The first nation in space has fallen behind relative newcomers in math and science, mainly from Asia. A top six finisher in the pre-college International Mathematical Olympiad every year until 2015, Russia tumbled to a worst-ever 11th last year, behind upstarts like Vietnam, Iran and Thailand. On a broader level, Russia is middling, ranking 32nd out of the 72 countries in the PISA exam of 15-year-olds, far behind Estonia, a fellow former Soviet republic.

The World Bank warned in November that low government spending on education and health in Russia “may jeopardize both economic growth and the well-being of the population.’’ Russia spends about 3.6 percent of economic output on each category, compared with 4.9 percent and 7.2 percent, respectively, in the European Union, the Washington-based lender said.

Retooling the educational system after communism’s failure remains a work in progress. Critics like Moshkovich, who got his graduate degree from the Moscow Institute of Radio, Electronics and Automatics, say low morale and chronic underfunding—even the best teachers can earn less than $250 a month—are just parts of the problem. They say state primary and secondary schools still rely too much on memorization and standardized testing and don’t do enough to encourage critical and creative thinking.

Moshkovich, 50, who made his fortune in sugar and pork, retired from the senate in 2014 to focus on education. He’s hoping the methods he’s developing at Letovo will stimulate reforms nationwide. His school will offer students both a Russian diploma and a certificate from International Baccalaureate, a Swiss non-profit with a curriculum it says ‘prepares students to succeed in a world where facts and fiction merge in the news.’