Ancient greek language and culture in russian schools

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A brief excurse into the history of Classical education in Russia

The languages of Europe have been greatly influenced by Ancient Greek, which was the language of culture, philosophy, poetry, and science. The Russians have been influenced by the Greek culture from the 10th century, when Russia received its Christianity from Byzantium. The Russian alphabet was adopted from Byzantine Greek by Cyril and Methodius. The structure of Russian language is close to that of Ancient Greek, thus making it easier for native Russian to study Ancient Greek. For example, both languages are inflected, which saves Russian teachers the trouble of explaining to their students the meaning of cases. Some foreign colleagues who have been studying Russian told me that modern Russian could be compared to Ancient Greek with respect to the quantity of exceptions. Russian has a lot of words and roots of Ancient Greek origin, and there are other similarities between the two languages. Moreover, Greek was important for the Russian culture and education because Moscow claimed to be a successor of the Byzantine Empire and civilization.

“In 1685, the first secular school, called The Slavonic-Greek-Latin Academy, was opened in Moscow, where all the subjects were taught in Greek and Latin. In the beginning of the 18th century, after the reforms of Peter the Great, the role of Latin as foreign language increased dramatically, as the entry of Russia into the family of European countries, initiated by him, required the acquaintance with the basic values of the West-European culture, for which Latin was a perfect tool. But Greek language remained important in religious schools, where future Orthodox priests were educated.

In the 18th century, appeared the European style Gymnasia, with the teaching of both Ancient languages. The first Gymnasium, under the auspices of the Saint-Petersburg Academy of Sciences, was opened in 1726. The second was founded by Moscow University in 1755, the third in Kazan in 1758. Soon, Classical Gymnasia were opened almost in every Russian city. In the 18th-19th centuries, the model of Russian Gymnasia was German Classical Gymnasia. During the 19th century, progressive reforms were carried out in the field of education and the extensive net of Gymnasia was established”.1 Unfortunately, in 1917 the tradition of Classical education was broken for many years. After the World War II, during the period of so-called Stalin Classicism, there was an attempt to reintroduce Latin to some schools in Leningrad, but the experiment failed because of the lack of teachers.

The rebirth of teaching of Ancient Greek in schools since 1989
The rebirth of the Classical education began during the perestroika in the 1980s. In 1989, the Gymnasium Classicum Petropolitanum was founded by a group of Classicists-enthusiasts. In 1990, the Russian Orthodox Church opened the first private Classical Gymnasium Radonezh in Moscow. In 1993, a private Gymnasium in Moscow was founded by a Classicist Yury Shichalin. Until now, only these three schools can be called Classical (humanist) Gymnasia, where both Latin and Ancient Greek are taught. But all over Russia, many schools and classes teaching Latin has been opened.

As for Ancient Greek, the situation is different: there is only a small number of schools offering Ancient Greek. These schools can be divided into two groups: the Orthodox Church schools and the secular schools.

The Orthodox Church schools and Gymnasia are more numerous and they are supported by the Russian Orthodox Church and the Patriarchate. The main goal of their curriculum is to study the language of the New Testament and the church fathers. Their curriculum includes orthodox liturgy and Byzantine Greek. Most of these schools are private and quite small. On average, Ancient Greek is taught there once or twice per week during one or two years.

Indeed, all the schools and gymnasia offering Ancient Greek can be divided into those with deep level of studying Ancient Greek and those offering Ancient Greek as a small part of cultural program familiarizing pupils with the Ancient civilization. The latter group is prevailing.

Which textbooks and dictionaries do we use?

As there were no textbooks for Classical languages during the Soviet period, in the early 1990s the teachers had to rely on photocopies of pre-Revolutionary textbooks. Thanks to the financial support of several German foundations (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, Bosch Stiftung, Stiftung Humanismus Heute), the Gymnasium Classicum Petropolitanum was able to translate from German and to publish a Greek-Russian dictionary (Grund- und Aufbauwortschatz Griechisch / bearb. von Th. Meyer, H. Steinthal), a Greek course PROPULAIA (Griechisches Unterrichtswerk, Lese- und Übungsbuch) and a Greek grammar (Griechische Sprachlehre / von M. Stehle). At the same time, a Moscow publishing house of Dr. Shichalin reprinted the Greek-Russian dictionary of the late 19th century by A. Veismann, the Greek grammar and textbooks by F. Volf and A. Kozarzhevsky. The publishing house also published many bilingual Greek-Russian editions of Ancient texts, for example, of Plato, Plotin etc. The Moscow Lomonosov University published a new textbook of Ancient Greek by M. Slavyatinskaia. These books are currently being used in high schools in Moscow, St-Petersburg, and other cities.

