Archive for February, 2010

Grandmothers in “The Whisperers” (Part III)

The following quotes show how far I’ve gotten in this book by Orlando Figes titled “The Whisperers.”  I need to carve out some time to finish it but there is no time right now, too much to do in our new city of Astana.  I’m finding out what a wonderful place this new place is compared to Almaty, Kazakshtan.  I already know that the Kazakhs are amazing people, their grandparents are/were even more incredible because of what they went through under the Soviet system.

p. 44 Grandmothers were also the main practitioners and guardians of religious faith.

p. 50 The peasantry’s attachment to individual family labor on the private household farm made it the last major bastion of individualism in Soviet Russia and in the view of the Bolsheviks, the main social obstacle to their Communist utopia.

p. 53 “God is in the sky and father in the house.” Meaning of a saying about a patriarchal family, the father is the head of the house.

p. 56 Polar explorers were portrayed as heroes in Soviet books and films, and during the 1920s, the Soviet government invested a large share of its scientific budget in geological surveys of potential mining operations in the Arctic zone.

p. 59 check out Dmitry Furmanov’s Chapaev ( 1925) a Soviet classic ready by every schoolchild.

p. 68 Moscow’s Jewish population grew from 15,000 in 1914 to a quarter of a million 25,000 (the cities second largest ethnic group) in 1937.  The Jews flourished in the Soviet Union.  They made up a large proportion of the elite in the Party, the bureaucracy the military command and the police.  Judging from the memoirs of the period, there was relatively little anti-Semitism or discrimination…

“We did not want to think of ourselves as Jews nor did we want to be Russians though we lived in Russia and were steeped in its culture.  We thought of ourselves as Soviet Citizens.”

p. 81 “Collectivization was the great turning point in Soviet history.  It destroyed a way of life that had developed over many centuries – a life based on the family farm, the ancient peasant commune, the independent village and its church and the rural market, all of which were seen by the Bolsheviks as obstacles to socialist industrialization.  Millions of people were uprooted from their homes and dispersed across the Soviet Union: runaways from collective farms, victims of the famine the resulted from the over-requisitioning of kolkhoz grain; orphaned children, ‘kulaks’ and their family.  This nomadic population became the main labor force of Stalin’s industrial revolution, filling the cities and industrial building sites

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“The Whisperers” (Part II)

Here’s a continuation of yesterday’s blog about Orlando Figes’ book titled “The Whisperers.”  I love some of his quotes because whatever he uncovered from his research about Russian families is even more true about Kazakh families.

p. 1 “In these circles, where every Bolshevik was expected to subordinate his personal interests to the common cause, it was considered ‘philistine’ to think about one’s personal life at a time when the Party was engaged in the decisive struggle for the liberation of humanity.”

p. 3-4 “In their utopian vision the revolutionary activist was the prototype of a new kind of human being – a ‘collective personality’ living only for the common good – who would populate the future Communist society.”

p. 4 “According to the Bolsheviks, the idea of ‘private life’ as separate from the realm of politics was nonsensical, for politics affected everything; there was nothing in a person’s so-call ‘private life’ that was not political. The personal sphere should thus be subject to public supervision and control.”

p. 8 “As the Bolsheviks saw it, the family was the biggest obstacle to the socialization of children.  ‘By loving a child, the family turns him into a egotistical being, encouraging him to see himself as the centre of the universe.’ Wrote the Soviet educational thinker Zlata Lilina.

p. 14-15 The Bolshevik idealists of the 1920s made a cult of this Spartan way of life.  They inherited a strong element of asceticism from the revolutionary underground, the source of their values and their principles in the early years of the Soviet regime.  The rejection of material possessions was central to the culture and ideology of the Russian socialist intelligentsia…in the Bolshevik aesthetic it was philistine to lavish attention on the decoration of one’s home.”

p. 20 “…to inculcate in them the public values of a Communist society. ‘The young person should be taught to think in terms of “we” and all private interests should be left behind.” Anatoly Lunacharsky, the Commissar for Education, 1918

Political indoctrination was geared towards producing activists.  The propaganda image of the ideal child was a precocious political orator mouthing agitprop.

