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‘Entire subjects are being cut’ Russia's schools are hemorrhaging teachers as they flee mobilization
In the three weeks since it began, Russia’s mobilization campaign has kneecapped the country’s education system. A new investigation from the independent media outlet Verstka found that Russian teachers, who aren’t exempt from the draft, are going into hiding and fleeing the country in droves. Private schools, many of which saw a spike in enrollment this year as families scrambled to avoid the “patriotic” curriculum implemented in public schools this fall, are facing closure. With no other options, students and parents have begun writing directly to politicians, pleading for individual teachers to be made exempt — a painful exercise for war opponents, who know that their appeals need to be soaked in praise for Putin and the Motherland to have a chance of being heard. Meduza recounts Verstka’s findings in English.
For Andrey (named changed), a 39-year-old physics teacher at a private school in St. Petersburg, staying in Russia after the Kremlin launched its full-scale war in Ukraine was a sacrifice he was willing to make. “We, the teachers, remained in Russia after February 24 in order to prepare the children. After all, when the regime changes, all of this will fall on their shoulders,” he told Verstka.
But when Putin announced mobilization on September 21, the risk became too great. On the night of September 24, Andrey crossed the Russia-Georgia border on foot.
According to Andrey, he’s far from the only one getting out of dodge: 80 percent of the teachers at the school where he works intend to leave in the near future, while all of the school’s on-staff tutors plan to emigrate (or go into hiding) if they haven't already. As a result, administrators are discussing either relocating the school or closing it altogether.
To make matters worse, he said, more students enrolled in the school than usual this year; with “patriotism lessons” and other political messaging on the rise in public schools, the demand for private ones is up. On the other hand, a lot of students have begun leaving with their parents, many of who are also seeking to evade the draft.
The toll mobilization has taken on Russian schools is by no means unique to St. Petersburg — or to private schools. Immediately after the conscription effort was announced, news reports began appearing of teachers throughout the country being served draft orders right at their schools. One teacher in Kozyrevsk, a village in Kamchatka, was served a summons in front of his entire class and his wife, who teaches at the same school.
Dmitry (name changed), a young English language teacher from Russia’s Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, told Verstka he decided to leave as soon as he learned teachers wouldn’t be granted draft exemptions. By the time he left, he said, three teachers from his school had already been conscripted.
Nobody is safe
Russia’s mobilization orders don’t discriminate based on merit: even some of the country’s most “decorated” teachers are being drafted. On September 18, Bashkir language teacher Miras Ishdavletov, who lives in Ufa, won a prize in a nationwide competition for teachers of indigenous languages and literature. A week later, he was named an Honored Teacher of the Republic of Bashkortistan. The following day, he was conscripted.
“We thought maybe it was a mistake, because he doesn’t have combat experience,” said the teacher’s wife, Irina Ishdavletov. “But they took him. Nobody helped us. It upsets me deeply that they treat highly qualified personnel that way. We got married this summer, and we’re expecting a baby. I’ll be taking maternity leave soon. We both have mortgages, and we took out an auto loan this summer. Now I have to take all this on alone.”
According to Irina, her husband was officially signed up as a volunteer; officials at the military commissars office say he wanted to go to war. But she’s confident he wouldn’t have left her in such a tough position.
‘Counter to the interests of the Motherland’
Yury Varlamov, head of a Russian teacher’s union called Uchitel, told Verstka that in some schools, the teacher shortage has reached a crisis point: there’s simply nobody to teach the students.
“In many schools, up to 100–120 hours of instruction are unfilled each week — there’s nobody to replace [the teachers who have left]. In some cases, entire subjects are being cut from the schedule. The overall picture is still unclear, but what is clear is that it’s not going to be a happy one,” said Varlamov.
Uchitel has appealed to the president and the Russian government to request that teachers be given exemptions from mobilization. “Thousands of students are left without teachers. There’s nobody to replace them,” the union members wrote.
The sudden crisis has given rise to a new phenomenon: children and parents sending collective letters to the authorities to request that their teachers be allowed to keep teaching. The messages are intentionally crafted so as not to deter propagandists from covering them: they never criticize the “special military operation” or blame the government for the problems.
In late September, for example, students from Lyceum Number 4 in Pskov left a comment under an online post from the region’s governor. The students made sure to state that they “fully support the actions of the President and the Russian Government to protect the residents of the Donbas” before requesting a draft exemption for their history teacher, Ilya Kazantseva.
“We’re sure that our teacher will be ashamed of our appeal to you, because he’s a real man and is prepared to take part in combat. [...] It is our view that his teaching career is his [real] combat post. [...] He’ll achieve more victories in the classroom, where he’ll bring patriotism and love for the Motherland to the masses,” the students wrote.
The comment caught the attention of RT head Margarita Simonyan. Soon after she noted the message, she reported that the teacher had been “returned to his school.”
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A similar appeal was published in the comments of State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin’s Telegram channel, where students from Moscow’s School No. 1788 asked for a draft exemption for their math and computer science teacher, Aidar Akhmetshin. The message ended with the words, “We fully agree with and support the decision of the President of the Russian Federation, but we believe removing the school’s teaching staff from the educational and IT preparation process runs counter to the interests of our Motherland.”
“When I read the appeal, where the children [say they] support the war, I was horrified,” the mother of one Moscow student told Verstka. Her son’s homeroom teacher, however, also received a draft order, putting the class in a similar situation. According to the mother, the teachers and students knew that formulating the message that way was the only way to save the children’s teacher — but that doesn’t mean they believe what they wrote.
‘A catastrophic shortage’
In early August, Russian Education Minister Sergey Kravtsov reported that the country’s schools were ready for the start of the new school year — and that “as many of the vacancies as possible have been filled.” According to the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA), however, about 3 percent of Russia’s teaching positions are currently vacant.
Yana Lantratova, the First Deputy Chairman of the State Duma’s Education Committee, has taken notice. Every day, she told Verstka, she gets dozens of messages about teachers being mobilized. The scale of the complaints eventually prompted her to ask Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu himself to grant elementary and middle school teachers exemption from the draft.
“Teachers really are greatly needed by our schools, by our children,” Lantratova said. “We have a catastrophic shortage of them, especially men. Male teachers are worth their weight in gold!”
But just like Uchitel’s appeal to the authorities, Lantratova’s message to Shoigu has gone unanswered.
Meduza's English-language version by Sam Breazeale
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