A Visit To The School For Self-Determination in Moscow, Russia

I am in Moscow, Russia, waking up in the apartment of a friend of a friend.

My flight arrived at Domodedovo airport at two in the morning, this morning, roughly on schedule. It was not my first time in Russia. I remembered quickly how to behave, and for once I did not rebel against the norms. Maybe I was just too tired. I walked efficiently next to my fellow passengers, face forward, hoping that Ilya would truly be waiting for me at the awkward hour.

With my carry-on bag and mandolin, I naturally fell into step with a small cadre of Russians carrying violins. When the narrow corridor opened into the vast passport control foyer, I felt terribly guilty, because I saw at once that there were a thousand people waiting in front of me, being waited on one by one as they passed slowly past five patient passport-stamping officials. It was going to be at least two hours waiting, and I was already overstaying my welcome with my first host by making her wait in the airport lobby (assuming she had come at all).

Luckily for the violin players, a sleepy Russian man with far too many official decorations for his job waved them into the diplomatic line. Luckily for me, he assumed I was a famous Russian musician, and also waved me through with them.

Four Russian pass passports and one US passport were efficiently stamped, and one minute later I was in a crowd of solemn Russians, all waiting for their friends to emerge, all aware that they could be waiting a very long time.

Ilya was there. She shuffled me into a communal taxi, told me that by-the-way she was living with a boyfriend, and then called a friend of hers who lived near the airport (who happily answered at 3am as if it were normal). A half hour later I was trying to get to asleep on this chair in his apartment, while he fixed tea, pate, and vodka for Ilya and I. For him the night was still young.

Ilya is no longer the blindly optimistic, overconfident short-haired Ukranian girl who said goodbye to me at the airport two years ago in July. She is now an infinitely practical, patient, semi-complacent, long-haired Russian woman preparing for winter. But they are both Ilya, both gentle in their way, and brilliant in their context. She was the only girl who had ever beaten me at chess, and still is. I never knew why it did not work out between the two of us, but she probably does. On the other hand, if I did know, I would probably be able to explain; whereas even if she does know, she probably could not explain.

OK, so the apartment is full of the smell of cooking animal fat and I am taking this as a sign that Ilya is hoping I appear in the kitchen at any moment… so, onward!


After a day of treats and transportation, I have been in Ilya’s dorm room. She has been elsewhere. I had a few moments with Tolstoy. I am so impressed with his understanding of everything he describes. He sees clearly and presents perfectly. War and Peace is now my favorite book ever. I wonder whether he had any friends who he felt understood what he was writing about. I wish I could go back in time and offer him my appreciation for dedicating a portion of his life to that fantastic creation. The first two books were wonderful and interesting – now in the third of the four books of War and Peace, Tolstoy goes into explanations of everything from history to historians, science to scientists, medicine to doctors. He understands everything Ivan Illich understands.Kambo Sticks

I suspect as I am reading that most people do not understand consciously what Tolstoy is intending to convey. Yet somehow this book is recognized as one of the most incredible books of all time, as it should be.

For die-hard fans of Jerry Mintz, I need to make no more explanation of this trip to Russia than to say I am here to visit Tubelsky’s school. But for the rest of my potential readers, I should take a few moments to explain in more detail what that means.

Jerry Mintz is the head of his own small nonprofit called the Alternative Education Resource Organization. He is famous around the world in alternative schools like Summerhill, the renowned private school in England founded by A. S. Neill over seventy years ago. Jerry knows everyone in all these schools that are founded on the principle that students should be empowered in their educations.

I first met Jerry when I was organizing a conference of alternative colleges in 1995. During that time, as part of my self-designed college program, I visited many schools in Jerry’s networks. Since then we have always kept in touch. I almost decided to work for him full-time in 1998, but then I changed my mind and ended up working at Amazon.com instead.

I have recently done some work with Jerry helping his organization with their websites. I also traveled some with Jerry including a trip to Summerhill and my first trip to Russia, where we participated in a conference on alternative schools.

On that trip two years ago, Jerry took me with Ilya and Olga to Alexander Tubelsky’s house. They talked about Tubelsky’s famous school, where Olga worked, the School for Self-Determination. Olga translated Tubelsky’s opinion that institutions like his school were “Author” institutions, creations of individual people; thus, in his case, his school was his creation and would not outlast him. The one-thousand student school that had been in existence for the final ten years of the Soviet Union and continued in the ensuing ten years, according to Tubelsky, was thus threatened because he was getting old.

From the number of cigarettes he smoked during that brief visit, I found myself agreeing that, indeed, the life expectancy of the man could not be great. Whether the school would indeed be unable to outlive him, I could not know. But I decided then that I would visit his school in session before he died.

That is why I am here now in Russia, to visit Tubelsky’s famous School for Self-Determination, the school in Moscow where for twenty years one thousand students have had the constitutional right to leave any class at any time.

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