p. 22 “A pioneer of Soviet pedagogical theories and a close associate of Krupskaia in her educational work…her theories were derived largely from the ideas of Pyotr Lesgaft.

p. 24 schoolfriend’s comradeship – “we had no need for calculated strategies or conspiracies, we lived according to an unwritten code: the only thing that mattered was loyalty to our comrades.

p. 25 oath learned by heart “I, a Young Pioneer of the Soviet Union, before my comrades do solemnly swear to be true to the precepts of Lenin, to stand firmly for the cause of our Communist Party and for the cause of Communism.”

p. 27 “According to the psychologist and educational theorist A.B. Zalkind, the Party’s leading spokesman on the social conditioning of the personality, the aim of the Pioneer movement was to train ‘revolutionary-Communist fighters fully freed from the class poisons of bourgeois ideology.”

Subbotniki = voluntary work which was really Saturday labor campaigns, not just days but weeks were set aside when the population would be called upon to work without pay.

p. 29 “Members of the Komsomol were supposed to put their loyalty to the Revolution above their loyalty to the family…it provided volunteers for Party work as well as spies and informers ready to denounce corruption and abuse….members were charged with exposing ‘class enemies’ among parents and teachers and as if in training for the job, took part in mock trials of ‘counter-revolutionaries’ in schools and colleges.

p. 30 ‘abolish individualism’ in moral terms too, they were absolutists, struggling to break free of the old conventions…Those who showed off or complained were called rotten intellectuals. “Rotten intellectuals’ was one of the most insulting labels.  Only “self-seeker” was worse.”

p. 32 However, the children of Party members had a well-developed sense of entitlement.

p. 33 “Whatever the case, Communist morality left no room for the Western notion of the conscience as a private dialogue with the inner self.  The Russian word for “conscience” in this sense (sovest) almost disappeared from official use after 1917.  It was replaced by the word soznatel’nost’ which carries the idea of consciousness or the capacity to reach a higher moral judgement and understanding of the world.  In Bolshevik discourse soznatel’nost’ signified the attainment of a higher moral-revolutionary logic, that is, Marxist-Leninist ideology.

p. 37 “Everything in the Party member’s private life was social and political; everything he did had a direct impact on the Party’s interests…Yet in reality this mutual surveillance did just the opposite: it encouraged people to present themselves as conforming to Soviet ideals whilst concealing their true selves in a secret private sphere.  Such dissimulation would become widespread in the Soviet system, which demanded the display of loyalty and punished the expression of dissent.  During the terror of the 1930s, when secrecy and deception became necessary survival strategies for almost everyone in the Soviet Union, a whole new type of personality and society arose. But this double-life was already a reality for large sections of the population in the 1920s

p. 41 “For the older generation the situation posed a moral dilemma; on the one hand, they wanted to pass down family traditions and beliefs to their children; on the other, they had to bring them up as Soviet citizens.”

In the words of the poet Vladimir Kornilov “it seemed that in our years there were no mothers, There were only grandmothers.

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Quotes from Preface to “The Whisperers”

I haven’t finished reading yet The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia by Orlando Figes but I have really enjoyed reading the first third of this very detailed book describing the brokenness in many Russian families.  However, this is about Russia and the author is a Russophile to the exclusion of other countries and cultures who suffered as much, if not more, than the Russians did during Stalin’s reign of terror. [My own comments are in brackets, I can’t help myself!!!]

Preface 31 “A silent and conformist population is one lasting consequence of Stalin’s reign. [wow, how’s that for leaving a legacy of brokenness?]

Pre 32 “Historians have been slow to enter the inner world of Stalin’s Russia.  Until recently, their research was concerned mostly with the public sphere, with politics and ideology and with the collective experience of the “soviet masses.”  The individual – in so far as he appeared at all – featured mainly as a letter-writer to the authorities (i.e. as a public actor rather than as a private person or family member).  The private sphere of ordinary people was largely hidden from view. [the same might be written about the culture of Kazakhstan where writing was not as important as telling stories orally, they DO have stories, just not in the written form!!!]

