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‘Your child has to spend a lot of time with these adults’ How Russia’s young war opponents navigate a school system set on churning out Putin supporters
For months now, Russian students and teachers who oppose the war in Ukraine have had to deal with an education system that increasingly prioritizes the proliferation of pro-Kremlin narratives over traditional subjects like math and science. In addition to requiring teachers to give weekly lessons called “Conversations About What’s Important” (where students are taught about topics like “love for the Fatherland”), administrators have begun cracking down on even the smallest expressions of anti-war sentiment. The independent Russian outlet iStories recently spoke to several parents and teachers about what strategies they’ve been using to keep their kids safe while not completely denying them intellectual autonomy. Meduza summarizes the article in English.
Earlier this month, like children every week in towns and cities across Russia, students at a Moscow secondary school were told to stand for the national anthem. Most obeyed, but two girls refused, and instead began playing the Ukrainian national anthem from a smartphone. A classmate filmed the incident, and the footage later reached the mass media.
The video soon appeared on pro-Kremlin Telegram channels and media outlets such as RT. Before long, the students started receiving threats. By November 18, videos of the girls apologizing for their actions began appearing on pro-war social media pages, according to the student-run independent news outlet Doxa.
The girls’ story is far from unique; in fact, other Russian students have been reprimanded for doing much less, — and some have even faced legal consequences. In October, for example, a fifth grader in Moscow was arrested after she used a yellow-and-blue avatar in her school’s online group chat and failed to show up for the Kremlin-scripted “Conversations About What’s Important.” The girl and her mother later learned that the school’s own principal was the one who reported her to the police.
More recently, a teacher in Karelia forced a seventh grader to turn around, facing backward, for an entire class period because he wore a hoodie in the colors of the American flag. “Class had just started, [the teacher] came into the room, saw this sweatshirt, and — as the saying goes — it was like a red flag before a bull,” the boy’s father told journalists.
For students who oppose the war, as well as for their families, this is the new normal: any misbehavior, statement, or even fashion choice that could be construed as disloyalty to the Russian state can lead to penalties from administrators, who might also report them to the authorities.
According to Daniil Ken, the head of the independent Teachers’ Alliance union, when a student encounters hostility for expressing anti-war views at school, the best way for parents to respond is by going to the school and doing whatever it takes to smooth things over (even if that means taking responsibility for their child’s supposedly wrong actions). “[The student] is going to have to spend a lot more time with these adults, and it’s a good idea [for parents] to find out what they think and what they plan to do about whatever happened,” he told iStories. “Parents need either to find some common ground with the teacher or take the ‘blame’ themselves.”
At the same time, Ken advised Russian parents to “conduct counterpropaganda” at home, though he this doesn’t always require talking directly about politics, he explained. “You don’t have to persuade [your kids] of different views or instill in them a different attitude towards current events; you can simply explain to them that in ['Conversations About What’s Important'], their teacher was just reciting information from a guide, not [actually teaching].”
Valery, a father from Tatarstan, said he believes that parents should nevertheless defend their children in front of school administrators, if they get into trouble for opposing the war in the classroom, but he too cautions that students should try not to attract attention to themselves deliberately. “[You need to explain to your child] that the Investigative Committee and the Attorney General are gladly sending people to prison right now for discrediting the armed forces. And proclaiming your opinion isn’t wise,” he said.
Valery also said that he and his daughter’s mother haven’t taken any overt “counterpropaganda measures” with their daughter: “[She] just sees how we feel about the world and the social order in general. I know that my child is against the war, and I know that she’s tied green ribbons in a few places, but she hasn’t taken part in any larger or riskier protests. And I’m thankful for that,” he said.
For students who don’t support the war, a best-case scenario is to end up with a like-minded teacher. But teachers who prefer spending time on math or science rather than parroting pro-Kremlin talking points have their own fine line to walk; defying the Education Ministry’s “recommendations” can attract attention from both administrators and especially from “patriotic” parents.
Luckily, Daniil Ken told iStories, “if a teacher hasn’t expressed oppositional views publicly before, his lessons are most likely not being watched particularly closely. And even if his failure to adhere to the ['Conversations About What's Important' lesson plans] is discovered, it’s practically impossible to prosecute him for that under the law,” he said.
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But flouting instructions doesn’t come without consequences. Tatyana Chervenko, a teacher in Moscow who decided math would be a better use of her students’ time than “Conversations About What’s Important,” filed a legal complaint against her employer after administrators officially reprimanded her. Though no parents had voiced any problems with her curriculum choices, the school’s vice principal eventually noticed that she’d ditched the pro-invasion materials, and he recorded one of her math lessons. An official warning followed. Chervenko later received a second reprimand for an interview she gave to the independent news outlet Dozhd. Today, she’s at risk of losing her job.
For most educators, however, teaching around the war isn’t the most urgent part of their work. Mikhail, a teacher from Russia’s Chelyabinsk region, says the majority of Russia’s teachers “don’t spend too much time in patriotic fervor”; they’re too busy trying to eke out a living amid rising consumer prices.
“If they half-ass teachers’ pay (or don’t pay us at all, like with ‘Conversations About What’s Important’) then the teachers are going to half-ass the work and will just go through the motions,” he said.
Abridged English-language version by Sam Breazeale
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