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Russia's 'Barometer of Planet' Feels the Heat

School near Moscow was once model of international learning. Now it struggles as an orphanage.

Ivanovo, a small textile-producing city 140 miles northeast of Moscow, is known today mostly as a particularly depressing example of post-Soviet economic collapse.

But in its Soviet heyday, it was renowned as an incubator of worldwide Communist revolution.

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From 1933 until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Stasova International Boarding School in Ivanovo taught the sons and daughters of Communist leaders from around the world. Chairman Mao's son studied here, as did the son of Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito.

Nowadays, the school only takes in new students, mainly orphans, from Russia and the former Soviet republics. But the 30 or so teenagers sent here as small children from countries as diverse as Angola, Iraq, and China have stayed in Ivanovo to finish their studies.

On any given night, a cacophony of rap music from competing boom boxes shakes the walls of dormitories where 162 Stasova students, half of the school population, live.

Inside, boys' rooms are plastered with Michael Jordan posters and pinups of swimsuit models. For their part, the girls seem to favor Hollywood movie stars.

The myths surrounding this onetime elite boarding school are still sacred to some here, despite the death of the communist ideals the school was founded on.

"The people of Ivanovo were very ideological back then," says Sofia Kuznetsova, who has taught here for 30 years.

First opened to house German Communist students fleeing Hitler, the school later took in students from Spain, China, Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East. Over the years, the school came to be known locally as the "barometer of the planet," because the makeup of its student body so closely mirrored the battles to spread Soviet communism around the globe.

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Ms. Kuznetsova admits the motives for taking the children were not purely altruistic. "I don't think it is pure chance that the children of these [Communist] leaders were allowed to come here," she says. "How would Mao and Tito make waves, knowing that their sons were in Stalin's hands?"

In Stalin's time, ideological training was pervasive, but later dropped to mere window-dressing, says teacher Valentina Chereshneva. "The ideology existed on paper more than it ever did in real life.... We always taught the children that the main thing was that they all had to learn together here. For the past 10 years there hasn't been any ideology at all."

Samurei, an 11th grader from Guinea-Bissau, says, "They really didn't do that much to try and indoctrinate us. There were a lot of kids who studied here who were always telling their friends that they thought communism was stupid. Of course, you could still get in trouble here for being too open about it."

Today's handful of remaining international students is more likely to be concerned with such goals as finding a way to pay for further study at a Russian university, and then getting a good job.

"I haven't seen my parents since I left Africa," says Samurei, "I don't know whether they are dead or alive."

After a moment's reflection, he adds, "In some ways it is good living without your parents - you understand more about life and how to fend for yourself."

"Some of us don't even miss our parents at all anymore," claims Hussein, who is from Iraq.

For students like Hussein and Samurei, their teachers and fellow students are a sort of surrogate family. There is obvious pride in the friendships that have formed between students whose countries have been at war.

"Hussein is like a brother to me," says Nimo, an Iranian.

Mixed with the pride is a feeling of regret that in a few years time, the last international students will have left.

"The old international atmosphere that was so prevalent here is slowly fading," says art teacher Svetlana Smirnova.

"The internationalism is what attracted me to this school in the first place," she adds. "The fact that nobody ever criticized somebody else for their race or the country they came from. It makes me sad that there will be less diversity now."

The school's most recent admissions list reflects the problems of present-day Russia. Instead of Argentina or China, new students come from places such as restive Chechnya or the central Russian cities of Tula and Vologda. Most are orphans, war refugees, or children of alcoholic parents.

"Even within Russia, we are taking fewer kids from the more distant cities nowadays, because there's not enough money to pay for the tickets to get them here," says Aleftin Kuzminsky, the school's director.

Once lavishly funded by the Soviet Communist Party's international committee, the Stasova school now depends on the Russian Red Cross. Finances are so tight that staff members have not received their pay - averaging about $60 a month - for more than half a year, a situation that is prompting strike calls among teachers.

"We created a miniature model of the way the world should be," says Ms. Chereshneva, a leader of the strike committee.

"We showed the students that they could live in peace with each other," she says. "It is only because of this idea that the teachers are staying here now."

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