Social Education 58(6), 1994, pp. 335-338
National Council for the Social Studies

The Pain of Change

John J. Cogan
The Russian-Finnish Border, July 7, 1994: I'm sitting here with my wife in our sleeping compartment aboard the overnight Tolstoi Express from Moscow to Helsinki. It is 3:30 in the morning and the midnight sun still glows on the horizon. We are awaiting the final clearance by Russian customs and immigration officials before crossing the border back into Finland.
We have just spent several weeks in a small corner of this vast country, and I now find myself reflecting on the dramatic changes taking place herein. My reflections go back much further than these few weeks, however, to nearly 25 years ago when I first came to what was then the Soviet Union on a comparative education seminar. I repeated this experience several times throughout the seventies and then did not return again until 1986, and on that occasion only to Leningrad, now St. Petersburg.

As one might expect, many changes have taken place during these two decades. That would be normal even without the dynamic upheaval this nation has experienced in the past five years. But the collapse of the USSR and the accompanying changes have turned the society upside down. It is a period of history in the making. And that is why I have decided to share my reflections in the hope that social studies teachers and their students can become familiar with what is now happening in this great nation which for so many years was cast as "the enemy" by government officials, by school textbooks, and certainly by the images held in our minds.

We came to Russia this summer for a very specific purpose. My wife, in addition to being a fourth grade teacher, is a student of art history with special attention given to traditional architecture and folk art. For more than 20 years she has wanted to visit the ancient cities that lie along the waterways between St. Petersburg and Moscow on what the Russians call the "Golden Ring." The wooden churches of Kizhi are the zenith of these structures, but the monasteries and churches of Goritzy, Yaroslavl, Uglich, and Zagorsk are of equal interest as well.

For many years, these cities were difficult to visit as they required special permission from the Intourist authorities. Once the travel options opened up in Russia in the early nineties, it became much easier, and so we decided to make the trip. We did so now, because we thought that with the tremendous pressures on the economy, the restoration and upkeep of cultural treasures in these ancient cities would be placed near the bottom of the list of priorities for the society.

We entered Russia by train from Helsinki to St. Petersburg. We could have flown directly to the city, but I opted for the train as Jan Tucker, former NCSS President, and I had done in September, 1986. I specifically wanted to compare the border crossing experience from Finland into Russia today with the experience then. In 1986, before the dramatic changes in the society, these procedures had been very formal, tense, even intimidating. The border guards and customs officials then were very thorough in every respect, going through our cabin, our luggage, and our clothing to make sure we were not bringing anything into the country deemed inappropriate under Soviet law. It was the only time either of us had been required to account exactly for every bill and coin in the various currencies we had on our person. It was an experience that neither of us shall ever forget.

The border formalities this time couldn't have been faster or smoother. The officials checked our passports, visas, and customs documents in quick order and then moved on to the next person. The entire train was checked in less than an hour.

We then moved on to Vyborg, the first city of any size inside Russia, where the train stopped for about 40 minutes. There was an exchange bank here, and we were encouraged to change some money into rubles. A bit of the rigidity of the past greeted us during the course of this experience. We were first informed that there would be no exchange for traveler's cheques, only U.S. dollars in cash. This was a bit of a surprise because we had been told in Helsinki that we could exchange either. I handed over $100 to be exchanged. The clerk examined each bill carefully and sorted them into two piles. When she was finished, she pushed one pile back to me and said, "These are no good." I replied that they were perfectly good currency, if a bit worn. She then gave a classic Soviet-type response. "We don't want your old dirty dollars, only your clean new dollars." Not having any more cash, as I had expected to use traveler's cheques, I accepted the rubles that my new, clean dollars bought at an exchange rate of 1970 to 1, more than a thousand times the exchange rate in 1986. This exchange rate grew to 2000 to 1 by the time we left the country, which proved to be signi&Mac222;cant in understanding the changes taking place in Russia.

We spent several days in St. Petersburg before beginning our river cruise to Moscow. There is a tremendous amount of restoration and construction going on in the central part of the city, the area that the locals refer to as Peter's City. The Nevsky Prospect, the main street in the central area, was packed with people. Many chic shops offering all manner of western goods are now interspersed with traditional Russian ones. New hotels are going up, and old ones are being renovated and upgraded. Churches that have been closed for decades or used for other purposes are being restored and returned to their original use. And in any place where tourists are likely to be, private entrepreneurs are present in abundance with their kiosks, carts, even selling items out of the trunks of their cars.

