The Soviet educational system was excellent. Children were taught in grade 6 what most American schoolchildren do not learn till grade 11. Our school was housed in a 5-story concrete building with a basketball court and a yard outside.
Along with education came Communist propagand, some of it ridiculous. A teacher once said in class that in American subways there is no light, and people fall all over each other. I believed the propaganda. Meanwhile my parents listened to Voice of America broadcasts, which were frequently jammed. One of their main similarities when they got together was the desire to come to America. They had to be careful not to say the wrong thing.
In school I got along with girls better than with other boys. There was a cute girl named Oxana whom I befriended. Once, during a presentation before class, I blew my nose into her dress. There was another girl named Anya whose parents were advanced in government hierarchy. She and I got along very well as well.
We started learning English during the second grade. The teacher was flamboyant and very good at what she did. However the version of English taught was less than contemporary. The word “gay” was taught to mean its original meaning: happy. Some other things taught were ridiculous, such as the following poem:
And when I reach the upper school
I'll learn, when I am big,
Algebra and geometry
And something queer called trig.
I enjoyed a great relationship with my first to third grade teacher, Larisa Ivanovna. Generally the teachers liked me. They were not however good to everyone, and I recently had a former classmate telling me that some of the nasty things they had told her, she still could not get out of her head.
I was a good student. One day, in a biology class, the teacher saw me talking to a classmate and said, “Shambat, would you like to teach this class?” I came forward and taught the class.
I was the shortest kid in class, and some of the students picked on me. First they called me little; then they called me a girl. I started earning some respect when I got good at playing soccer. In grade 4 I started a “green patrol,” setting up bird feeders around the neighborhood, and some other kids joined. In grade 6 I was elected class president.
I had a neighbor named Katya, a tall and very beautiful girl. Her parents were telling her that I was a very good boy. She became friends with my cousin. When I moved to America she continued writing to me. She is now an interior decorator and has been married two times.
When I was 10, a beautiful girl named Inna moved into our neighborhood from Kiev and went to my school. I fell in love with her and started writing her poetry. Inna did not love me back. However other kids – and teachers – thought well of my poetry, and I was encouraged to write more. Pretty soon I was reading my poetry before large audiences and getting a good response.
I had spiritual experiences since a very early age. At one point I wanted to have a friend. I had a vision of a friend coming into my life, and shortly after that I became friends with Andrei, a friendly and intelligent boy who had many interests. We wanted to set up a water tank and bombard it with ultraviolet rays to reproduce evolution. He was into hypnosis, and he was able to hypnotize me – and other people – successfully, at one point getting me to do his map for him in class and at another point getting a teacher to intervene when someone was trying to beat him up.
I had another friend named Vasya, whose father died when he was trying to climb to his window. Vasya thought highly of me because of how much I was learning – geography, then biology, then astrophysics. He went to a different school, and I did not see him again.
I played soccer and hockey with boys who were naturally athletic, which of course I was not. One of them, named Alex Belkin, had quite profound attitudes, which you do not often see in children. He was wise before his years, and apparently he is now a teacher. This is the best of Russia – both tough and profound. Unlike some places that encourage only strength, and others that encourage only culture, Russia has both. And that has been an ongoing source of Russia's greatness, regardless of the system under which they have lived.
Different places have different definitions of strength, and many of them are self-defeating. We have gangsters who equate strength with directionless violence, and they wind up behind bars. There are people who equate strength with totalitarian conduct, and they get one dictator after another. And then there are people – especially women - who think that strength is bad as such, so they effectively castrate their sons and leave them prey to various nasties. Many young men raised in the latter situations find strength in things such as jihadism, gangsters and Eminem. And that does not benefit women one bit.
The real solution is for strength to be balanced with ethics, discernment and self-control. Ethics, so that you use it rightfully. Discernment, so that it is used in a calculated manner. And self-control, so that you don't hurt people you don't want to hurt. At which point strength rises to its correct place that is the means of keeping the peace, and we have people who are strong and ethical at once – and societies that benefit from the efforts of such people.
A woman who worked at a theater came to our school and set up drama performances. She had a profound inside into a lot of different matters, and she got students talking about their concerns. We probably spent more time talking on deep issues than we did actually rehearsing. She said that talking about such things was necessary. She balanced work at the school with work at the theater, and her life was both busy and meaningful. At one point she talked about how she spent an hour watching a man cleaning windows and was fascinated by his effort.
A major media story at the time was the chess battle between Anatoly Karpov and Gary Kasparov. Karpov was seen as a very corrupt person, who had extensive involvements in the black market. Kasparov was a young starry-eyed idealist. For a while Karpov was beating the crap out of Kasparov. Then Kasparov got his act together and beat Karpov. At this point Kasparov is a leader of Russia's pro-democracy movement, and he gets a lot of respect. Like Bobby Fischer, Kasparov got involved in politics; but while Fischer did it in a lunatic way, Kasparov did it in a credible way. It is good when the best of the country rise to leadership positions. Both Kasparov – as a chess champion – and Putin – as a former KGB – possess great competence, and it is rightful that they be leaders.
The music that Soviet media played was quite good. The main singer was named Alla Pugacheva, and she did a brilliant job. There was also a singer and songwriter named Vladimir Vysotsky, who had songs about just about everyone. People saw him as “the soul of Russia.” At this time there are a number of sites on the Internet dedicated to him, and they include translations into English, some of which I had made myself.
The Russian people have always been good at creative pursuits. While many in America do not care about poetry, even the less educated Russians do. The Soviet media pushed Russian traditional art; and not all of it was good. However they also aired excellent poetry and music. Russian people remain good at such things to this day.
Many of the songs that they were airing were in fact very beautiful. Alla Pugacheva, Valentina Tolkunova, and any number of others were world-class. Russians excelled at any number of endeavors, from art to science. I had a very negative reaction of the inattention to such things that many have in the West. This is something that Russians are good at, and it's something that deserves to take place in the West.