In his highly publicized article “Forward Russia!” published by Gazeta.ru on September 10, the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev called for a sweeping modernization of the Russian economy, politics, social realm, etc. In fact, he called for the total overhaul and upgrade of his ailing country. Unlike previous Russian modernization reforms by Peter the Great, or the Bolsheviks, Medvedev asserted “a transition to the next, higher stage of civilization will be accomplished…not through suppression, but rather the development of the creative potential of every individual.” The fate of Russia, Medvedev emphasized, must be shaped “not by raw materials, but by our intellect, our strength, dignity and enterprise” (www.gazeta.ru, September 10).
However, filling such ambitions requires enlightened, educated, and independently thinking people. The question is where Medvedev expects to find such people, as the intellectual potential of the country inexorably shrinks. Once promoted as the “best-read” country in the world, the Russian population is rapidly losing such skills. In fact, the image of Russia as “the world’s most read nation” has always been a myth, supported by the huge circulation of the works of Marx and Lenin. People read on the subway, but they mostly read whodunits. Now, the reading rate has markedly declined.
Similarly, rural schools across Russia are being closed at a rate of around 800 annually. These are the latest statistics on reading in Russia: “More than one third of Russians never read at all,” according to polls, taken in June 2009 by the All-Russian Center for Public Opinion Studies (VTSIOM), Russia’s officially recognized polling agency (Novy Region, June 18).
Only 22 percent read books daily –versus 31 percent in 1996. 42 percent read books only occasionally. Russians rarely have a home library of more than 100 books. Interfax quoted VTSIOM experts as saying that the number of Russians who never read has grown by 15 percent over the last 13 years (from 20 to 35 percent), while the number of those who use books daily has dropped by 9 percent from 31 to 22 percent (Interfax, June 18).
Indeed, this trend has developed over several years. The Moscow-based Novye Izvestiya daily wrote in November 2006: “In fact, half of the adult population of Russia does not buy books. The situation with children is much worse. Over the last seven or eight years school children have been reading 30 to 40 percent less than before.” One reason, the newspaper suggested, was that the emphasis on education had shifted. “They now teach children only what can be practically used in life.” Another reason was that most Russians simply could not afford to buy books. “The average monthly salary in Russia is 10,000 rubles, ($340)” Novye Izvestiya observed: “So not everyone will resolve to pay 200 rubles for a novel…Each third Russian provincial city now does not maintain a library. Approximately 80 percent of provincial libraries are in a sorry state. Book collections held by libraries in the capital shrinks by 5 to 7 percent annually. Worn-out books are replaced by modern pulp writings. Librarians eagerly accept such replacements, because they help attract readership. Pulp fiction leads the best selling ratings in book stores” (Novye Izvestiya, November 2, 2006).
Meanwhile, Sergei Komkov, the President of the All-Russian Education Foundation, told a press conference in Moscow on July 23 that 12,000 rural schools were closed in Russia in the past several years. Komkov views this as a deliberate policy of the central Russian power that sets quotas for local authorities on how many rural schools must be eliminated (Pravi Hosting website, June 24, 2009). Novye Izvestiya quoted Komkov as saying that “shutting down village schools is the first step to the final demise of the Russian village.” He maintains that the children, forced to go to school far from home will prefer to stay in a larger town or city. “Soon, only old people will remain in small villages,” he said (Novye Izvestiya, September 2).
Other Russian sources cite more alarming figures. Thus, according to a Moscow regional website, in 2008, over 2,000 schools were closed down in Russia (www.moscow-faq.ru, May 27). Russian authorities maintain that they are not closing these schools in order to economize, but because of poor quality. When queried by Duma Deputy Nina Ostanina on the policy, the Education Minister Andrei Fursenko said that it was impossible to provide quality education in a rundown school that has just five students (www.polit.ru, May 8).
Another disturbing factor is the near collapse of science in Russia. On October 2, the Vedomosti daily carried an open letter to Medvedev and Putin, signed by more than 40 top Russian scientists working in leading universities and research centers in Europe and the U.S. The scientists lamented: “The catastrophic situation of basic science in Russia,” caused by “the level of financing, which is now significantly lower than in other developed countries” (www.vedomosti, October 2). This has resulted in “a massive outflow of scholars abroad” and the collapse of the “powerful scientific-technical base” created in Soviet times. The letter suggested that Russia faces “the complete breakdown between the generations of scientific workers, the disappearance of world-class science in Russia, and the loss of knowledge in catastrophic proportions.”
In such circumstances, it is unsurprising that village dwellers stage public protests, however futile, against their school closures. It is surprising, though, as to why Medvedev relies on “transiting to the next higher stage of civilization…through, the development of the creative potential of every individual,” while under Putin and his tutelage, Russia is plunging into illiteracy, ignorance and intellectual degeneration.