Most of these were younger people in their teens on through their late thirties or early forties. They had captured the free-market spirit and were busy selling anything they could obtain from T-shirts to liquor to folk art products to the latest electronic goods. In most cases, the starting prices for their goods were quoted both in dollars and in rubles. They bargained in good humor, but knew the bottom line they would accept. Invariably when this point was reached, they would accept only dollars and not rubles. Indeed, throughout the trip, dollars were accepted as much as rubles.

On my previous visits to the city, I had usually stayed at tourist hotels in the center. This time the river boat on which we cruised was moored some distance from the Nevsky Prospect, and this enabled us to investigate neighborhoods where people lived. Although the center of the old city was alive and vibrant, these more remote suburban areas were bleak and decaying even though most of the buildings were only 15 to 20 years old. The area surrounding the Metro (subway) stations was crowded with the kiosks of private entrepreneurs, but the quality of the goods on offer was markedly inferior to that of goods being sold at similar stalls in the center of the city. The food market area was particularly depressing in this regard, with rotting fruit and vegetables and decaying meat of various kinds.

It was in these suburban areas that we first encountered what was to become a fixture throughout the remainder of our travels, whether in small rural villages or in the larger cities. It was the plight of older people, and especially pensioners, who appear to be having great difficulty coping with the dramatic economic upheavals in the society. At rush hour, these elderly folk crowded around the entrances and exits to the Metro stations and at major bus stops trying to sell some of their worldly possessions for enough rubles to get bread and something else to eat for the day. These are the people who worked all of their lives within the Soviet system, expecting their pensions to carry them through the years of their retirement. Then the system collapsed, and the government shifted to an open-market economy. In a matter of a few short years, the ruble became a convertible currency, inflation shot upward, and the pensions of these long-serving workers were worth absolutely nothing-the equivalent of $30-35 per month. The devaluation of the ruble, coupled with rampant inflation and a steady, sometimes mercurial rise in prices for basic goods, with no parallel increase in pensions, left these people literally out on the streets in some instances.

As we traveled to the various small villages and cities along the waterways of the "Golden Ring," the scene of the elderly trying to sell anything to us as we departed the ship, even bunches of wildflowers gathered from a nearby park, became routine. At one point I commented to my wife, "These are our mothers," as our own mothers are of this same age. At first, we would give them each several hundred rubles, but this ultimately became impossible, as there were literally hundreds of them at every stop. It was painful to pass them by.

There were exceptions to this sad saga, of course, and I do not want to leave the impression that all was doom and gloom. We met young students on summer holiday who were eager to practice their English language skills and asked myriad questions about "Amerika." I walked for several hours one afternoon with two young adolescent boys from St. Petersburg, Sasha and Ivan, who were staying with their grandmother for the summer holidays in the small village where our ship had docked. As they showed me around the village, they asked dozens of questions about life in the United States, and I tried to answer as many of their queries as possible, often having no idea what rock or movie star they were talking about. Finally, I told them it was my turn to query them, as the ship would be departing soon. I asked them what were the biggest differences in their lives as a result of the changes taking place in Russia. They looked at each other and replied in unison, "We can get the latest tapes and magazines of rock and movie stars now. And Levis and Reeboks in the stores rather than on the black market." I was looking for something a bit more profound but their vision of the future was clearly consumer oriented. This was also the case with other youthful Russians with whom I talked throughout the trip.

I asked Sasha and Ivan how long they had studied English. When they replied for only two years, I was surprised because they had very good facility for this short period of formal instruction. I asked them why they studied English so hard. The reply was, you guessed it- "To listen to the tapes, read the pop magazines, and to someday visit America." When it was finally time to part, I asked if I could buy something for them from a local concession stand as a thank-you for the time they spent with me. They wanted a Coke and a Snickers; need I say more!

Then there was the teacher from a local college in Yaroslavl who worked during the summer holidays as a local tourist guide. Valery was in his early forties and did this guide work to supplement his income. He had been an art history major as an undergraduate, and his graduate work was in philosophy, which is what he now teaches. He guided us carefully through his city and a series of restored churches, with both a considerable sense of history and sensitivity to the changes taking place in his nation. I asked him the same question I had asked the two boys earlier. "The greatest change for me is the freedom to do my job without looking over my shoulder any longer. History and philosophy must be explored in all of their dimensions, and under the old regime that was impossible. Now I feel I truly have the freedom to teach my subject as I wish. And that in turn makes the whole of my life much better."

