Minsk School Operates in Shadows


Pupils attending class in an undisclosed location. The school routinely changes its address to evade authorities.

MINSK -- For three years, teachers at the Yakub Kolos lycee have been leading their pupils from one secret address to another.

Moving mostly between private homes, the 90 pupils are defying the high school's official closure in 2003 to try to encourage freethinking and foster Belarussian -- the language associated with the small opposition in the ex-Soviet state.

"The history course we teach has nothing to do with the version drafted by Belarussian authorities," said Vladimir Kolos, director of the school. "And we conduct classes in good Belarussian. That's rare these days."

Officials say the school building was closed as part of a move to consolidate facilities and save money. Staff believe it was shut down because they broke away from the official curriculum taught at state schools and nurtured Belarussian.

They decided to keep their classes going and resorted to the cat-and-mouse game after attempts to rent public halls led to confrontations or bureaucratic tangles with authorities.

Teachers found that halls were mysteriously booked, unavailable or found to have failed fire or safety inspections.

No one now discloses where the classes are held.

Running the gauntlet of inspectors and Education Ministry officials has become commonplace for these teachers in Belarus, ruled by President Alexander Lukashenko since 1994.

The opposition and Western countries accuse him of rounding up rivals, closing down media, rigging elections and hounding independent cultural associations.

Children starting state school are given a book entitled "Belarus -- my homeland" featuring four imposing photographs of the president.

Re-elected in March in a poll denounced in the West as rigged, Lukashenko has reintroduced the Soviet notion of obligatory ideology courses for both state and private schools.

But the Yakub Kolos School helps its pupils challenge this ideology.

"When we went to ordinary schools, we weren't free to express our opinions," said pupil Oleg Volotovsky. "That could get you into trouble."

For Yelina Kazarskaya, whose two daughters attend the school, "there is no school in Belarus like this lycee. Its graduates get into the most prestigious universities."

Lukashenko routinely derides the Belarussian language.

Now associated mostly with academics and, more important, with the liberal and nationalist movements that denounce his administration, Belarussian is an eastern Slavic language midway between Russian and Ukrainian.

It fell into general disuse under Soviet authorities determined to use Russian to limit nationalist sentiment here and elsewhere. Attempts to revive it after the fall of communism retreated when Lukashenko took office in 1994.

Though street signs are in Belarussian, it is rarely heard in towns and was viewed in Soviet times as unsophisticated.

It is the language of instruction for one in five pupils nationwide, but for only 2 percent in the capital, Minsk. In other schools, it is a required subject, but some students and parents say it is not taught seriously.

The language -- and its role in the national consciousness -- seems to be at the heart of the Yakub Kolos lycee's appeal. Two candidates compete for every available place.

"My son learned to speak Belarussian better here in a month than in all the previous years put together in state schools," said Tatyana Volotovskaya.

The school, which is funded by parents, cannot issue state diplomas, but its pupils can enter universities by sitting for separate examinations.

"I started at the lycee before they closed it down. Then we just kept moving from apartment to apartment. We were the first students to take the entrance exams separately," said Yevgeny Blok, now preparing for university in Lodz in next-door Poland.

Kolos -- of no relation to the Belarussian poet after whom the school is named -- says about half the graduates go abroad to study. "Our teaching methods try to ensure that pupils become Belarussian patriots and want to stay in our country," he said. "But our graduates have a hard time in Belarussian universities as so much time in the academic program is devoted to ideological disciplines."

The pupils are keenly aware of their sensitive circumstances.

On Sept. 1, the traditional start of the school year in the former Soviet Union, they gather outside the closed school building. Standing by a gate outside the building, they place flowers on the ground and share student songs.

"There are no restrictions on how we work," said history teacher Valentin Golubev. "We can discuss just about any problem with our children."