Pre 33 “But while these memoirs speak a truth for many people who survived the Terror, particularly for the intelligentsia strongly committed to ideals of freedom and individualism, they do not speak for the millions of ordinary people, including many victims of the Stalinist regime, who did not share this inner freedom or feeling of dissent, but on the contrary, silently accepted and internalized the system’s basic values, conformed to its public rules and perhaps collaborated in the perpetration of its crimes.” [I suppose there are Kazakhs who did conform and even perpetrated some of the Soviet crimes among their own people…I have heard stories]

Pre 34 “According to some, it was practically impossible for the individual to think or feel outside the terms defined by the public discourse of Soviet politics, and any other thoughts or emotions were likely to be felt as a ‘crisis of the self’ demanding to be purged from the personality.”

“The Soviet mentalities reflected in this book in most cases occupied a region of the consciousness where older values and beliefs had been suspended or suppressed; they were adopted by people, not so much from a burning desire to ‘become Soviet’ as from a sense of shame and fear.” [using fear is a terrible motivation to change, can still be used in teaching practices today]

Pre 35 “…a way to make sense of their suffering, which without this higher purpose might reduce them to despair…

Such mentalities are less often reflected in Stalin-era diaries and letters – whose content was generally dictated by Soviet rules of writing and propriety what did not allow the acknowledgement of fear – than they are in oral history.  Historians of the Stalinist regime have turned increasing to the techniques of oral history. Like any other discipline that is hostage to the tricks of memory, oral history has its methodological difficulties, and in Russia, a nation taught to whisper, where the memory of Soviet history is overlaid with myths and ideologies, these problems are especially acute.” [sad but true]

Having lived in a society where millions were arrested for speaking inadvertently to informers, many older people are extremely wary of talking to researchers wielding microphones (devices associated with the KGB).  From fear or shame or stoicism, these survivors have suppressed their painful memories.  Many are unable to reflect about their lives, because they have grown so accustomed to avoiding awkward questions about anything, not least their own moral choices at defining moments of their personal advancement in the Soviet system.  Others are reluctant to admit to actions of which they are ashamed, often justifying their behaviour by citing motives and beliefs that they have imposed on their pasts.  Despite these challenges, and in many ways because of them, oral history has enormous benefits for the historian of private life, provided it is handled properly. [Yes, let’s hear it for oral history and qualitative research!!!]

Pre 36 “For three quarters of a century the Soviet system exerted its influence on the moral sphere of the family, no other totalitarian system had such a profound impact on the private lives of its subjects, not even Communist China. [wow, that’s pretty bad!!!]

Check out http://www.orlandofiges.com

Pre 37 “The population of the Gulag’s labour camps and ‘special settlements’ peaked not in 1938 but in 1953 and the impact of this long reign of terror continued to be felt by millions of people for many decades after Stalin’s death.” [that’s a LOT of people who were affected by Stalin and his regime of terror, even after his death!]

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“Competence of a Nation” (Part III)

I think the writing of these English teachers from Kazakhstan are helpful to know that they are VERY aware what needs to change in the educational systems they have inherited from the former Soviet Union.  The younger people with ideas and energy can make a difference. This young 20 something, Kazakh woman admitted the following:

“Kazakhstan is one of the developing countries.  It is just entering the world educational field.  It has been changing its paradigms of education.  It is very difficult to accept and inculcate the new technologies of developed countries to our system of education, because of long established old ways of teaching.  As a result, most classes are conducted in traditional ways that were taking place during Soviet Union.”

Another woman in her early 20s from southwestern Kazakhstan had a more positive spin despite her disability:

“At the age of 22, I consider myself to be one of the happiest individuals in the world because I have health, family and education.  I am fortunate to hold the position of a teacher at the university, and of having the opportunity to teach smart students who have what it takes to realize their dreams and live life to the fullest. Every single day students impress me with their congeniality, desire to know everything and worldwide outlook.  I am committed to my work because I believe it is important.

But sometimes I felt that they deserved a more experienced teacher who could give them more than I am able.  These thoughts captured my mind especially when I realized that I was not able to teach because of a speech impairment that resulted from an operation.  There were moments when I wanted to give up with everything, feeling like an invalid because of an inaccurate diagnosis of our ‘qualified’ medical officers…My life to date has prepared me for dealing with many obstacles and also shown me the strength, determination and optimism that I consider to be a part of my character.”

