I've been thinking about this for a long time. Over Christmas, I met up with Nana and Justin for lunch in Mansfield and, among other things, discussed our adventures living abroad. At one point, Nana asked what it is that Russians really have figured out. She was referring to neat things Russia has that America doesn't; one example she gave from Korea was ondol, or floor heating.
This is a good mental exercise/discussion point when you're living in a foreign culture, since it provides a balance for all the times said culture makes you want to bang your head against a wall. (I know it's not just me; Justin and Nana affectionately(?) refer to Korea as "the land of the 90% solution.") Unfortunately, at the time, I couldn't think of an answer. Not that I don't like Russia, and not that there aren't plenty of neat things about Russian culture. It's just that the technological and consumer innovations I was trying to think of – things like heated floors, online bill payment, parking vouchers for drivers of hybrid cars, or dual-purpose waffle iron/panini grills – aren't exactly Russia's forte. This is not shocking when you consider how recently the country had things like restructuring its entire government and economy on its mind. Plus there's all the bureaucracy, a leech that's been sucking at Russia's potential for efficiency and innovation since at least the time of Gogol.
But let's not dwell on the negative. The point is that you have to think outside the box a bit to come up with them, but there are plenty of enviable ideas that Russians have caught onto and the rest of us haven't. Today, I'll feature one that's near and dear to my heart: music schools.
Russia's system of music education was founded by Anton Rubinstein, as any Russian music school graduate can tell you. Having gotten a peek at it through my balalaika lessons, I think it's a great system. In America, if you want to learn a musical instrument, you either join the school band or orchestra, find someone to give you private lessons, or maybe buy a guitar at a flea market and try to teach yourself. In Russia, though, the musically inclined finish their day at regular elementary and high schools and then, three days a week, head off for a few hours at a public music school. Any good-sized city will have at least one; I think Taganrog has exactly one, while Vladivostok, which also had a college and a conservatory, had at least three or four. (In the villages, you're stuck with whatever they offer at the House of Culture. Sorry.)
The course of study at music school roughly includes your instrument of choice, a secondary instrument (sometimes one in the same family, but usually the piano), performance in the appropriate ensemble (band, orchestra, folk orchestra), ear training, the school choir, and music theory. Just like regular school, you have to show up for class and pass exams. It takes either four or six years to finish music school (I forget, but I think it's six), and when you do, you get a diploma that, among other things, allows you to enter music college, the next level of music education. (The conservatory is the third and final level.) Not everyone finishes music school, which means you get the knowledge (or some of it) but no diploma.
The disadvantage of such a rigorous system is that I think on the whole there are fewer musicians in Russia than in the U.S. system, where it seems like about three-quarters of us scraped away at a violin or made dying cat noises on a clarinet for at least a few years in middle school. The advantage, obviously, is that the average Russian musician is much better and more well-rounded than the average American one. (I didn’t even learn what solfege was until college...) Also, they provide the infrastructure for concerts and competitions for young musicians as well as a venue and means of support for professional concerts and recitals. Therefore, there are more of both the former and the latter than there are in the U.S.
I should also mention that I think, although I'm not entirely sure, that the same kind of system is employed for visual art schools. For sports, it's a little different – something about "Olympic reserve teams" that I don’t entirely understand – but the same concept of total dedication to and complete education in the extracurricular activity of one's choice.
Stay tuned for the next installment of "Things (I Think) Russians Do Right," which will probably be about dachas!
(The parentheses in the title are not meant to indicate uncertainty, but as an acknowledgment that a silly American making pronouncements about what's "good" and "not good" about Russian culture is a bit ridiculous.)