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Six Years at the Russian Court - by Margaret Eager

CHAPTER 30

EDUCATION IN RUSSIA

SECONDARY and the higher education are very well provided for in Russia. There are many universities, and the fees for tuition, books, etc., are low, only about twenty pounds per annum, nor is age any barrier to entrance. I think it would add to the usefulness of the universities if entrance were more difficult, for they get many students who must of necessity fail. There are very many free scholarships.

On one occasion I received a request from a young woman to get her name placed in the free list of a certain professor whom I happened to know. She was thirty years of age, and had left school at seventeen with very good certificates. She learned dressmaking, and was working in the country. She had saved some hundreds of roubles and wished to come to St. Petersburg to study medicine. I sent her word that for that a knowledge of Latin was necessary. She had already left school thirteen years, and had been living in the country where she had little access to books. She seemed to have been successful with the dressmaking, and why not stick to it? But she was ambitious, and would not be persuaded. She was perfectly certain she could learn all that would be required, and was determined to enter college.

I was very sorry for the girl coming up to St. Petersburg to live, probably in an underground cellar, and spend her little money all to no avail. However, she entered the university as a free pupil. Of course, she did no good, and took the place which might have been given to a younger pupil just left school, lost her dressmaking connection, tried the patience of her professors, and all to no purpose.

There are many educational institutions in St. Petersburg helped by the State; in these an excellent education is given, chiefly in modern and scientific lines. Foreign languages are well taught, and it is the exception to find an educated Russian who does not speak three or four languages fluently. Their own language is terribly difficult, and I never knew a Russian to whom figures were not a mighty stumbling-block. Even with their decimal system, which is so simple that we could master it in half an hour, they have to use in shops beads and wires for counting, and even with this help they go astray. When they come over to this country, how they get to understand our complicated money system I do not know.

There are many free scholarships in these schools. The Emperor and Empress have the right of presenting free pupils. On payment of a small sum by parents or relations a child can be received. One of the Russian nurses in the palace lately got a peasant child admitted into a school in this way. She was twelve years of age and could read, but not write. She was elected for eight years, was to be lodged, fed, educated and clothed, taught either housework or sewing, and fitted out for the world. On the completion of her eight years she might, should she so desire, enter the university, and all that was -paid for her was about five pounds a year. At twelve years old she was a little unkempt peasant, with a handkerchief tied round her head, her feet covered with bark shoes, and wearing bandages instead of stockings. She had never even seen a train, and the most wonderful thing she ever saw in all her life was a statue of one of the Emperors in one of the streets of St. Petersburg. She did not know the meaning of a shop, had never heard of buying anything anywhere but in a fair.

In the higher institutes scholarships are given strictly according to the rank of the father of the pupil. Thus in one, no one under the rank of a major has a chance of getting a daughter or son received, and so on. In the highest of all, the daughters of generals and foreign princesses are received. The Queen of Italy and her sisters were educated here. In all these institutions the pupils and teachers wear uniforms. Some of them don the very ugliest, most unbecoming shade of blue one can imagine.

In Russia every man has military rank. The little Grand Duchess Olga's tutors were supposed to be generals, and were called " Your Excellency." They wore the uniform of generals, but had a little button in front of the cap, placed in a different position from that of the real live military generals.

Many decorations are given for various services entitling free education to a son or daughter.

Foreigners are not given military rank. They come to give lessons, even in the early morning, dressed in evening clothes. The tail-coat, etc., is taken as a sort of uniform.

In comparison with secondary schools, primary schools are very few. There are many in which the only means of education for the poor is the village priest. The poor man is supposed to instruct them, but life is not long enough for that, and he has many other duties to perform besides teaching his own barbarians. He has to farm his own little plot of ground, and to make bargains with the people, so much for a wedding, so much for a funeral, to baptise and confirm their children, to bury the dead, to solemnise marriages, etc. The poor man has really not time for more than he does.

The Russians value education most highly, and consider it an inestimable benefit. A peasant woman once asked me if I could read and write; I answered in the affirmative, but mentioned that I could not read Russian, but only my own language and French. She looked round my room and at my books, and asked me in an awed tone if I had read all those. I said I had. So she exclaimed, "Oh! What good parents you have had. I also had very good parents, who sent me to school every day for four years, and I can read almost any book, and even the newspapers, and write a letter quite easily."

The following story was told me by the Empress. One morning there arrived on the train from the Caucasus a little girl aged eleven. She went to a porter and asked to be sent to the Minister of Education. He made some demur; the child said, with perfect gravity, "I have come from the Caucasus, ten days' journey, to be put to school; you must please get me an izvochick and send me to his house. The child took herself so seriously that the porter took her in the same manner, and putting her into a street carriage, sent her off. Arriving at the minister's house she had great difficulty in persuading the servant to let her in. But she succeeded, and he promised to let his master know that a little girl from the Caucasus wanted to see him.

At the moment the minister was engaged with the Empress's secretary, but he said the child could be shown in. She stated her case, and the minister, in much difficulty and greatly amused over the whole business, assured the child that he had no vacancy. But the little one was not to be denied. "You are the Minister of Education," cried she. "I have come from the Caucasus to be put to school; you must put me somewhere." The minister was terribly puzzled as to what to do with her, and tried to explain things; but she would hear nothing. The secretary interposed, and offered to pay for this anxious little scholar till a free vacancy could be found for her. A note was accordingly written to the mistress of a school and the child was sent off under escort of a footman to be put to school. Her joy was unbounded. The secretary immediately went down to Peterhoff, and asked to see the Empress on pressing business. He told her about the child and her ardent desire to be educated. Inquiries were made, the truth of the child's story established, and the Empress gave her a vacancy in one of her own schools.

It seemed that her two eldest sisters had been received into a local school, but there was no room for this little one. She took the fact greatly to heart and fretted herself ill. The priest and doctor did their best to pacify her, but she would not be gainsaid. In despair they had taken a quarter ticket for her to St. Petersburg, thinking that if she could only realise that it was impossible she might be reconciled to the "Will of God." Accordingly she came, but" God helps those who help themselves" proved true in her case, though, indeed, we may see God's will in what happened. She is now under the Empress's protection, and unless I am much mistaken the world will hear of her some day. She will not be easily discouraged nor cast down.

The Emperor established many schools and founded many scholarships in honour of the birth of the Czarovitch, Alexis Nicolavitch. I do not think anyone could desire abetter endowment than a school founded in his name.

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