One more thought about education in Kazakshtan:

“…Education is something modern society cannot progress without.  The quality of education in a country determines its further development.  My strong belief is that any investments in education eventually pay off.

My country is currently changing its educational standards from those that existed during the Soviet Union times to those that exist nowadays in the western society.  But as those standards have not been designed for our society and mentality and the whole system is rather new for us, we are experiencing some difficulties.  It is clear that we cannot simply take the new system and apply it to our reality, and our government has developed some guidelines to facilitate the process of adapting to the innovations.  However, we do not have any institutions that would teach higher education administration and management techniques, that would give us knowledge we would be able to rely on in reality.”

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“Competence of a Nation” Part II

The following quotes are from two women from Pavlador, in northern Kazakhstan. They are in their mid-20s, and have their own views about education which helps explain what is currently happening in Kazakhstan.

“There is an opinion that “Pedagogic as a science has not been born yet.” The Student of today is not the same as he/she was a hundred or even twenty years ago.  It means pedagogy must change and develop together with the student….Problems of education in the twenty-first century and new millennium become priority target in the whole world because they define the future of each country separately and the planet at large.  Teacher’s activity has never been so difficult, never competed with global informational system.  In connection with it, there is a keen necessity to help school teachers to orient in tendencies of Global Education development and modern demands to education.  Education of today is making completely different demands to teachers.

The first president of Kazakhstan entered such definition as “Competence of a Nation.”  I think competence of the country defines that prosperous conditions promoting competence of each person.  Following the statement, “If you want to change the world, change yourself.” Everyone should achieve better results and be the winner.  Our competence in general taken together will be national wealth.  There is a deep sense in it.  Kazakhstan has not only mercantile interests but spirit enrichment of a nation.  As I am a citizen of Kazakshtan, I should and want to contribute to the development of my country.  Becoming adult, you realize the real sense of the word “patriot,” you realize the real value of the native language.  You try to follow all the traditions and customs.  You appreciate wrinkled faces of old people where all historical events are reflected.  Growth of culture and art, the Kazakh language, traditions and life philosophy will follow prosperity of economics.

During my work at school, I witnessed undesirable teaching styles.  They can be described as following a rigid, chalk-and-talk, teacher centered, lecture driven pedagogy or rote learning.  Such pedagogy places students in a passive role, limiting their activity to memorizing facts and reciting them to the teacher.  It is also reflected in classroom assessment practices…Kazakhstan needs young specialists who will be able to move and change the old trends into the new, progressive ones.”

More thoughts on the present reality in Kazakhstan from another woman from Pavlador:

“The problem of overburdened teachers and bored students is because of the growth in secondary education in recent years.  The result is overcrowded classrooms filled with teenagers from diverse social and cultural backgrounds.  There are two questions that arise:  Whose problem is this and whether the education is the business of the whole world or merely a concern for developing countries?

We lack skilled specialists that can motivate the administration of schools, teachers to display a keen interest in developing, improving the system of special education.  The problem is that of ignorance and big gaps in it are increasing rather than decreasing.”

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“Competence of a Nation” depends on Education

The following thoughts on Education were written by a woman from the Zhambul area, she is about my age.  Consequently, she has witnessed different forms of educating the young people of Kazakhstan over the years, before the fall of the Soviet Union and afterwards. I’m not sure what her sources were, but she has some compelling quotes from the President of this nation concerning education.  Seems to be uppermost in all of our minds these days…

“According to statistics, 1,800,000 school children in Kazakhstan are mastering the English language.  14,500 school teachers are available but they don’t know the requirements of modern life as teachers.  The Ministry of Education and Science of Kazakhstan has asked the government to allocate more funds for attracting foreign specialists to teach English. “Accordingly, my country needs suitable professionals who use the best methods in teaching English, at the same time who are ready for constant changes of the contemporary life.”

“Educational system reforms of my country are setting new tasks before the universities, realization of which is impossible without the most competitive, innovative, qualified instructors who are able to improve study process and who can be in step with the times.”

