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A student at a Moscow high school during Russia’s new patriotic lessons

‘Genocide’ with seventh graders Moscow schoolteachers describe how they navigate the Russian state’s new ‘patriotic’ curriculum

Source: Bereg
A student at a Moscow high school during Russia’s new patriotic lessons
A student at a Moscow high school during Russia’s new patriotic lessons

It’s a new school year in Russia, which means teachers and students nationwide are returning to the classroom as the country’s brutal invasion of Ukraine drags on. Many educators strongly oppose the war but have remained in Russia for various reasons. These teachers must navigate state-guided Monday lessons on patriotism and the Kremlin’s version of history, adapting to a changing mandatory curriculum and supporting students and colleagues as best they can. Independent journalists at the Bereg cooperative spoke to four teachers in Moscow about how their work has transformed over the past year and a half and what they think lies ahead for Russia’s school system in the near future. With Bereg’s permission, Meduza presents an English-language summary of those interviews.

Elena (pseudonym)

40 years old, foreign-language teacher at a school in Moscow

When it comes to “Conversations About What Matters” and Russia’s evolving curriculum related to patriotism and the war in Ukraine, most of the work falls on the shoulders of homeroom teachers. Journalists from Bereg spoke to one of these teachers, identified by the pseudonym Elena, for her own safety. She said it’s her responsibility to meet with any students who ask politically sensitive questions in class or are overheard making comments about the war. In certain situations, like if someone is caught humming the Ukrainian national anthem, the homeroom teacher might even summon that student to a meeting with a psychologist and a school social worker.

Elena recalled one case where she had to speak to a student’s mother and report to the principal after the student deliberately provoked another teacher known to hold strongly “state-oriented views.” In the end, the student agreed to apologize for offending the teacher. Elena stresses that the apology was not for refusing to support the “party line.”

More “systematically” disruptive behavior, however, isn’t resolved so easily, explained Elena. Students who go so far as to picket or distribute anti-war literature can expect a meeting not only with a school social worker but also with a district-level administrator. Schools also involve parents in these talks.

Elena says different teachers respond differently to being told that they must monitor their students like this. She describes the current classroom conditions as a “moral meat grinder” for students who desperately need all the support they can get. “I see my job as creating a micro-climate at school that will distract students from the nightmare that is [maybe] unfolding around the dining table every night — all these feelings, fears, economic changes, and arguments between parents,” Elena said.

Like the other teachers who spoke to Bereg, Elena said there is still substantial room to “improvise” when it comes to teaching the “guidelines” provided for the “Conversations About What Matters.” Elena says some of the time allocated for the Monday morning “conversations” with students is inevitably spent on quiz preparation, birthday congratulations, and other housekeeping matters, though she warns that wasting too much classroom time is a “slippery slope” that risks angering school administrators or parents who take notice.

She also points out that various topics are covered in the state’s curriculum, and “not everything should be thrown straight in the fire.” Elena says her meetings with parents about these lessons have been “constructive,” and she herself hasn’t encountered any mothers or fathers who insist against their children attending the new patriotic lessons. She argues that much of the ideology embedded in the new curriculum is based more on Russia’s cultural, educational, and sporting achievements than the war in Ukraine. “For now,” Elena told Bereg, “nobody’s forcing us to go on field trips to the Great Patriotic War Central Museum, but everything the state offers to schoolchildren is a bit skewed in that direction.”

Russia’s new history textbook

‘Such unique times are rare in history’ Russian authorities unveil new high school history textbook that includes section on war in Ukraine

Russia’s new history textbook

‘Such unique times are rare in history’ Russian authorities unveil new high school history textbook that includes section on war in Ukraine


30 years old, subject teacher at a private school in Moscow

The situation at private schools in Russia’s capital appears slightly different. Since the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, roughly a fifth of the student body and faculty at Anastasia’s school have moved abroad. She says her school now has far fewer men on staff.

Anastasia told Bereg that her younger students seem to lack interest in the war, viewing it as a far-off affair that belongs to the adult world and doesn’t directly affect their own lives. She also stressed that teachers at her school don’t press their students to express opinions about the war. In fact, some of her colleagues apparently don’t see the point in mentioning it at all in the classroom. Recalling one of the few times she says someone ever asked a question related to the invasion, Anastasia said a student asked her how she can still joke during her lessons “when the world is like this.” “I answered that, if I lose my marbles, it would be hard for me to support myself and those who rely on me,” Anastasia told Bereg.

