After her students dressed up as punks and goths, this Russian principal is on trial for embezzlement. Her ‘victims’ say police forced them to testify.
In the Russian Baltic outpost of Kaliningrad, a former school principal is on trial. Lyudmila Osipova had led the region’s prestigious Lyceum Number 49 for 30 years when, in 2017, a scandal unfolded.
Every year, the school’s upper-class students organize a celebratory ceremony to welcome new 10th graders to their midst. In 2017, the party’s theme was youth subcultures: Students dressed as punks, goths, and even hippies. Newcomers were told to undergo various forms of mild hazing such as drinking red tomato juice out of syringes or eating marshmallows and garlic simultaneously. Videos of the celebration posted online also showed vodka bottles filled with water and a pig’s head being used as decorations in the school’s chemistry classroom.
On November 9, almost three weeks after the party itself had taken place, a conservative Kaliningrad-based news portal called Exclav.ru published an article titled “A Death Cult behind Schoolroom Desks.” The article claimed that punk and goth subcultures, or in its wording, “sects,” were being used to propagandize “Western values” to children. Mikhail Cherenkov, who leads Exclav’s sister radio station Russky Krai, reposted the article to his personal LiveJournal page and said it had attracted a record number of viewers to the site.
At the time, Lyudmila Osipova chided her students for crossing “the line between humor and vulgarity” but also expressed bewilderment and frustration at the rising public attacks on the school. Prosecutors soon began investigating the incident nonetheless, arguing that the party did not “conform to the standards of patriotic education” and had “directly violated” Russia’s bans on promoting alcohol, drugs, or suicide to minors.
Multiple high-ranked regional officials, including Kaliningrad’s regional prosecutor and its capital’s mayor, publicly criticized the event. Meanwhile, parents of the lyceum’s students expressed alarm at the “harsh pressure” and “mudslinging” they felt was being inflicted on their community. A large group of parents signed an open letter to Vladimir Putin in support of Osipova.
For her part, the principal said that even before the subcultures party, officials had repeatedly insisted that she leave her post because of her age (she was 71 at the time). Osipova felt that local government figures had been looking for an excuse to fire her and finally found one. In June of 2018, Kaliningrad’s local government did indeed fire Osipova without providing an official explanation.
She was briefly reinstated in early 2019 only to face a series of criminal charges. Police accused Osipova of forcing parents to make compulsory donations that amounted to millions of rubles in total to fund school operations like security guards that had already been allocated funding from the local government. Officials claimed that Osipova’s motive for the crime was a desire to seem like “an effective leader capable of improving material conditions in the school,” and the region’s prosecutor argued that his team had not found similar violations in any other schools that collected donations because Osipova’s case had exercised a “preventative effect.” Another set of accusations rested on the claim that the principal had charged sports groups “rent” for using school facilities; Osipova said the teams themselves had asked to set up a donation agreement.
From the beginning of the case, Osipova said she had been warned that she might face criminal charges if she did not agree to resign from her post. She also argued that the financial charges against her were in fact a result of the 2017 school party scandal.
Meduza interviewed several parents and students from Lyceum Number 49. They all said no one had ever forced them to donate money. One parent, Lyudmila Zavaskas, said she had recently moved her youngest child away from the school after her daughter graduated there, and donation requests at the new, even more prestigious lyceum were higher than those she had received at Lyceum 49. Another parent, Olga Savchenko, said “everyone knows perfectly well” that government funds allocated to Russian schools are not always sufficient to cover students’ needs, “and then parents come to the schools’ aid.”
The school has undergone several searches since the case began. For the past year, investigators have also questioned parents and students from the lyceum as they attempted to gather evidence against Osipova. The number of students who were interrogated in the case as witnesses soon exceeded 400.
Ultimately, some of the parents who were interrogated as witnesses appeared as victims in Osipova’s trial, which began on September 10, 2019. However, according to the local newspaper Novy Kaliningrad and the principal’s defense attorney, those “victims” all testified from the witness stand that they had never been forced to make donations to their children’s school. The written affidavits recorded by investigators ahead of the trial said otherwise.
One witness explained that discrepancy by saying her “emotions were running high” during the interrogation process, and investigators may have reworded her testimony without her noticing. Other “victims” said investigators had typed out their testimony for them in advance. One woman even said investigators threatened to bring a criminal case against her if she did not comply with their demands. Osipov’s attorney noted that the large number of witnesses in the case may actually make it difficult for the court to justify a conviction because most of those witnesses have not provided evidence that incriminates the school principal.
Meduza spoke with three alumni of Lyceum Number 49 as Osipova’s trial got underway. They called her “strong,” “warm,” and “understanding,” adding that they did not believe the charges against her. One alumna, Anastasia Gorlach, explained that the party that evidently triggered Osipova’s charges was in fact structured more like an escape room, “a horror-themed quest” that was not an actual manifestation of the subcultures it depicted. Gorlach pointed out that signs of cultures frowned upon in the contemporary Russian government can be found “in absolutely everything,” noting that some Russian New Year’s festivities are based on pagan traditions. “Lyudmila Osipova gave children freedom of expression, and that’s very important. We can’t remain a country where everyone has to wear identical suits, where you can’t say or do anything,” the former lyceum student concluded.
The next hearing in Osipova’s trial is scheduled for September 16.
Summary by Hilah Kohen