Our reality in reverse: A conversation from a Russian classroom


I treasure my subscription to Harper’s Magazine. Each month it delivers a sampler of high-quality original writings and other material, like a fine box of Belgian chocolates. The “other material” is what makes Harper’s especially delicious.

Harper’s rummages through the world’s vast written record, and like an artist making sculpture out of found objects, the magazine creates new commentary by rearranging, splicing, or inventorying existing texts.

Like this list of queries submitted to the New York Public Library’s reference desk. (“In what occupations may one be barefoot?” “Where can I rent a guillotine?”)

Or transcripts. Harper’s often prints a transcript of something, without comment. The selection says enough; whatever gaps there are, well that’s the pleasure of the format.

What I mean is: I feel like I’m constantly shouted at to think a certain way by this or that publication, to reach a certain conclusion by this or that talking head. (I’ll avoid expounding on a particular example I came across recently and simply share a link to it.)


But Harper’s, instead of telling you what to think, simply presents the raw material. I see respect for the reader in this editorial restraint.

Anyway, that’s a long preamble to my reason for posting.

In the August 2017 issue, under the title “Teachable Moment,” Harper’s presents a conversation that took place in March in a Russian classroom.

Earlier the same day, a student was arrested for spreading information about an unsanctioned demonstration against Prime Minister Medvedev.

Here’s a part of that conversation in the Russian school. In an argument with two left-leaning students, the Principal was just insisting that the country’s economic crisis was caused by external forces, not internal mismanagement:

Principal: One more time — what’s the cause? The European Union. Our leader is managing a very stable and very strong policy. He has an enormously high rating on the world stage because of foreign policy.

Student 2: And what exactly is our foreign policy? America is against us. Europe is against us. Because of Crimea. We basically took it.

Principal: Do you think that’s bad?

Teacher: There was a referendum.

Student 2: Why did they impose sanctions against us?

Teacher: Because they wanted to show their strength.

Principal: Kid, you haven’t read anything about this and you don’t know a thing. You’ve got some very superficial knowledge. What started this whole conflict? Maybe it was because America stuck its nose in?

Student 2: It didn’t intervene openly. Did you see American troops in Ukraine?

Principal: Did you see Russian troops in Ukraine?

Student 2: Yes. There are videos.

Principal: The videos are staged, for starters. I can see that you lack range in your political view. You see Navalny, you watch his video, and — boom — you believe it all. You embrace sources that are unverified or provocative.

Teacher: Like puppets.

Read it: “Teachable Moment,” Harper’s Magazine (August 2017)

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