At one point after the full-scale invasion, a postcard arrived from “a German school” with drawings of Ukrainian flags and the message: “Peace, please.” Anastasia says her students started exchanging letters with the school. In a later phone call with the German school’s teachers, Anastasia learned they had mailed postcards to 50 or so schools in Moscow. “We were the only ones who answered,” she said.

When it comes to her classroom, Anastasia said she and her colleagues “try to maintain neutrality,” though the faculty still fears that Education Ministry officials might turn their attention toward their institution and its unspoken but fundamental atmosphere of “opposition politics.” She says the school hopes to stay off the authorities’ radar for now by avoiding outright pro-Ukraine activism. She told Bereg: “We comfort ourselves with the fact that we don’t show up at rallies and say, ‘Guys, let’s chip in 500 rubles for Ukraine’s Armed Forces.’”

Anastasia said her school — a private institution — ignored the state’s patriotic curriculum guidelines last year. “As far as I understand, for private schools in Moscow at least, these were just recommendations,” she explained, before admitting that she doesn’t know if her school’s policy will change in the future. “Anything’s possible in this country, after all.”

Yulia (pseudonym)

55 years old, physical education teacher at a school in Moscow

In contrast to Anastasia’s account of an exodus from her school, Yulia says just a single colleague has moved abroad since the February 2022 invasion: a woman who feared her husband might be drafted. Yulia says none of the men working at her school was mobilized last fall, even though her school employs several men in its junior reserve officer training corps.

The security issue that has most changed life at Yulia’s school, it turns out, is something that will be sadly familiar to many Americans: the threat of terrorist attacks and shootings, which she says has led to strict lockdown measures during class hours. “I wanted to invite an international class coach to an open lesson, and they demanded that he not only bring his passport but also his education records, his coach’s book (no such thing even exists), and — if you can believe it — lab swabs and certificates showing that he doesn’t have cholera or the plague,” Yulia complained.

Her school has conducted emergency drills to teach students and staff what to do if a bomb is discovered on the campus. But school officials have issued no instructions on what to do in case of a drone attack, she told Bereg.

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Vasilisa (pseudonym)

24 years old, Russian-language teacher at a private school in Moscow

Like Anastasia, who also works at a private school, Vasilisa said her administrators told her she’s free to use her own teaching materials and ignore the state’s guidelines. She told Bereg that she views the “Conversations About What Matters” as a challenge to hold the lessons “without propaganda”: 

In the recommendations for one of the lessons, there was this dreadful wording — “the genocide of the Soviet people by Nazi Germany and its accomplices” — but I didn’t even say it. We just discussed the concept. It was an interesting experience to talk about “genocide” with seventh graders, first thing on a Monday.

Vasilisa also said that no one monitors attendance at these lessons, and she described an apparent consensus among teachers and parents alike that the “Conversations About What Matters” are optional. “Once, I taught a lesson with three seventh graders, and there should have been 20,” she recalled.

This attitude is particularly strong in the language and literature department where Vasilisa works. “We linguists are lucky: unlike social-studies and history teachers, we don’t get into the sensitive subjects that the war might stir up,” explained Vasilisa.

Despite this relative freedom in the classroom, Vasilisa says the state’s patriotic agenda and interference have nearly exhausted her patience. Like other teachers who spoke to Bereg, she expressed uncertainty about what to expect in the near future. “It feels like anything could happen, and they could introduce any kind of new requirement for teachers,” said Vasilisa.

For example, she still needs to prepare her students for standardized tests and college entry exams, which now feature questions about the Second World War that require answers parroting the state’s version of history. Meanwhile, Russia’s Pedagogical Testing Federal Institute now supplies preparation materials that mention people from the war in Ukraine alongside famous historical figures like explorer ​​Nicholai Nikolaevich Miklouho-Maclay and scientist Mikhail Lomonosov. The authorities’ many “foreign agent” designations have also barred Vasilisa from assigning readings to her students from the pages of the independent news media: “Just two years ago, we took articles from Novaya Gazeta and Meduza, but now that’s impossible.”

Vasilisa says she remains at her job for fear of abandoning students who already have too few adults they can turn to. “I’ve seen how hard it hits children when their teachers say they no longer want to live in Russia and leave. It really discourages them,” she told Bereg. “In difficult times, I want to be there for them. I want to support them.”


Adapted for Meduza in English by Kevin Rothrock

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