MOSCOW -- In the dreary landscape of Russian public institutions, the happy scene in Evgenia Dutskaya's first-grade classroom at Moscow Public School 186 is a shock.
Floors are clean. Lights work. Doors are on their hinges. Cut-out autumn leaves decorate the walls. Mrs. Dustkaya is smiling. And the children are . . . well, being children.
The Russian public sector -- including public education -- is suffering from a lack of money and a lack of confidence. But the public schools somehow remain a repository of hopes for the nation's future, an outpost of good cheer in a land of the scowling and the failed.
So familiar are the desks, the ubiquitous green school walls, plus the pigtails and book bags, that sometimes the only clear sign that these are Russian schools and not American ones is the Cyrillic alphabet on the blackboard.
School 186 is in an unremarkable working-class neighborhood in northern Moscow. School 1567, just off glitzy Kutuzovsky Prospect in the western part of the city, has a special program for the gifted. They both have administrators who work overtime to squeeze the last ruble from the budgets, teachers who without exception are paid a pittance, students who sweep and scrub the classrooms and parents who donate time and money to public education.
And for perhaps the quintessential display of the love for education, there is the first day of school.
You will not see the drop-the-kids-off-and-drive-to-work ritual. Few Russians own cars, so the 800 students at School 186 arrived on foot. Every child had a parent in tow, and every child carried a first-day-of-school bouquet for the teacher.
A song starts the day
As the public address system piped in a children's song ("Let there always be sunshine / Let there always be sky / Let there always be Mamma / Let there always be me"), fathers darted into classrooms with cameras to capture Day One. They photographed the wide-eyed first-graders, along with ninth-, 10th- and 11th-graders showing off new running shoes or wobbling on high heels.
Eleventh-graders presented first-graders with apples -- symbols of knowledge -- and took them by the hand to their first class.
"Today you are not just kids but first-grade pupils -- you'll be responsible for things from now on," Mrs. Dustkaya told her class of 25 boys and girls, who will go through the next 10 years of education with the same classmates in every class.
Her first instruction to the sea of fresh faces was how to raise a hand to be called on; her second, like a remnant of less relaxed Soviet times, was how to stand up crisply when called upon or when an adult enters the room.
The schools are not without problems, as Tamara Eidelman, a School 1567 history teacher, recently noted in a newspaper column. She suggested that the school system was no different in its failings from other public institutions.
Financially desperate school officials, Ms. Eidelman complained, were resorting to "extortion." They were demanding money from parents. Some school officials might be using the money actually to make the schools better. But she said others just kept it for themselves.
Principals at School 1567 and School 186 take care to say they do not ask parents for money. Both schools, however, have conspicuous renovation projects under way in an era when public institutions simply do not renovate.
Russians still believe their education system to be among the world's best. Students at both the "ordinary" School 186 and at the advanced School 1567 begin foreign language study in first grade, algebra and geometry in sixth, chemistry in seventh -- a more accelerated program than in most of their American counterparts, education experts say.
'Schools are a big deal'
"Schools are a big deal here -- they are very proud of their education system," says Kathy Lotspeich, coordinator in Moscow for a U.S.-sponsored high school exchange program. "I expected a strict, harsh, Communist atmosphere, and I was shocked that it's not that way at all."
There are, though, few figures for measuring how Moscow's 1,400 schools and 1.1 million students actually perform. Or even for determining what resources they have. Moscow school administrators offered budget figures but then retracted them. There officially are no dropouts because school is compulsory. There are no statistics on how many high school students go on to college, a school spokeswoman said, because such figures "do not reveal the quality of education."
As for standardized tests, until recently there has been none, making comparisons between the Russian present and the Soviet past impossible.
The Soviet tradition always emphasized group success over individual success. It is an ingrained habit that Ms. Lotspeich says leads sometimes to "what we call cheating -- it's not uncommon for students to sit four to a desk and help each other on a test."
A new independence
But the current generation of students is showing signs of independent thinking, independence unheard of in Soviet times, and it is a change that has inspired teachers.
"Despite the hardships, all schools function," says Tatiana Gorbachev, principal of School 186. Mikhail Fidler, principal of School 1567, was without his secretary -- who found a better wage than the $18 a month the school offered -- but on the first day of classes was cheerfully answering the school phone and sorting paperwork.
Eleventh-grade students in Olga Sventsitskaya's English class study late into the night. They read the novels of Steinbeck and Faulkner in English, speak English in class -- and have been disappointed to learn from e-mail correspondence with students Atlanta and elsewhere that high school students in the United States know little or nothing about Russian writers, and not much about American writers.
Tatiana Dergunova attended School 1567 for 11 years as a student; she has worked there 33 years as a fourth-grade teacher. She wouldn't think of leaving, even though she spends half her salary of $100 a month on transportation to and from work.
These, she says, are exciting times to be a teacher.
"Children are more interesting," she says. "They're more free, and I see a sparkle in their eyes and that's because nowadays there's no one controlling schools."