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The geography teacher who said no Kamran Manafly lost his job in Moscow when he rejected state guidelines on discussing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with students. Then the school’s principal threatened him with prison, and he fled the country.
Kamran Manafly is a 28-year-old schoolteacher in Moscow. Or rather he was until recently, when he lost his job after refusing to follow state guidelines on how to discuss Russia’s “special military operation in Ukraine” with students. The final straw for the administrators was a photograph Manafly shared on Instagram from an antiwar protest where he wrote that he “doesn’t want to be a mirror of government propaganda.” The school fired him for “immoral behavior,” and a security guard later attacked him when he tried to retrieve his belongings from his office. Within days, the principal even threatened to have him prosecuted for “betraying the Motherland.” Meduza spoke to Manafly about his dismissal and subsequent decision to leave Russia altogether. What follows is his story, told in his own words.
I’m 28, and I’ve been a geography teacher for seven years already. I spent the last two years at School Number 498 in Moscow’s Tagansky District. It’s a typical high school.
I got my degree at Tver State University. I went into the geography department because they had an internship abroad. When you’re a first- or second-year student, you can travel around Europe, and that was pretty unusual, especially for Tver State.
During the first year I was getting my master’s degree, I worked with children for the first time at the International Olympiad on Geography. It was all very interesting to me. Afterward, I got some additional pedagogical training and then I went to work in a school.
The basic knowledge that Russian children get in school is very good, I think. Many of the textbooks on geography and social studies are high quality. In many schools, there was a spirit of freedom. After all, nobody knows what will happen in the classroom once the lesson begins. Obviously, each teacher can develop students’ critical thinking and teach in their own way.
A few years ago, like other teachers, I worked in the elections. My job was to show people where to go to vote. There were others who worked directly with the ballots. Colleagues from other schools told me how their tallies didn’t line up, and how they closed the polling stations and kicked out everyone and then rewrote everything. At a meeting before the election, our principal also told us: “Vote for United Russia!” but they didn’t make us take pictures of our ballots like they did at other schools.
After February 24 [when Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine], everything got a lot stricter. In fact, I didn’t even recognize the school’s administrators anymore. They sent us guidelines on the “special operation,” as they call it, about the origins of the conflict, and so on. We were supposed to tell all this and show all this to the children. Naturally, I refused. [There were no problems at first], as I already said, since they didn’t check to see what you actually did in the classroom.
But, a few days after the war started, [the school’s administrators] gathered all the teachers and told us that we’re not allowed our own opinions, since we’re “employees of the state.” This phrase really struck me. I don’t think state workers should be slaves to the state. They told us that we should speak to the children only according to these guidelines, and God forbid anyone expresses a personal opinion. And this triggered me. By law, schools are supposed to be neutral grounds, and here they are forcing us to push propaganda.
What are these state guidelines?
Russia’s federal government distributed teaching guidelines to schools across the country explaining why Russia’s “operation” in eastern Ukraine “is not a war.” The training materials claim that “Russia’s armed forces are not conducting air or artillery strikes at Ukraine’s cities, and there is no threat to the civilian population.”
A source close to a teachers’ union in Russia told Meduza that instructors have been told to incorporate the new guidelines into their curriculum immediately and urgently.
According to materials shared with Meduza, the Education Ministry is asking schoolteachers to show President Putin’s speech announcing the invasion to students and ask them questions based on his statements, such as: “Formulate the main reason for the start of the special military operation to defend the Luhansk and Donetsk people’s republics.”
The Education Ministry is also distributing QR codes that redirect people to “trustworthy information resources.” These include the websites for the Kremlin, the Defense Ministry, and various state-run news agencies.
Like any decent person with a conscience or sense of compassion and empathy, I myself am against war. That’s what we’ve taught our children, after all. To value human life above all else. It’s the school’s mission to be peace-loving.
