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Russian school abroad: a soft power tool?

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Russian school abroad: a soft power tool?


O p i n i o n s

Tatiana Gabroussenko

Professor at Korea University, South Korea.

The Russian school is usually criticized for endless reforms and the notorious unified national exam. However it provides a rather high-quality consistent classical education following legacy of the very Prussian gymnasium, which was the foundation for its predecessors, schools of the Russian Empire and the USSR, to grow upon. Thus, it is a potent soft power tool abroad. However, mere financial and licensing support to private Russian schools in other countries is insufficient for this soft power to be efficient.

Before you ask, it was out of necessity that our family took the decision to change education strategies (school with English language of instruction, then university) and transfer the child to school at the Russian Embassy in the Republic of Korea. Our first child had successfully followed the path of education in English while in Australia, but we faced a hitch with the second one. We moved to Korea, and the hassle-free Australian kindergarten was replaced by an American kindergarten, and then an American school in Seoul, which was a good one by local standards and the third most expensive school in the country.

American School in Korea

Having left the innocent world of egalitarian Australia with its flip flops any time any place, our five-year-old girl suddenly found herself in the world of rich guys descended from Korean sorry excuse of oligarchs – they are the basic presence of expensive Korean kindergartens and schools with instruction in English. So we faced all the charms of this social stratum in all their true filthy colors.

Children’s slogans included: “My mom weighs 48 kg, and yours weights 53, so shes a loser”, My mom is shopping in Paris, and your mom, like a sucker, works as a regional prosecutor, I will not sit at the same desk with her, she wears New Balance sneakers, she sucks!", "Only chumps study well; and I will be married to a rich man." Naked racism was practiced towards all non-Korean classmates without exception (we were still relatively save due to our European appearance; a hell of life was faced by Indians and Africans). There was excessive impudence towards teachers and parents. Throwing backpacks in faces of personal chauffeurs who meekly carried those backpacks after their young masters was a common thing. And all those poor, intimidated Mexican or Canadian teachers demonstrated ingratiating helplessness in front of the rich frothing kids their jobs depended on (for American teachers, Korea is not a longed-for place, few of them stayed in school for long).

Pupils goals in life were quite transparent - to spend school years hanging out with their fellows, then go to some design college, marry someone of their set and move to California. The schools educational level was quite consistent with these objectives. The teachers wrote with grammatical errors and stated that women had more ribs than men, because it was written so in the Bible. The school information stands did not have any photos of children actually studying - they all swam, danced and dined in the open air.

Communication with parents from other American schools in Korea proved that all of the above was not a particular characteristic of our school. This is a system-wide problem with disappointing correlations: cheaper schools have even worse level of education, while more expensive schools see even more shameless pupils.

School at the Russian Embassy

After another encounter with this antipode world, my husband and I suddenly had a simultaneous thought: Maybe we should send her to a Russian school… It certainly won't be worse." Fortunately, my daughter, who was born and raised in Australia, speaks Russian well. Furthermore, while in Korea, she attended home classes where a Russian teacher taught the Russian elementary school curriculum to a small group of children. We were surprised that our daughter who studied at the most disorganized school was happy to do all the homework given in the group. She wrote old-fashioned sticks and memorized poetry, and she did it without any pressure from our side. Our suggestion to study in a Russian school on a permanent basis was welcomed by her with unabashed joy.

Russian Embassy School in Seoul

It turned out that we were not the only parents who thought that way. Many of our compatriots have been on the waiting list for the embassy school for years. But we got lucky - there was a place in the third grade, and I went to apply.

When I approached the school, two Russian girls came out of it. They were about twelve years old with lovely faces and neatly combed heads. Hello, they greeted me and kept walking. I am ashamed to admit it, but tears came to my eyes. Over the years that my child spent in the Korean-American environment, I got used to see children around who were shaggy and in crumpled uniforms. And they did not greet anybody, even if they had visited your house the day before. And suddenly it turned out that my husband and I are not kind of backward people who do not understand modern realities: normal children do exist and even speak our native language.

And then studies began. And we saw how our daughter became radiant being surrounded by normal people and normal human values. Russians, Koreans, Bulgarians, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Belarusians study together, and it never comes to anyones head to bully a person for a different skin color. Helping a South Korean classmate who does not speak Russian well is a way things are done, and it happens quite naturally, without crying about "multiculturalism" and "interethnic tolerance." There are various relations between children, just as in any community there are those they are closer with and those they relate cooler to, there are personal quarrels and frustration, but there is not even a hint of factionalism and bullying.

You can totally drive up to the gate in an old car without risking to embarrass your child, and the children going to school will greet you just as warmly.

- Do you need new sneakers? I asked, accustomed to buying new branded shoes every two or three months (it was the only way for children in the American school to show off since they wore uniforms, and I - alas - succumbed to the general pressure).

- Why, these ones are enough for me. Nobody pays attention to such things here.

But they do pay attention to something else who does well in studies. Getting good grades is a usual practice at the school, and this, of course, is attributable to the teachers and the general study-oriented atmosphere of the school where children come to work, not to hang out.

You wont see adherents of any super advanced pedagogical methods or personalities sparkling with eccentricity among the teachers of the embassy school. Those are the characters that the Soviet cinematography once presented in abundance. There are good specialists working at the school, they are craft professionals and carry out their duties in good faith.

Some teachers are softer with children, others are stricter; some of them are loved more, while others are loved, but a little less; however, they work all together as a well-tuned machine. The end of one good teacher's assignment means that another teacher will come to replace him/her and work just as well.

