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Coding circle: the programmers re-shaping Russia’s far-flung regions

Coding circle: the programmers re-shaping Russia’s far-flung regions

Kruzhok is a group of programmers who travel to towns and villages across Russia to teach children the basics of website creation in a bid to stimulate regional development and challenge some of the norms of Soviet teaching. Can they change local mentalities?

1 August 2018

A class of schoolchildren aged between 10 and 14 sit behind computer screens answering the last question of a quiz on the history of the Internet. One of the classroom’s doors leads to a media laboratory. Another to an observatory tower. Outside the windows, rolling hills and forested mountains bask in the sun of a warm July afternoon.

No, this is not Silicon Valley. This is the small village of Khryug in Russia’s largely Muslim region of Dagestan in the North Caucasus. All the locals know each other by name, the call to prayer is chanted twice a day from an old stone tower and the scent of herbs and livestock hangs in the humid air.

The classroom is in the Luminary Centre, an educational facility built in May 2018 that runs extracurricular activities for local children. One of its main goals is to invite guests who can teach the children particular skills and give them a window onto a different world. In the last week of July, the visitors were Sergey Nugaev, Sasha Bratchikov and Alexander Patlukh, founders of Kruzhok, an educational project running programming courses for children across Russia. Khryug is one of nine villages Kruzhok have visited since they were founded.

Children in the village of Sardayal working with Kruzhok

The idea for Kruzhok was born in May 2017 when Nugaev and Bratchikov — both former teachers at the Moscow Coding School — met to discuss the idea of conducting programming courses in villages. Within a few weeks, they had recruited fellow teacher Alexander Patlukh. And by August, they had visited their first destination, Votkinsk, a former rocket-producing town in the central Russian republic of Udmurtia.

“Both Sasha and I are from provincial towns, so we were well aware of how underdeveloped schools and educational systems are,” Nugaev explains. Initially, the idea for Kruzhok (in Russian the word means both “circle” and an “extra-curricular club”) was to teach the kids programming and help them come up with ideas to catalyse growth in their respective towns. But the project took a new turn at their fourth destination, Glazok, when the local schoolchildren proposed creating a website that would serve as an online guide to their village.

“Our websites are essentially fighting for a sort of decentralisation”

“We immediately grasped that this was a phenomenal idea,” Nugaev says. The website set a precedent for a new format that Kruzhok would use in later trips: children design their own website and, using their own words, paint a picture of their village for outsiders.

With its sleek design and exhaustive content, the website for Glazok immediately began to garner attention. “It was quite a surprise,” Nugaev explains. “One day we’re drafting a pitch for media outlets, the next day we were getting requests to appear on both independent and state-funded channels.” He adds that the media attention brought with it an influx of invitations from schools across Russia’s regions.

Screenshot of a website created by Kruzhok with local children in the village of Sardayal

For Kruzhok, however, it was the tangible improvements to the small towns they’d visited that was the payoff. “Residents of Russia’s major cities — whether due to lack of media attention or the limited social media bubbles we exist in — haven’t the slightest idea of how people live in the provinces,” Bratchikov says. “Our websites are essentially fighting for a sort of decentralisation.”

Within less than a month of creating the Glazok site, dozens of tourists were arriving in the small, seemingly unimportant village, while authorities from the neighbouring city of Tambov began installing a new bus route to the village. “A few weeks after our visit to a school in Sardayal, the principle called to tell us that the local authorities had laid out a plan for a new school,” Nugaev recalls.

Much of Kruzhok’s appeal — and for the sceptics, their pitfall — lies in their progressive educational methodology. For Kruzhok’s teachers, programming is just a framework to expose children to the ways of the modern world. As the sun set behind Khryug’s hills in Dagestan, the Kruzhok team walk with two of the boys to their local football pitch. Alexander Patlukh used the opportunity to mentor one of the boys, Muslim, who had earlier been in a fight. “We want to tell them that the modern world is more diplomatic and more tolerant,” he says.

The attempt to rattle the status-quo, and depart from Soviet-era, lecture-based educational norms, are priorities for Kruzhok. Critical thinking is largely suppressed in Russia’s schools, Bratchikov explains, and Kruzhok tries to push students to analyse problems and generate solutions for themselves. “I realised just how underdeveloped even my own critical thinking abilities were when I had to collaborate on projects with foreigners as a student,” he says.

Kruzhok teachers in the Russian port city of Novorossiysk

“Unlike our schoolteachers, the Kruzhok guys are our friends,” says one of the Khryug students, Ismailia, 14. “We’re never afraid to ask them questions, and they always guide us to work through our problems without giving us the answers.”

After finishing their quiz, the students in Khryug are asked to come up with a list of what they see as the most important characteristics of their village. The list includes religion, sport and the traditional Lezginka dance. Groups of students are then assigned each category and instructed to draft a written description. The initial responses were clearly copy-pasted from Wikipedia. “Ask yourselves,” Nugaev addresses the students, “would you be interested in reading this before bed?” After the class unanimously responds with “no,” the teachers suggest the children use their own words and come up with more interesting content.

The attempt to rattle the status-quo, and depart from Soviet-era, lecture-based educational norms, are priorities for Kruzhok

“You’re not here to receive an A in an exam, you’re here so together we can create an awesome product,” Nugaev explains. In the end, the group responsible for local religion decide to conduct an interview with the grandmother of a student, while those given sport and dance decide to record something to camera. The children are pushed to think about storytelling and observe themselves from a different angle.

Many of Kruzhok’s lessons are guided by spontaneity. While filming wrestling stunts at the local football pitch, the Kruzhok team are approached by Khryug’s wrestling coach, who happened to be exercising with his son. The coach offers to teach the boys a quick move that would look good for the camera. “These serendipitous moments confirm we’re doing the right thing,” Nugaev says. “Everything falls into place organically if you’re moving in the right direction.”

Students of Kruzhok in the town of Tarusa near Moscow

Travelling has helped to enrich the members of Kruzhok themselves. “I used to think I was a very grey person, but now I have a kaleidoscopic series of Dovlatov-esque anecdotes I can share at any social gathering,” says Nugaev, referencing Russia’s beloved humorist Sergei Dovlatov, whose stories about the absurdities of day-to-day Soviet reality still ring true. “From being woken up at 4am by a stoker building the fire while sleeping on the floor of a nursery in the dead of winter, to one of our fellow teachers falling into a pond in Novorossiysk — these light-hearted stories paint a picture of a Russia we never really knew.”

Whether the teachers from Kruzhok are waking up at sunrise with fresh milk in a makeshift cottage on a Dagestani mountainside or crawling through pipes and debris in the half-abandoned port of Novorossiysk, there’s always something to be discovered. “It’s not just the people,” says Nugaev. “It’s the untapped, mystifying beauty in places slated as the middle of nowhere that we hope the rest of Russia will one day discover for itself.”

Kruzhok will host its first cross-cultural festival in the village of Sardayal in the Mari El Republic 25-26 August. The program will consist of lectures on the potential of Russia’s villages and feature artists including the St Petersburg-based electronic band SPBCh.

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