From the very start [of the war], kids were running up to me in the hallways with questions. They wanted to know why this was happening and what these two new countries were [the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics, which Russia now recognizes]. There was that kind of thing. One way or another, the war came up during lessons, and I think that’s why they sent us all those guidelines. I tried to remain neutral and explain the situation without getting political. I said that a lot of things are going wrong, but I told the children to draw their own conclusions. Young people today are great; they’re a lot more peace-loving than older generations. They don’t understand at all why anybody should go over there and kill.
On March 8, I posted a photo on Instagram where I wrote that we must live in a way that we’re not tormented by our consciences. I have my own opinions and they don’t overlap with the state’s views. I didn’t get into any specific political issues, and I never used the word “war.” Afterward, the school’s principal, Tamara Gordzeiko, called me and told me to delete the post. As always, this was an order, not a request. When I refused, she said she would fire me.
The next day, I went to the school to say goodbye to the children and to collect my personal belongings. On the principal’s orders, there were guards at the entrance who refused to let me inside the building. The children saw me then, read my Instagram, and understood everything.
The school’s administrators called the police, who ended up escorting me inside to get my things. I was already an outcast: all the school’s employees averted their eyes and didn’t even say hello, just to be sure they didn’t show that they know me, God forbid.
Toward evening, I needed to go back inside the building. While I was walking down one of the hallways, one of the guards from before attacked me. He screamed obscenities at me and then started beating me. I managed to pull out my phone and turn on the camera. When he saw that, he calmed down a little. But I still filed a police report.
This happened around four in the afternoon. The kids had left the school, but there were many teachers still there who saw what happened. They immediately scattered back to their offices to avoid helping or intervening. That was what depressed me most of all. Nobody said a word. Either they’re afraid or they support it. Out of 150 people who work at the school, only one person — a young woman who’s also a teacher — called to comfort me.
The next day, the principal said she wouldn’t allow me to resign, saying that she’d fire me for supposedly staging a demonstration that included minors. By this, she meant that [after I’d been informed about my dismissal] I took some photos outside the school with my former students. In the end, they fired me for “immoral behavior.”
Afterward, I contacted the independent teachers’ union “Uchitel,” and we started putting together the paperwork to appeal my dismissal in court. But then something deeply unpleasant happened, and I decided to leave the country: The school principal, Tamara Gordzeiko, gathered all the teachers to talk about me. At the meeting [the school’s administrators] showed my photographs on Instagram from the United States, a photo from a tour of the European Court of Human Rights, and they shared these photos in chat groups run by students’ parents, and they forced kids to delete supportive comments under my post, threatening them with the juvenile delinquents’ department at the police.
They told everyone the most hackneyed, ridiculous horror stories about how I’m an agent for the U.S. State Department, how the West funds me, and how I have a business that’s tied to the West. Then the principal said she’d do everything in her power to have me thrown in prison for 15 years because I’m a “traitor to the Motherland,” and people like that belong behind bars. And she’s a deputy from United Russia on the local municipal council, so her words made me nervous. And after my story started getting publicity, they could have framed me for anything.
I haven’t decided yet where to go next. I’m currently at a transit point, but most likely it will be one of the Western countries. I hope very much that I’ll be able to teach in another country, but right now I just want to get somewhere safe and find some peace. Once I can get a good night’s sleep, I’ll start thinking about what to do next. Ideally, I’d like to keep working and developing.
I think the education situation in Russia will only get worse. It was literally just four years ago when my last principal gave me permission to go on a paid trip across Europe and America on an exchange with various pedagogical projects. And now it was all for nothing. The crackdown is worse than ever, and the education system is coming under a totalitarian regime more and more. There’s more control over the children, more control over what they learn and what they read. They’ve introduced classroom lessons about social networks, about which you can use and which you shouldn’t. The school system is trying to dictate the rules of life to children.
I’m in contact with teachers at other schools, and one colleague told me that the faculty at their school is forced to wear St. George’s ribbons in the shape of the letter Z. Obviously, there are teachers who resist, but they immediately begin to press these people. If teachers used to be able to have their own opinions, that is not the case now.
Translation by Kevin Rothrock
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