I will describe in detail teaching of Ancient Greek in the Gymnasium Classicum Petropolitanum. This school is not a private: for the most part, it is funded out of the municipal budget, and, despite the inadequacy of public funding, the school prefers not charging its pupils. Instead, it tries to find alternative sources of funding, although it is complicated. One such a source of has been publication of textbooks, another sources is sponsorship.

Pupils enter the Gymnasium Classicum Petropolitanu in the fifth grade (10-11 years old) and study during seven years until the eleventh grade (17-18 years). Pupils are selected through entrance examinations, which determine their general development and their aptitude for analytical thinking. Each year, there are four to five applicants for a place in the fifth grade; thus from more than two hundred applicants, we select two groups of twenty-five. Currently in the Gymnasium are fourteen classes (two at each grade level) for a total of 350 - 380 pupils.

Latin and Greek are obligatory for all pupils. From the fifth grade, pupils study the Ancient civilization and Greek and Roman history. Likewise, Latin begins at the fifth grade and continues until the end, with 4 hours per week in the 5-9-th grades, 3 hours in the 10-11-th grades. Ancient Greek begins at the seventh grade (12-13 years) and continues for five years with 3 hours per week.

The curriculum, which has been discussed by all the teachers of Greek, sets to study Greek grammar and syntax for two and a half years. Afterwards, pupils begin reading Ancient Greek texts in the original: Anabasis and Memorabilia or Cyrapedia of Xenophon at the ninth grade, Attic prose (Plato, Lysias, Lucian, Plutarch) at the tenth, followed by Homer and finally by a tragedy of Euripides or Sophocles, or by a comedy of Aristophanes, or by Discolus of Menander. Pupils also read poetry, Archil. fr. 5; 122; 128 West; Sol. fr. 23 West; Mimn. fr. 7 West; Xenophan. fr. 1 West; Sapph. fr. 1; 16, 1–12; 31 Voigt; Alc. fr. 34; 58; 326 Voigt; Simonid. fr. 38 Page, some mathematical texts, e.g. Euclides, the papyrus letters, etc.

The assessment works as follows:

  1. Continuous assessment (different kinds of texts, grammar tests, translations from Russian into Ancient Greek).

  2. Final oral examinations after the 8, 9-th levels (translation of an unseen text (adapted text and Attic prose) with a dictionary and a grammar test) and after the 11-th grade (translation of an unseen passage from Herodotus with the dictionary and of a read text of drama without dictionary; linguistic, metrical, stylistic commentaries of the texts). After the 10-th grade there is a written Homer test, including translation, grammar tasks, and transmission from Homeric dialect into Attic.

In addition to the two Classical languages, two modern languages, English and German, are also taught in the Gymnasium. In Classical and modern language classes, each form is divided into two sections of ten to thirteen pupils each, allowing individual approach. Another very important subject in the Gymnasium is mathematics.

From the very beginning it was clear that not all children would be capable of mastering both Classical languages and advanced mathematics, thus the school strives to make learning process interesting and challenging.

We have a club Classica, where students with the help of their teachers work on the topics of their interest and give presentations, the best of which are published in the school annual magazine Abaris, which is edited by pupils and teachers and published with the help of parents. For example, the candidates who were going to participate at the Pythia competition presented their papers for discussion at club Classica. The magazine runs an annual contest to translate the pieces of Greek, Latin, English and German poetry and the best translations are published.

Very important for the Gymnasium is its relations to the Bibliotheca Classica, whose founder Alexander Gavrilov and director Alexander Verlinsky support the school programmes, for example, the summer archaeological schools in Hersones and Olbia in Crimea.

The Ancient Greek international competitions

During 2000-2004, Russia took part in the annual European competition Pythia contest, organized by the European Cultural Centre in Delphi, and during three years winners from Moscow, St. Petersburg and Petrozavodsk with their teachers visited Greece to take part in the award ceremony.