“In his Message” our President highlights on the role of educational policy for implementing ambitious tasks.  Joining the most competitive fifty countries of the world will be carried out due to human capital which is in the first place created in the sphere of education and bringing up young generation. New educational reforms need administrative employees who are good at leading, managing and regulating courses of educational changes and who are always in great demand as specialists.”

Every teacher in Kazakhstan understands why our President focuses a lot on “contemporary education” with the help of which Kazakhstani specialists will be demanded in the world market.  The question is – how to achieve it? Are our universities ready for training such kind of specialists? Unfortunately, not all of them have the necessary material and technical, financial and intellectual resources to meet the world standards.”

“In Kazkahstan, credit technology system hasn’t been fully launched at universities except several ones, that’s why we face difficulties…we’re short of good management and curriculum development. On the other hand, our President set a huge task before the Kazakhstani people – every citizen must know three languages including English, there should be fast, easy and assessable ways of teaching for different ages…

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Cogent Thoughts on Education from a Kazakh-Korean Friend

The following thoughts are from a Kazakh-Korean friend of mine who already has a law degree.  Aliya is currently studying in the U.S. at the School of Education at Vanderbilt College in Tennessee.  I’m eager to get more of her cogent thoughts on how she would compare her experience of post-Soviet system of learning to that of the American style.  We had a delightful chat over Skype the other day, when it was about 2:00 a.m. for her while it was 2:00 in the afternoon for me.  She shared with me what she was learning about cultural diversity concerning autonomy and the collective group think.  I queried her more between Kazakh and American cultural differences.  She is a wealth of information, a valuable resource in the up and coming generation who will change Kazakhstan for the better. She is one of the best of the best, and she counts me as her friend.

“I still remember the time when I was in secondary school in Aktobe city, all my thirty classmates including myself had exactly the same subjects to study.  Everyone struggled.  Some couldn’t understand literature, some—math.  I personally had difficulty to study chemistry as my strengths were in history, languages, grammar, literature, painting and music.  Even in my young age, I didn’t like the fact that everyone was taught in the same way by the same methods in spite of our talents and interests.  Ever since I was a schoolgirl, I cherished a strong desire to change existing school system.  I knew education should help a person to develop his potential and talents, but not to make him feel as “another regular pupil” with identical personality and strengths.

I enjoy being part of transformation process and relationships with different persons.  The backward teaching methodology and prevailing Soviet pedagogical ideology have stopped Kazakh education from the modern international development.  I, as a cell of new developing State structure, can make a difference. Young generation defines the future of economical, cultural, scientific and political growth of Kazakhstan.  In my personal experience, despite the fact that some of the issues I face in my educational career can be resolved by consulting relevant information through literature, I found that more serious flaws inherent in Kazakh current educational system that can’t be worked out easily.

A saying: “Some people dream of accomplishments while others stay awake and do them.” I truly believe that we need to stand for doing accomplishments to make changes in our society.

There are a lot of facts that cause poor quality of education such as: lack of sufficient finances form the government (it doesn’t allow universities to have necessary equipment and materials.  For example, USA funds 5-6% of its GDP to education, when Kazakhstan funds only 2-3% of GDP), lack of experienced professors staff (many of them still hold to old Soviet methods), lack of information materials, literature, Internet development, electronic databases, lack of students’ responsibility towards their society and future.  Kazakh education is waiting for progressive modification.  The first and most important change comes from mentality of human beings. In order to make significant changes, we need to change ourselves.

The current situation and business world reality dictates to the graduated students: “When you start working, forget what you studied! Let’s start over!”  It is affected by the strong gap between academic university knowledge and practical skills required by public and business institutions.  Out-of-date Soviet educational methods are practiced even after 17 years of independence of Kazakhstan.

I am also concerned about wide habit of “cheating” among Kazakh students at the exams and tests.  Their mentality doesn’t allow them to see the importance of gaining knowledge.  Students use this practice in 80% cases without realizing they are cheating on themselves and their future.  I truly believe – education defines who we are and who we become.

Russian proverb:  “One person is not a warrior in the battle field.” But I believe every single person matters.  I think step by step progressive people of Kazakhstan can change the nation to the better, including education.  My deep-longing dream is to change the world to the better.  Education is one of the tools to fulfill it.”

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