potential others, in the wings. Is it not curious, that with food a matter of immediate, urgent concern we pay so little attention to the qualifications of the leaders who provide it for us?
I don't recall ever having heard of a "public interest group" in the Soviet Union, whether in Agriculture or Education. If there were, and the Zhuskov Agricultural District appointed a new Commissioner of Agriculture, they might well be interested in his history back when he was running the Tchichikov Street Railways, and look to see if that boded well or ill for the supply of apples in Zhuskov. Such a public interest group would have had good reason to want to set up a meeting with the new Commissioner as soon as possible, before he queered the supply of herrings, too, perhaps by appointing the same old crew for his lieutenants as his predecessor did. Maybe we could coach him on the problems of this province in time to head off another tuna fish scandal. Of course we would not want to make our interventions sound like a conspiracy, and would do our watch-dogging via the Zhuskov Agriculture Citizen’s Committee, which meets every year with the Superintendent of food supplies.
But: In Soviet Union was all public interest group conspiracy. So, my story is only imagine. But suppose -- suppose -- is legal this public interest group? Imagine how horrify we be that new Commissioner has appointed old dogs from Tchichikov, recycle also from Zhisk, famous in all East for shortage, vodka too, not just apples and herrings, before we get chance to tell him few things, to do good job for the People.
Well, maybe he is nice guy anyway. Maybe we get better bread; for apple we take train to Yaroslav ourselves, not hard, bring back for cousins and sell, too.
Kumon train, daily. Cheap train, People’s train, not like in capitalist country. And then, too, we can write to Pravda. Is a free country, yes?
Ralph A. Raimi
Revised 8 November 2004