Podmoskovny Lyceum: Educating “Children from Broken Families”

October 21, 2019

Pupils, parents and teachers celebrate the 25th anniversary since Podmoskovny was opened.

Authors: Vera Chelischeva, Anna Artemyeva

Photo: Anna Artemyeva / Novaya Gazeta

The Podmoskovny Lyceum was founded by Mikhail Khodorkovsky. This is a translation of an article originally published here on Novaya Gazeta.

“Let’s build a small lyceum in Korallovo for 20 to 30 people. For orphaned children, there are so many of them nowadays. Do it.”

“What’s up with you? Have you gone crazy. Children?! That’s so much responsibility!”

“You and mum will live and work there.”

“No!”

“We’ll take in the little ones.”

“I said no!!!”

“I’m telling you, we’ll take in orphans!”

“No!!!”

“Have you forgotten [about your childhood]?”

 

This conversation took place in 1992. Khodorkovsky junior (a future burden for the country) was doing the convincing, and Khodorkovsky senior (the best grandpa of all time and of all peoples) the resisting, until his son reminded him of his own post-war childhood. His father died in ’41 outside of Moscow. His mother was left to bring up two children alone, working double and triple shifts in a factory. A young Borya wandered the streets, sometimes begging in train stations and on trains. He would remember this his whole life. And eventually he listened to his son.

The Podmoskovny Lyceum was built in 1993. For orphans, children from vulnerable families and for children whose parents had died in wars, conflict zones, terror attacks and aeroplane crashes. In 1994 the lyceum enrolled its first pupils.

They created the lyceum out of nothing. ‘They’ were Khodorkovsky senior and Masha, Marina Filippovna Khodorkovskaya – Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s parents –  as well as the dozens of unique, talented and – most importantly – empathetic teachers who were prepared not only to educate these children, but also to enliven them with human warmth and support.

Photo: Anna Artemyeva / Novaya Gazeta

Crippled by the loss of loved ones, those who were enrolled in the school were hardly recognisable as children. But after a year of schooling they began coming out of their shells and smiling. Which wasn’t easy for the abandoned kids.

“At first my ears simply went numb when I heard how they spoke. It was awful,” recalled Marina Filippovna. “I hadn’t even heard of some of the swear words they were using before… But after a bit of time had passed I saw how they were reading books and saying please and thank you. They were changing.”

Sometimes it was the parents who brought their kids to the lyceum. More often than not these were dads who had been called up to fight in Chechnya or served in far-away harbours and outposts.  But mostly, during the initial years, employees from the lyceum – General Yury Mamonov and the former head of the prestigious special operations unit ‘Vympel’ Anatoly Yermolin –travelled around Russia’s borderlands and conflict zones searching for, as Mamonov put it, “children from broken families”. And they found them: kids from Kaspiysk, Volgodonsk, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Chechnya. The son of General Gamov, who was burnt alive in Vladivostok, studied at the lyceum. As did the children of those who were killed in the Moscow theatre hostage, in the Beslan terror attack and during military service for the ‘Vympel’ special ops unit.

Photo: Anna Artemyeva / Novaya Gazeta

The lyceum provides its education for free. Not a single penny has been taken from its pupils.

The children are taught by first-class teachers in all main subject areas, as well as in music, dance and fencing. The younger children have nannies who put them to bed and doctors and psychologists who treat all kinds of illnesses. There’s even a community liaison office for children’s rights.

From the very beginning this had been a unique experiment in pedagogy: give those a chance who had it hardest from a young age. And the experiment was a success: 16 classes have already graduated from the lyceum. Many of the graduates already have their own families with whom they often visit the lyceum just for fun. Those who study at the lyceum pass their middle- and high-school exams and enrol into Russia’s top universities.

Every year new pupils are enrolled. And the sole criterion for selection is the same as it has been for the last 25 years – “children from broken families”.

Photo: Anna Artemyeva / Novaya Gazeta

On 19 October 2019, another 54 newbies were officially enrolled into the “democratic lyceum republic”. The elder pupils held a concert on the lyceum’s 25th anniversary for parents, teachers, friends of the lyceum and, of course, for Khodorkovsky senior.

Surrounded by his pupils, Boris Moiseyevich – who had previously categorically rejected the idea of taking on ‘so much responsibility’ – proclaimed: “I love you all very much.”

It’s already been five years since he lost Masha. It has been difficult for him, the lyceum and all of us without her. But when you walk in the M. F. Khodorkovskaya Lyceum there is a sense that she is here, nearby.

Happy birthday, Podmoskovny!

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