Our daughter grew weary of never-ending fireworks in the American school (why dont we go head over heels on the floor, or let us sing on a bench in the park, then have a free discussion, or let us arrange a week of sports anything will do to avoid studies), so the calm and balanced educational process in the Russian school suited her perfectly... Scope and consistency of knowledge never failed to amaze us. The girl learned well and knew so much in mathematics, biology, history. Our eldest daughter, who had been an excellent student in a good Australian school, could not even dream of such wide range of knowledge during her school years.

Graduates of the embassy school, acquaintances of ours, went to the best Moscow universities and were qualified for a government scholarship. That made our daughter increasingly enthusiastic in studies.

We were afraid that the she would forget English due to the lack of daily communication in English. However, she even improved it through Skype lessons with a native speaker. Her Mexican teachers and Korean classmates spoke much worse.

My daughter was accustomed to democratic manners of a Western school with all those teachers' smiles ("High five!", "Let's hug!") and nonstop approval. So at first I was worried if the child would be able to adapt to the externally reserved attitude and straightforward system of seniority of the Russian school, where a teacher is senior to a student and a non-achiever is not equal to an excellent student. It turned out that there was simply no problem at all. Our daughter had understood informal system of seniority in the Western environment much better than us and took it for granted. And the Russian system of seniority did not insult her dignity in any way. She easily integrated into this world that was new for her and accepted its rules.

All these years we have been grateful to our lucky stars for bringing us to the Russian school. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, the embassy school has been temporarily closed for those who do not live in the embassy, and there is no information on when it will open. The school is small, and it is not possible to arrange teaching in the remote mode for everyone.

We do hope to return there, but for now we are going to make it with Russian online education. Our daughter refuses to go back to the American school.

Some thoughts thereupon

Despite the fact that education in English obviously dominates in the modern world and there seems to be nothing to challenge it because the might, that is the American GNP, goes before the right, the situation is actually more complicated. Many of our compatriots live in countries where education in English is either unavailable or of poor quality, and there are a lot of issues with education in a local language.

South Korea is one of such countries. Education in local schools is not bad here. However, despite discussing multiculturalism for years, Korean school environment remains one of the most closed and discriminatory for foreigners. A foreign childs situation in elementary school is still tolerable, but starting from the fifth grade, foreign children are pushed out of the Korean environment. Fluency in the Korean language, Korean ethnicity, familys sincere focus on assimilation, or a decent financial situation will not be of any help. You are rejected like an extraneous object.

This sudden social rejection is a shocking and painful discovery for parents. Only yesterday their child ran around the yard with Koreans, but today s/he suddenly comes with bruises and spends evenings playing with a dog at home. Many of parents try to ignore a problem as they don't see a way out of it or attempt to find its reasons in the childs behaviour.

And there are no reasons. Two horrendous incidents of recent years show that the Korean school is dangerous for foreigners simply because they are foreigners. In one case, a half-Korean/half-Russian child was thrown from the 15th floor by Korean classmates for his 'non-Korean appearance'. And an Uzbek boy was hospitalized after the beatdown by his classmates.

There is no way out of this situation for most members of the Russian-speaking community. With all their disadvantages, schools with English language of instruction have stratospheric prices: the annual cost in our 'third most expensive' school was equal to the cost of a good car. And here the Russian school can be very helpful. It has advantages that are still little understood in Russia.

To start with, the Russian school remains free from national discrimination. Nobody cares about your ethnicity here. If you respect those around you, abide by general rules, and do not create national gangs or try to impose your religion, you will be well accepted.

Another point is quality of education. The Russian school is usually critisized for endless reforms and the notorious unified national exam. However it provides a rather high-quality consistent classical education following legacy of the very Prussian gymnasium, which was the foundation for its predecessors, schools of the Russian Empire and the USSR, to grow upon.

Today such education in English is available to the elite only. It is expensive and is not provided everywhere. Speaking of Canberra, such an education cannot be acquired for any money. My eldest daughter's academic success in Canberrawas significantly attributable to Russian textbooks, which we used for her additional studies until about the sixth grade.Thus, the Russian school is a potent soft power tool abroad for both our compatriots and foreigners.

However, mere financial and licensing support to private Russian schools abroad is insufficient for this soft power to be efficient. There are such schools in South Korea, but they are not very popular. Despite their enthusiasm and diligence, individual entrepreneurs abroad are simply unable to establish educational institutions of proper level so parents could place confidence in them when it comes to childrens future.

Parents abroad will choose a Russian school if it is high-end governmental and the RF-established school at embassies, consulates or state-supported centers of Russian culture. Certified teachers, professionals selected and sent from Russia should work in it. Parents abroad would not send their kids to a private 'back-yard shop' with random low-end migrant teachers.

Such schools could be the basis for additional educational courses and extra tuition in the evening time. They would be the perfect choice for those Russian-speaking children who go to local schools, but would like to study Russian, physics, mathematics or history according to the Russian curriculum. If such an opportunity existed in Canberra, when our eldest daughter studied there, we would have gladly used it. But - alas! - instead she attended a French cultural center.

Furthermore, Russias reputation abroad is strong and positive in such areas as computer science, sports dances, gymnastics, and music. Many foreign parents would surely take the opportunity for their children to learn from a real Russian pianist or Russian software developer.

Speaking of educational effects on a person, few public institutions are able to be as efficient as a school in this respect.

If Russias mission is to win compatriots to its side, then establishing a network of high-quality state Russian schools abroad is the best step in this direction. Kids rushing today to the gates of the embassy for a Russian lesson someday will work for the good of Russia.

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