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‘The principal tried to intimidate me with the psych ward’ A 10th grader in St. Petersburg talks about his uphill battle to form a student union

Meduza
Alexander Kryazhev / Sputnik / Scanpix / LETA

On December 3, an activist in the “Pedagogue” inter-regional education trade union named Andrey Demidov wrote on Facebook that a 10th grader in St. Petersburg is trying to form a student union at his high school. When the school learned about the boy's plans, administrators allegedly threatened to expel him and alert the police. The young man’s name is Leonid Shaidurov, and Meduza spoke to him, to find out more about what he hopes to accomplish with a student union.

Leonid Shaidurov

I’m in the 10th grade at high school № 622. This fall, I read a lot about how student unions are set up in the United States, and how students fight for their rights. For example, they’ve managed to get almost free cafeteria access for students, and the instructors and university administrations started going easier on students’ appearances.

I was very inspired, and I got the idea to create a union at a social institution like a school. Beginning in mid-autumn, I started reaching out to guys from my school, saying we should organize and become members of our own union. I told them about the American experience, what the structure of the trade union would be in our organization, about what methods of struggle trade unions use, what we could achieve, and how wrong it is to acquiesce to the administration. After a month of informal meetings, discussions, and the stories I told everyone, there weren’t five of us, but 170. We decided that we need to fight using radical measures, but with a cool head.

My associates and I outlined a minimal platform for ourselves. First, we settled on three main points. First, we want a stop to testing violations: we believe there shouldn’t be more than three exams in one day. Second, we want teachers to go easier on our appearance, without trying to stop us from expressing ourselves through hair color or jewelry. We’re not even against mandatory school uniforms, but we also want the teachers not to go overboard by banning everything on Earth that they subjectively think is just ugly. Third, we want to abolish the student council, which exists at our school and several other schools. The student council consists of quiet, sedate girls and boys selected by the school’s administration. Students have a lot of problems, but the student council doesn’t address these issues. One time, I went to a meeting where they talked about the New Year’s party, and they ignored the issues I raised. I think the student council has outlived its usefulness and no longer satisfies our needs. We need to abandon this system and build a new one based on student self-government.

In fact, the real plan is to use student strikes to bring about an end to the EGE [the Unified State Exam]. We want to move this issue to the strike level inside our school.

On November 14, my associates and I decided to hold an informal meeting together, and we all met at the soccer field outside the school. There were about 25 people in all — a narrow circle of people I could rely on. The principal saw us through the window of her office, and the next day she summoned me, and said that she was certain it was a “protest rally.” She tried to intimidate me with the psych ward and the district attorney, saying I was a “wannabe leader.” Afterwards, she started calling me to her office every day to intimidate me.

In the meantime, she didn’t know who at the school were my supporters. So she started summoning senior at random, telling them to stay away from me because I’m an extremist. She constantly threatened to expel me from the school, telling me the district attorney would come for me, without ever giving any reason why. But she often said she was afraid they’d fire her.

I think it’s important in our movement to attract teachers also, and to explain everything to them, because they’re either not used to fighting, or they’ve forgotten how. On the surface, it’s like teachers see unions just as organizations that hand out free circus tickets and holiday gifts to their kids.

I don’t know how this will turn out, but right now I’m sure that I’ll continue my fight for the creation of a student union, even if they expel me from the school. In the future, I’m going to be become either a history or social studies teacher, or a food-processing engineer.

The receptionist at high school № 622 told Meduza that the school’s principal refuses to comment on the situation, but insisted that there are no plans to expel Shaidurov. Public officials in the St. Petersburg Vyborgsky District office were unavailable for comment.

Update: On December 4, Russia’s Education Ministry issued a statement comparing Shaidurov’s organizing efforts to “building a barricade.” “The ministry always supports student initiatives in all aspects of educational activities, when they are creative, rather than destructive,” the agency said, arguing that standardized testing (one of Shaidurov’s bugaboos) makes universities accessible to high school students in different regions across Russia.

Interview recorded by Irina Kravtsova

Translation by Kevin Rothrock