The number of children from different countries is increasing in St. Petersburg’s multi-cultural classrooms. Tensions were high at a September 29 parent-teacher meeting in a Moscow-area school. The reason: in a sixth-grade class, children have been harassing two of their fellow classmates – an Armenian girl and an Azerbaijani boy. They have been chasing them home after school, shouting things like “Russia is for Russians!”
“Why are these children being so mean? I know this Armenian family and they are very respectable people,” said Anna, one of the mothers present at the meeting.
The school principal promised to “respond sternly” to the matter and asked to have a talk with the offending students’ parents. But Anna is not certain that this will stop the children from doing it again. “It seems to me that the parents think all they need to do is have a little talk with their children about it, but that’s not enough – it needs to be done both at home and at school,” she said.
Multi-national classes have been an increasingly common phenomenon in St. Petersburg schools within the past few years. In rural neighborhoods, the number of non-Russian students has grown by 50 percent.
Along with this, parents and teachers are facing new issues, such as how to teach children to respect people of different nationalities and cultures.
At School #462 in Pushkin, one-third of the children are Armenian, Azerbaijani, Ingush, Chechen, or Dagestani. According to school Principal Anton Petrochenko, some form of multicultural education, such as those in place in the West, needs to be introduced. “Our educational system is built almost entirely around Russian history and literature. We are now starting to develop special discussions, lessons, and other educational methods to acquaint students with different nationalities and their traditions. This is the only way to help make them more tolerant,” he said.
But just the teachers’ efforts won’t be enough. According to Petrochenko, when children exhibit such attitudes, it usually stems from their family and their upbringing. “Children imitate what they hear going on at home. Therefore it is usually most effective if parents start to change their behavior and pay attention to what they are saying in front of their children,” he said.
Larissa Rozmyslova, a Russian language and literature teacher at School #27, is writing her dissertation on how schoolchildren from different cultural backgrounds adapt to education in Russian schools. According to her, non-Russian children rarely get involved in conflicts and generally try to avoid them: “A prominent characteristic that most of these children have is their desire for leadership and perfection. In these families, the parents often tell the children that they need to strive to be better than Russian children in order to prove that they are not inferior because of their nationality.
They follow rules, obey the teacher, and are very hard-working.”
Teachers believe that, in order to avoid conflict between the children, their parents need to communicate with one another and to discuss the matter together at the school. Then the children will see that their parents are on friendly terms with one another and this will set a positive example.
A Classroom Where Everyone Gets Along
A journalist from “My Neighborhood” ascertained that it is possible to achieve mutual understanding in multiethnic classrooms after having visited the 9th grade Class “A” at School #120 in the Vyborg Region.
The other day, students returned from an excursion to Valaam and Kizhi. On the trip back, one of the girls started feeling ill. A short young boy named Kamo Sarkisyan came over and relieved her of her bag, hoisting it onto his shoulders to carry for her the rest of the way back. Alla Ovseeva, the class’s teacher, looks at the young Armenian boy with a smile – “Kamo is a gentleman, he’s growing up to be a good man,” she said.
Ovseeva’s class is also one of the friendliest. Amongst the Russian students, there are three Armenians: Kamo Sarkisyan, Karen Tsaturyan, and Artur Petrosyan, as well as a Moldavian girl Zhenya Koleda, and other children from mixed Russian-Caucasian backgrounds.
Borscht with Pita Bread
After school, the children from Class “A” head to the soccer field together or to someone’s house. At the hospitable Armenian homes, the children snack on pita bread or dolma, a Caucasian stuffed vegetable dish. At the Russian homes, its usually borscht or shchi, Russian cabbage soup.
Anton Podmazov and Kamo Sarkisyan have been friends since the first grade – they play computer games together at home and do their homework together. The center of attention in the class has become Karen Tsaturyan – he performs traditional Armenian dances, and he is also the strongest and most athletic. During a performance the class was organizing, when it called for a dancer to squat down while holding a girl in his arms, everyone in the class nominated Karen without hesitation.
Zhenya Koleda, a Moldavian, recently arrived to study in the school’s seventh grade glass. The quiet young girl has had to deal with separation from her home country and her friends. The boys tease her by calling her “Moldavashka.” Ovseeva lectured the boys over it until they stopped. Eventually, they accepted Zhenya as one of their own.
Principles of Education
“It’s hard for them to grasp the Russian language – they speak well, but don’t have enough of a natural understanding of it,” Ovseeva says. For example, student Artur Petrosyan once called green-headed cabbage “green-tailed” cabbage. If a student continues to have trouble, the teacher usually includes their father – in Caucasian families, fathers are the undisputed heads of the household. “I don’t have very strict classroom schedules or protocol when it comes to work,” Ovseeva says. “We take class trips, go to museums. Sometimes we get together at my house or at one of the student’s homes. The [Russian] children can learn some valuable things from the children from the Caucasus. They are always so positive and cheerful.”
This article was sent into SRAS by professor Jane Costlow of Bates College. Translation was performed by Erin Decker as part of our Russian Translation Abroad program. The original Russian was written by Tatyana Morozova and published by Мой Район. The insert from Erica Ong was contributed separately by Erica Ong.