A Moscow Maverick's Time Arrives
IDEOLOGY has never been very important to Anatoly Shikman, yet symbols of the Soviet Union and the country's communist legacy are prominently featured in his high school classroom.
A bas-relief portrait of Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union, still hangs on the wall next to the blackboard, while a red velvet flag, also bearing Lenin's likeness, stands in a glass case not far from Mr. Shikman's desk. Though opposed to their presence, Shikman says he's not in a rush to dismantle the Lenin symbols: "They were put there a long time ago. Now we have more important things to do than take them down."
For Shikman, the most important thing is teaching objectively - something that hasn't always been easy in the 20 years since he first started giving history lessons. Ignoring ideology has caused trouble for Shikman on more than one occasion in his career. But former President Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of perestroika (restructuring), followed by the demise of the Soviet Union and the Communist Party, freed Shikman once and for all from the political constraints of the past. And now he is clearly thriving .
"The fact that I can teach freely isn't necessarily the result of perestroika. I always taught as I thought," he says. "But now I have more access to information."
On a recent gray and bitter- cold January day, the atmosphere was lively and warm in Shikman's classroom at School No. 45 in southeast Moscow. The teacher seemed unable to remain in one place for more than a few seconds as he lectured on the period between Russia's February Revolution in 1917 and the Bolshevik coup in November of the same year.
Racing around the front of the room, enthusiasm ringing in his voice, Shikman sparked a sharp debate among his pupils by asking them to compare the Russian provisional government of 1917 with the current administration of President Boris Yeltsin.
Students, who voted Shikman "teacher of the month" last September, say his provocative teaching methods are a big reason why they are interested in history. "He gives us the opportunity to decide for ourselves what to think," says 15-year-old Alana Kotsoyeva. Listening to 'enemy radio'
Challenging students to make up their own minds was tantamount to heresy just seven years ago in the pre-Gorbachev Soviet Union. During the years of Communist Party rule, political considerations were paramount in the training of future generations. But Shikman says that never deterred him: "I was convinced, as a teacher, that I shouldn't just recite historical facts, but also explain them."
In the early 1970s, when he first started to teach, Shikman found the textbooks inadequate and newspapers devoid of meaning. So he asked his class to listen to the Voice of America and the British Broadcasting Corporation radio news. "I told them that after listening we'll compare the versions of our press with the Western press and then we'll try to figure out what's going on," he says.
It wasn't long before Shikman was rebuked for encouraging his students to listen to "enemy radio" and transferred to another school. At the second school he was closely supervised and forced to leave within a year. He found subsequent teaching jobs, but was unable to keep them for more than two years at a time. "The officials kept interfering, saying my teaching methods were wrong - a dangerous influence on children," Shikman says.
During his time of teaching troubles, Shikman was able to survive by his work as a historian and archivist. A specialist in 17th- and 18th-century Russian history, he wrote articles for such scholarly journals as Soviet Bibliography, and he published several books on historical topics. Being a full-time historian, he says, is more interesting to him than teaching. He became a teacher primarily because he thought it would be the best way to advance his career as a historian, he adds.
Six years ago, Shikman's teaching fortunes permanently changed for the better when he landed a part-time job at School No. 45, which enjoys the reputation of being one of the finest schools in the Russian capital. School No. 45's principal of 30 years, Leonid Milgram, recognized Shikman's talents and gave him the freedom he needed.
"He's not a typically thinking man. He's a personality," says Mr. Milgram. "He adapts easily and finds a common language with students of all ages."
Shikman says it's easier to relate to the more open students of today than it was to pupils of a decade ago. "What's appeared in kids is honesty. They say what they think," he says. In the past, "Children often didn't say things because of self-censorship. Life experience was telling them not to be open about their true feelings."
Milgram says there is a desperate need for more teachers of Shikman's caliber. "The greatest achievement of Soviet power was to give the people wide access to education," Milgram says. "But it required a great amount of teachers and that, in turn, lowered standards."
In addition, although the Commonwealth of Independent States has eclipsed the Soviet Union and democracy is slowly replacing the totalitarian system, schools still must use textbooks full of outdated Communist dogma. New, de-politicized textbooks haven't been printed largely because of the economic crisis now battering the commonwealth. A search for better pay
To make matters worse, skyrocketing prices are forcing many top instructors to leave teaching in search of better-paying jobs in the budding private sector. "One has to love school and children these days in order to remain a teacher," Milgram says.
In Shikman's case, he receives a much higher salary than the average monthly teacher's wage of about 400 rubles ($4 at current exchange rates). Nevertheless, he says things are tough. "Teachers aren't the only ones affected," he says. "It's difficult for everyone. We're all getting by these days on reserves. Nobody is eating well."
If the economic crisis worsens and the current government is replaced by something more authoritarian, Shikman says he'd consider emigrating to the United States. Shikman's paternal grandfather happened to be an American who moved his family here from Cleveland in search of the socialist ideal. But Shikman doesn't speak English and says emigrating from Russia would be a "personal tragedy."
"I don't want to emigrate. I'll never be able to do what I can do here," he says, referring to his work as a teacher and historian. "But I have a wife and a daughter and I have to do what's best for them." Other articles in this series ran Nov. 4, Nov. 18, Dec. 2, Dec. 16, Dec. 30, and Jan. 21.