I asked him about the older generation and the pensioners we had been meeting at every stop, and he concurred that it was extremely difficult for them. "Things changed so fast, all at once, without any precautions being taken for what this would do to their meager pensions. Many of them are very depressed and long for the old system. In spite of its very totalitarian nature, it at least took care of their daily needs. They feel lost and betrayed."

There was Elena, a young and talented artist in her early thirties, who in her persona was a character cut right out of one of Solzhenitsyn's novels. Her sketches of old Russian churches were exceptional, but what caught our attention was her knowledge of the history of these structures and her fervent belief that if the nation was to make it through these difficult times, the people must turn back to the moral principles of the church-much like the message that Solzhenitsyn himself now carries to the Russian people.

We had the opportunity to meet with many other Russians during the course of our trip. The Russian crew members on our ship were mostly in their twenties and early thirties. They did everything possible to meet our needs and served us superbly in a nation not known for a service orientation. They had been trained by a Swiss hotel management school, and their professional standard was first rate. What they had learned most importantly was that doing a job well meant having a job, and that is a mindset that will serve them well throughout their lives. It is an attribute that the nation must adopt to turn things around.

There were others who shared a variety of stories and points of view with us too. When I asked several older Russians traveling with us on the ship what their greatest fear was about the future, the reply, without hesitation, was "the rising rate of street crime." They cautioned that this was a very new phenomenon for them and should not be compared with the level of what is experienced in Western Europe and the United States. But it is a big change when you have gone for more than half a century living in a society where you felt at ease walking the streets any time of day or night to a situation where you now feel at risk doing so. At the same time, however, they were very troubled by what they felt were highly exaggerated reports in the western media regarding the incidence of street crime. We had read these reports and simply took the same precautions we would take in any large city anywhere in the world-using public transportation, walking only on well-traveled and well-lighted streets, and using common sense. Never once did we feel in any jeopardy.

Unusually for me, I never spoke a great deal about politics with people, other than to take a running poll on Yeltsin's chances for survival. Most felt that his job was an impossible one and that there would be a series of leaders before stability could be achieved. All with whom I spoke thought that Vladimir Zhirinovsky was simply way out on the reactionary fringe and that the vote for his party in the December 1993 elections was more of a protest against the failing economic conditions and rising street crime than any long-term statement. The one comment I heard over and over again, especially from older Russians, was that the old communist bureaucrats and managers had adapted very quickly to the changes and were once again right at the top of the ladder. Making the most of their connections within the old system, they had been able to re-establish themselves.

I left the country with mixed feelings about the future. The next decade will be especially difficult as the necessary major systemic changes are only beginning to occur. The young, as I have noted throughout, have embraced the changes with enthusiasm. Indeed, a middle-aged teacher I met on a Moscow subway told me that she felt this is beginning to be problematic for secondary schools in some of the major cities, because these teenagers do so well with their entrepreneurial ventures during the summer holidays that they see little reason to return to classes in the autumn. Overall, the road forward for the young will be much easier than that for their parents and especially for their grandparents. For the latter, something must be done to ease the pain and the burden of this dynamic period. I shudder to think of those old pensioners out on the streets in the Russian winter.

I have great faith in the indomitable spirit of the Russian people, though, and something deep inside me says that they will overcome these present difficulties and succeed. I fervently hope this will come to pass, because the alternative is unthinkable. Russians and Americans are so much alike, yet we have been suspicious of one another for so long. The next generation of leaders in both countries must build on our likenesses rather than our differences, as has been the case for most of this century. They must learn to trust one another and work together.

What I hope social studies teachers will do is share these observations with their high school students and then ask them to try and imagine themselves in the shoes of a Russian high school student their age. How would they cope with and meet the challenges of the changes taking place in the society? How would they feel about their grandparents, perhaps even their parents, losing their home and all their worldly possessions because the government shifted to a new economic system? Have they ever experienced changes of this magnitude in their own lives? What makes change so difficult to deal with? What kinds of knowledge and skills are needed to help us cope with and manage change rather than having it direct us?

These are very difficult times for the global community. The changes taking place in Russia are a microcosm of those taking place across the planet. The students currently in our classrooms will be dealing with changes during their adult lives that we cannot imagine. We need to help them to reflect on and acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to deal with these phenomena.

Well, the customs officer has just finished checking all our documents, and we are cleared to cross the border. This young woman, in her mid-thirties, has been very talkative and pleasant throughout the procedure. She was especially interested in how we liked our trip and thanked us for coming to visit Russia when all the media reports told us to beware. What a change from the procedure at this same border crossing in September, 1986! Hopefully, this is a good omen for the future.

John J. Cogan is a professor in the College of Education, Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.