In 2004-2005 the Gymnasium Classicum Petropolitanum took part in the ODEG competitions. The winners were Alexandra Petrova (2004) and Sophia Alexandrova (2005).

In 2005-2007, the Gymnasium C. P. took part in the Greek competition in Italy Certamen della Tuscia organized by the Lyceum Mario Buratti and the University at Viterbo. In 2005, Alexandra Dmitrikova won the tenth place, in 2006 Maja Shlyahter the seventh, and in 2007 Arsenij Vetushko was the first. Now he is a student of the Classical Department of Saint-Petersburg University.

Since 2006 the Gymnasium C. P. has been taking part in the Annual European Students’ Competition in Ancient Greek Language and Culture organized by the Ministry of National Education and Religious Affairs. During these three years, the winners were Grigory Vorobyov, Alexandra Evlamlieva and Daria Parfenova.

The main problem for me as the coordinator of the Greek competitions in Russia is that only three Gymnasia in Russia offer Ancient Greek at the last grade, besides the level of the international competitions is high, so that only these Gymnasia are able to take part. Nowadays, only the Gymnasium Classicum Petropolitanum participates. As the coordinator of the association Societas Russica Magistrorum Linguarum Classicarum I promote the idea of taking part in the Annual European Students’ Competition in Ancient Greek Language and Culture and hope that colleagues from the other schools will join in the future.

How do we prepare for this competitions in Russia?

All the information about the competitions is accessible on the website of our association and also it is sent to all its members.

Regarding the Annual European Students’ Competition in Ancient Greek Language and Culture all the pupils of the last grade, about 30-35 in total, take part in the local competition. Beforehand, they prepare the texts sent by the organizers of the competition: read, translate and discuss them in class. Teachers prepare the linguistic, historical, and cultural commentaries. We are able to prepare only one of the sent texts, because otherwise we have to interrupt our curriculum and preparation for the difficult final exams in June. After the competition, the committee responsible for it (as a rule, three members: the Classics head Vsevolod Zelchenko, the coordinator Elena Ermolaeva, and a teacher of Greek in the last grade) mark all the papers to find out the best one, an original of which is then sent to the committee in Athens.

If we succeed involving Moscow or any other schools into this competition, the procedure will be modified.

Taking part in the Ancient Greek competition organized by Greek colleagues is of great assistance to us, as it helps us to promote Ancient Greek in Russia. On the other hand, due to the international competition in Ancient Greek our pupils, not that numerous after all, can realize that they are part of a large modern European community. It is also very important for lobbing the idea of Classical education in Russia.

Current problems in teaching Ancient Greek in Russia
The study and popularisation of Ancient Greek and civilization requires more specialists than currently exist in Russia. In 2007 some institutions in Moscow and Saint-Petersburg initiated courses for teachers of Ancient Greek and Latin in Russian provincial high schools. The most active supporter of this project is a member of Russian Academy of Science Nikolai Kazansky; the initiative was supported by many teachers from many cities of Russia at the annual meeting in Moscow University in January 2008, organised by Professor Marina Slaviatinskaia.

On the other hand, Classical education needs a support of the government and society. For example, in St. Petersburg only one Classical Gymnasium exists at the moment, which is insufficient for a city of five million.

There is an association of school teachers of Classical languages, Societas Russica Magistrorum Linguarum Classicarum (, which is a member of Euroclassica, a European Association of teachers of the Classical languages and civilizations.

Euroclassica congress that took place in Saint-Petersburg in September 2007 contributed to popularisation of the Classical education and to involving new members into the Russian association, which aims are to save and to improve the status and quality of Classical language teaching in the secondary school, to promote the Classical education, and to keep contacts among the Classicists all over Russia. One of the projects of Societas Russica is to organize in Russia a summer school for pupils to popularise Greek and Latin languages and civilizations. The only obstacle is a financial one.

The rebirth of Classical education is one of the most significant indicators of Russia's re-entrance into the family of European nations. We hope that our graduates, well-educated persons schooled in Ancient languages, history and culture, will appear one day among our country's politicians. One should hope that the study of Ancient civilizations, both their positive and negative aspects, would provide the background for the humanist ideals that have become so important in the modern world.

Elena Ermolaeva

Saint-Petersburg, 11.08.2008

1 See A. Podossinov

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