Russia's elite used to be educated in France and Germany. Now its children eat custard in the private schools of England. Rachel Polonsky asks whether this will make any difference to the course of Russian historyby Rachel Polonsky / December 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Human history,” HG Wells once remarked, is “more and more a race between education and catastrophe.” But in Russian history education has often been the midwife of catastrophe.
The western education of its elites has long been a cause of Russian culture’s self-estrangement. Peter the Great’s decision to send selected members of the aristocracy to the west for their education resulted in what Isaiah Berlin calls “a wound inflicted on Russian society.” These men were to learn, and bring home, “the languages of the west and the various new arts and skills which sprang from the scientific revolution of the 17th century.” The young men returned to Russia “half-Russian, half-foreign,” says Berlin, “set above the people… cut off from them irrevocably.”
The Decembrist conspirators who attempted to assassinate the Tsar in Senate Square in 1825 were fired by their schooling in the classics. Models of Roman republican heroics inspired their mission to bring down the Russian Caesar. Their interrogators paid due recognition to the role of education in the affair when they asked to know where each of the conspirators had been raised: “If in a public institution what was the name of it? Where and when were you graduated? Who were your teachers?” they demanded.
In the wake of the French revolution, Russian rulers had begun to fear the effects of foreign ideas on their impressionable young aristocracy. Nicholas I thought it prudent to avoid France altogether and sent his nobility to Germany to be educated instead. The intellectual brew in Germany in the 1830s was, however, far headier than anything Russia might have feared from France. From their German teachers, young Russians learned to talk of the March of History and the Spirit of the Nation, and the mission of the educated individual to assist in their fulfilment. The intellectual descendants of this generation were the bomb-throwing, Marx-quoting nihilists and revolutionaries of the late 19th century who taught the west, in its turn, everything it needed to know about political terror.
Does Russia or the west have anything to fear from the fact that Russia’s next oligarchy or oppositional intelligentsia may now be forming in the private boarding schools of England? “The future of your children is in your hands!” runs the advertisement in Londonskii Courier, London’s Russian newspaper. The weight of these words can only be fully felt by parents raised under Soviet power. “Provide a secure future for your child-give him an education in England.” The arts, skills and languages of the west are as much in demand in Russia as ever and English private schools have become important dealers in the traffic of knowledge and culture. In Londonskii Courier advertisements for prep schools and exclusive agencies that specialise in finding “the right school for your child” significantly outnumber those for confidential property dealers, Harley Street cosmetic surgeons and Cartier watches. An English education has become the ultimate consumer product for new Russians. Even the family of the president has succumbed: Boris Yeltsin’s grandson started this year at Millfield School and was promptly instructed to shave off his moustache. History has its comic echoes: Peter the Great famously shaved the faces of his boyars as a first stage in making a western state of barbarian Russia.
New Russians who fear for their children’s safety at home have chosen to send them away to English boarding schools despite the establishment of a number of private schools in Moscow. English schools promise their new clientele teachers from Oxford and Cambridge, intensive English lessons, computer classes, up-to-date equipment, a balanced diet and medical care. No need for bullet-proof car windows or bodyguards on the schoolrun here. Some parents even choose to keep their children permanently abroad. Aleksei, who has gained most of his education in England, has not been back to Russia in five years. His mother fears for his life: “Everyone there knows who you are and how much you’ve got,” she explains. A Moscow restaurateur in sheepskins and gold watch sends his beautiful 17-year-old daughter Larissa to an international private college in Oxford, a quarter of whose students are now from the former Soviet Union. The presence of so many Russians can be a disincentive for parents of other nationalities, as well as for Russians themselves. Teachers in the college fear that the tone of the place may be compromised by the idle and decadent ways of some of these scions of the Russian gangster class, now as rich as they are rootless.
Chris McCabe of Edgecote English Education, an agency which promises wealthy Russians 100 per cent educational care for their children (including legal guardianship), is to set up a stall at an education exhibition in Kiev this month. According to McCabe, there are now at least 200 Russian children in traditional English boarding schools and the numbers are rising. The schools, especially those whose fortunes have been ailing in recent years, are eagerly making arrangements for their new pupils. For those who do not mind the idea of their child belonging to a Russian clique in an English school, there are those schools such as Repton, with “its history going back at least 400 years,” which have now engaged Russian staff to bridge the culture gap. Cobham Hall, which advertises itself in Russian as “one of the leading girls’ schools in Britain,” has set up a special centre for the teaching of English as a foreign language.
The advertisements appeal to a yearning for something older and finer than all the western glitter and trash that transfix nouveau riche Russia. Old boys Lord Byron and Sir Winston Churchill, the Englishmen Russians most revere, lure them now to Harrow. Edgecote English Education promotes its costly services with a photograph of the houses of parliament, symbol of the democratic traditions which have long inspired Russian anglophilia and which embodies the unfulfilled dreams of Russian political history. Gothic chapels, stately homes, the green of the English countryside; parliament and peace. Your child will be safe here, these pictures say, with our unbroken traditions of custard eating and cross-country runs in the rain; he will come out at the end with perfect manners and faultless English. He will be far away from the wilds of Moscow, that criminal city, now so intimate with violence against, and among, the rich.
Oxford and Cambridge feature unfailingly in the publicity materials of institutions remote from the ancient universities. “And the moonlight pours out over the prodigious fruit of a centuries-old culture, the lawn,” wrote Mikhail Kuzmin, a Russian poet of the early 20th century, “over the seedbed of tall, fair young men, football players who read Euripides in Greek, Oxford and Cambridge universities…” It is said that even now, when Russian sportsmen are faced with opponents from Oxford or Cambridge, their performance is inhibited by the fear of injuring their Euripides-reading heroes. One Russian friend, in Oxford for the first time, was appalled by the fact that the students slammed the doors of their rooms. “If I told my friends in Petersburg that Oxford students slam their doors, they would not believe me,” he told me gravely. I could not tell whether he was relieved, or yet more disillusioned, when it emerged that the students in question were not even English.
“The English, who serve as examples to all trading nations,” the Russian thinker Ivan Pnin observed almost 200 years ago, “consider punctiliousness the soul of commerce.” Now, when yet again “Russia’s trade is coming of age,” its new merchant class wishes to buy for its children the English virtues in which, against the odds, Russians still fervently believe. Myths of the past combine with hopes for the future in the lure that English schooling now exerts: the promise of high technology in Gothic halls.
The foreign education Russians consume in this generation will, one hopes, be more wholesome than in past centuries; the big ideas in the name of which young people plant bombs and plan assassinations have moved elsewhere. If Russian children go back this time with the good manners and up-to-date computer skills which these boarding schools advertise, perhaps education and catastrophe will, at last, in Russia, go their separate ways. That is, of course, if these children ever do go home.