Friday, February 28, 2014


As avid readers of Soviet Roulette will recall, I recently launched a Russian history reading club at a center for troubled teenagers.  I wanted to use the book, Russian Short Stores from Pushkin to Buida, tell the story of modern Russian history to this group of young people.  On the way to my first session of the club, I called a friend to ask her what I might expect on the first day of class.  This friend had a lot of experience teaching the language arts to diverse groups of people.  But I forgot that she also had very specific experience teaching students who were ordered by one governmental agency or another to live away from home.  I asked her:  Was I being overly ambitious?  Would my students be able to relate to Russia?  Would they be able to handle difficult readings?  My friend gave me a lot of good advice.  She told me it would take some time to build up trust with a diverse community of learners.  Some were very gifted learners, others had severe learning disabilities:  but almost all would have issues related to abandonment, loss, betrayal, or victimization.

How bad off were some of these kids, I wondered?  She said I could expect to see children with all levels of reading ability, and all sorts of emotional and behavioral dispositions.  What was the worst I could expect from these students, in terms of the difficulties they had encountered before they arrived at a center such as the one I was getting to know? She gave me this story to tell me about the kinds of kids she would sometimes encounter in her work twenty years previously.  She said that in one particular culture, children frequently made "suicide pacts."  I started to express my horror but she interrupted me.  This wasn't the heart of the tragedy.  The fact was that the local society shunned anyone who didn't follow through with a suicide pact.  The survivor would inevitably be isolated, abused for having failed to meet his or her obligations to the lost friend.  And so it was that one young person was her a friend when that friend shot herself.  Worse was to come.  After witnessing the death, the traumatized teenager waited for adults, parents of the dead girl, to return.  When they did, they were so angered by what they perceived to be the betrayal their dead daughter that they locked the survivor away for a weekend, to share a room with the murdered girl for two days.  While this was perhaps an extreme form of tragedy, my friend said this was the type of experience some of her charges had experienced, either immediately prior to their arrival at a group home, or at some point in their troubled biographies.

 Knowing all this, I wondered whether I wasn't being overly ambitious, and accordingly I prepared to modify my lesson plan for the evening.  On the first day of class, I tried to demonstrate my interest in them by asking them open-ended questions about their interests, about their experience with reading, and about their existing knowledge of Russia.  The conversation was revealing insofar as I had not (but perhaps should have) guessed at the extent to which each of them bore some level of antipathy for school, and for reading in particularly.  Although the conversation was lively, and the students intelligent, very few of them could admit to any level of interest in history or literature.  Trying to broaden the conversation, I asked if people had ever learned something important from somebody who was different from them.  Perhaps my students didn't understand the question, but few expressed any interest in getting to know new people.  Moreover, almost nobody had even been out of the county. 

On the second day of class, I came prepared to talk about Pushkin's short story, "Queen of Spades."  However, I was not surprised when not a single student had read the story.  Fortunately, I had already resolved to focus more on a general discussion of concepts which are related, however loosely, to the story I had assigned so futilely.  That is to say, I wanted them to think about the nature of aristocracy but indeed autocracy.  The best I could do with this was to ask questions related to power.  Who rules in a society, and why?  What does the term aristocracy mean?  What is a peasant or serf?  How do societies change?  What kind of classes are there in America?  What is a citizen? What is a subject?  What rights do citizens have?  What rights, if any, does a subject have?  What is democracy?  The goal, of course, was to contrast modern American society with Russian society in the age of Pushkin.  However, the discussion was meant to suggest some similarities as well.  If nineteenth century Russian society was undemocratic and unfree, is American society entirely free of surveillance, censorship, and militarism? 

In two weeks this reading club with meet to discuss Mikhail Lermontov's "The Fatalist," drawn from his Hero of Our Times.  While I don't really expect anybody to have read the short work, I will once again try to get the students to engage in a general discussion which toggles back and forth between their lives, American politics and culture, and the Russian past.  In this case, we'll discuss military and aristocratic values in more detail.  We'll also some general philosophical questions about predestination and free will.  I can only hope that over time the Russian theme will germinate.  In the meantime, I am hoping that intelligent conversation about social science will have a value in helping these students to see themselves as citizens rather than subjects of these United States.

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