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In his singular work on the character of the Russian people during the Soviet Era, The Russians, journalist Hedrick Smith notes, “Probably the sharpest blow to the spirit of education reform and experimentation in recent years was the emasculation of Phys-Mat School No. 2 in Moscow in 1971-1972.”  Phys-Mat 2 had become an attractive and exemplary magnet school for minds both gifted and ambitious and, attracting accomplished lecturers and bright students both, it afforded uncommon freedoms to an elite qualified by intellectual ability (“Applications to the school soared to three or four times the number of places available,” wrote Smith).

In Smith’s words, here is what happened to “Phys-Mat School No. 2 in Moscow”:

As the logical extension of some of the educational reform theories, the intellectual climate at the school obviously troubled Communist Party conservatives.  The percentage of Jewish students was very high and so was the proportion of Jewish scholars on the faculty, according to my Moscow friends.  When in early 1971, one of the teachers, I. Kh. Sivashinsky, applied to emigrate to Israel, the authorities moved in on the school and began administrative harassments.  According to Igor, a tall, lanky recent graduate, the pretext for administrative inspections was that New Year’s Eve 1971 had been celebrated with a roulette game.  Another pretext, he said, was that a group of students had visited the Jewish synagogue in Moscow and would have gotten away without trouble for the school except that one boy wrote the school;’s initials on a fence near the synagogue.  Purges of the faculty and student body were carried out in spring 1971, and again a year later.  In one action the director and three assistants were fired; later, teachers of history and literature were forced out, an indication that the real reasons for the purge were ideological.  Several other teachers, I was told, resigned in protest to these firings. Marxist-Leninist indoctrination courses were stiffened and students who did poorly in those fields, no matter how talented in science, were called on the carpet, and outside lectures by university professors dwindled to nothing.  By fall, 1972, the previous flood of applicants had fallen off and in in Igor’s words, this once elite school had becomes “a spiritless, gray, sorry spectacle.”

Smith, Hedrick.  The Russians.  New York: Times Books, 1983.

In the left side column of this blog is an epigram by Milan Kundera: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”

Kundera’s remark suits, and as one reads The Russians, not only the atmosphere of the era returns with many of its continued challenges and quirks but also the shadow of the looming authoritarian fist, the familiar oafs of now other states in this era who may wish others not get too far out ahead of themselves or otherwise dull their glorious presence with something like the expression of their separate God-given talents, benevolent accomplishments, and earned compensation.

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