Moscow school is a landmark that must survive US-Russia showdown

Updated 4:07 PM EST, Fri December 30, 2016

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Silvia Marchetti: Anglo-American School of Moscow I attended is a landmark for expats

The school withstood the Cold War and should remain open, she writes

Editor’s Note: Silvia Marchetti is a Rome-based freelance reporter and writer. She covers finance, economics, travel and culture for a wide range of media including MNI News, TIME and The Guardian. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely hers.

CNN —  

Before today, the last time I opened my 1991/1992 yearbook from the Anglo-American School of Moscow was 15 years ago when I changed houses. I searched for it again Friday morning under a stack of university stuff, after a frenetic 24 hours of activity between Russia and the West. Amid the flurry of activity – President Barack Obama’s announcement of sanctions and expelled diplomats, Trump’s assertion that the US should “move on,” and Putin’s declaration that (despite the recommendation of his Foreign Minister) he will not retaliate in kind against US diplomats in Russia (yet) – reports reached me in Rome that the Kremlin would allegedly take steps to shut down the school as retaliation against Obama’s moves against Russia.

Silvia Marchetti
Silvia Marchetti
Silvia Marchetti

I was shocked, both by the sudden and dire turn of international events and by the material object before me. The yearbook was covered in layers of dust but it immediately flooded my mind with a wave of happy childhood memories from my time at the Anglo-American School of Moscow – dubbed AAS by its students and faculty.

In 1991, when I attended, the political outlook was quite unstable. The USSR was nearing its dissolution. A strong wind of change was blowing in Moscow, triggered by Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost, but risks and social tensions in the city were elevated. There were guards outside expats’ compounds, including ours, and the school had tight security checks as well.

I was just an 11-year-old kid back then, one whose father had moved to Moscow to oversee the first joint Western-USSR filling stations in the country. My dad thought wise to enroll me at the only middle school he believed would give me a good international background and also allow me to pursue my English-language learning.

I was one of only three Italians attending the school. My two best friends – Kim and Nicky – were both American. The school gave me and all other international students a sense of belonging. Campus life was great. During break we would gulp down a snack and rush to our lockers to pull out our ice skates. The football field had been turned into a huge ice skating rink and so for 20 minutes, despite the biting cold, we were free to whirl around until the bell rang again. It was thanks to Kim, who taught me how to stand upright on the ice, that I didn’t break my neck. And when I had the chance to spend the night at my American friends’ houses, it was big time for me.

The school wanted us to learn about Russian culture and traditions and to feel integrated despite the many barriers. Russian language teachers taught us how to make papier maché Matryoshka dolls and bake delicious blinis – Russian-style pancakes. At home I practiced preparing blinis, driving my mom crazy.

Once a week our teachers would make us tour local orphanages and schools to mingle with other Russian children, bringing them cakes and books. I had a pen pal named Anna with whom for a couple of years we kept writing to each other even after I left Moscow.

The best moments were during our school trips. Those were the only chances I had to leave home. Once our teacher took us out for the weekend to a Russian campsite. We slept in wooden bungalows and crossed frozen rivers and lakes on skis, visiting picturesque villages where granny-style babushkas greeted us with warm smiles. I still remember the muffled sound of falling snow and the blinding white scenery.

The school was divided in two parts: the elementary and middle schools were in one block while the high school was within the US embassy on the other side of Moscow. For important school events and year-end parties, we would all go to the US embassy where the cool big kids were. Stepping inside the American embassy was like exploring a city within a city, protected by a red brick wall with barbed wire. There were shops where I could buy my beloved Doritos chips and Oreo sandwich cookies.

As I write, the Anglo-American School of Moscow is currently closed for the winter break and it is not yet clear what its fate will be. Like in a ping-pong game, the US side maintains the school is closing or already closed, while the Russian authorities deny this. It could be just a routine, standard denial. However, in a statement posted Friday on Facebook, the school’s director said campus would re-open as scheduled after the holidays, on January 9, but added that “we will keep you posted through e-mails, postings on our website and if it is urgent through SMS.”

All this mystery and uncertainty over the future of the school might be temporary. I personally believe it’s just a matter of time before the dust settles. Putin appears to have no interest in taking any hazardous steps before President-elect Trump takes office, possibly waiting on a reversal of Obama’s decision and thus easing US-Russia ties.

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I really hope I am right, and that the school will continue to live on. It has been a significant landmark for the international community living in Moscow. Founded in 1949, it weathered more than 50 years of the Cold War when tensions between Russia and the US were at their highest. It would be absurd and unacceptable if it closed now.

Today, the school has expanded, moving to new headquarters that unite all schools in one major block. According to the school’s web site, it counts 1,250 students from over 60 countries and has a pool, a health center for pupils, a boutique and an auditorium called quite fittingly Bolshoi Theatre. It has made a lot of progress. Closing it would erase an important chapter of history.