Vienna, August 3 – The Russian government’s decision to accelerate the process of school consolidation in rural areas by setting region-by-region quotas for the closure of rural schools is increasing social tensions in many parts of the country, a trend one expert suggests is “snowballing” toward new Pikalevo-like public explosions.
At a Moscow press conference at the end of July, Sergey Komkov, the president of the All-Russian Education Foundation who serves as an advisor to the State Duma, said that in recent years some 12,000 rural schools had been shuttered, with that number now increasing at the rate of 600 to 800 a year(www.sobkorr.ru/news/5/4A686865448EF.html).
Given rapidly declining populations in the country’s rural areas, such closures and the consolidation of rural schools are perhaps unavoidable, however unpleasant and unwelcome they are to village residents and however difficult they make it for local communities, Russian and non-Russian alike, to survive.
But Komkov said he has information that Moscow has given regional officials specific quotas for closing schools. The central authorities told Kaluga oblast to close 27 schools this year and Lipetsk oblast to close 40, numbers justified by references to “restructuring and modernization” but quotas that local people find it nearly impossible to block.
In fact, “if someone attempts to correct the existing situation,” Komkov continued, “he becomes the victim of corrupt bureaucrats and siloviki.” As an example of this, he points to the criminal case launched against the former head of a district official in Chuvashia after he sought to repair a school that higher officials wanted to close but in which there were still 100 pupils.
As part of their effort to promote school consolidation, regional officials often promise that the new schools will have computers and other equipment. But in most cases, as ever more parents are discovering, the powers that be do not provide any money for such things and ignore the problems of bussing children over long distances.
In the past, Komkov noted, people often said that there are “two misfortunes in Russia: fools and roads.” But now, he continued, “a third has been added: fools who carry school children on bad roads” where the risk of accidents is high and the time involved for young people considerable.
As a result, Moscow’s forced school consolidation program is adding to the tensions in the regions, the educational specialist said. “The Pikalevo syndrome is growing like a snowball,” and while Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was able to resolve problems there through a visit, he won’t be able to do so in all the other places with similar or even worse problems.
The problems that Komkov pointed to are exacerbated by three other developments affecting rural Russia that various officials and commentators have been discussing in recent days. First, the disappearance of villages, something that often follows the closing of schools, calls into question Russia’s definition of itself.
As Mikhail Budaragin argued in an essay last week, Russians have traditionally defined themselves by the territory they held through social population but must now rethink both themselves and their position in the world not in terms of geography but with regard to technology (www.actualcomment.ru/day_article/420.html).
While that rethinking may help Russia to overcome current agricultural shortfalls even with further declines in the rural population, it will also open “a Pandora’s box” of issues having to do with how Russians achieved freedom by fleeing from centers of control to the rural periphery that few are now discussing.
Second, the consolidation of rural schools on the basis of declining population is likely to hit micro-nationalities especially hard, including the Nentsy who were forced to abandon three villages this year (www.pravdasevera.ru/?id=1051776249) and the Wepsy who want to keep their native language schools (ingria.info/?piople&news_action=show_news&news_id=4543).
And third, as “Vedomosti” reported today, Russia’s roads are going to get worse as officials are planning to cut spending on road repair and construction by two-thirds over the next three years as a result of the economic crisis, reductions that will only add to the problems of consolidation (www.vedomosti.ru/newspaper/article.shtml?2009/08/03/207959).
In fact, the real cuts are likely to be even greater than that in many places given that Moscow is pressing ahead with plans to build roads for the Sochi Olympics and a few other high profile projects. Indeed, “Vedomosti” reports that next year some Russian experts estimate that seven or eight regions won’t have enough money for any road repair at all.
Consequently, Russia’s roads, never one of that country’s best advertisements, are certain to get worse before they get better, making the way to the new forcibly consolidated schools even more difficult and representing yet another example of the way in which Moscow is resolving the country’s economic problems with little regard for much of the population.