Russian schools are far from being uniform, which makes it difficult to describe the situation of school workers in general terms. Therefore, in this article I’ll try to cast light on those aspects of secondary education that I’ve personally encountered since February 24th as a teacher and labor union activist in Moscow. As a key social institution, the school is reflective of the conflictual processes underway in the country more broadly. Violence, bullying, petty despotism and spineless submission, arbitrariness, stupidity, incompetence — these are common problems for the modern school and are, in many ways, also at the heart of this war. Yet there are also encouraging sides to school life: knowledge, care, friendship, cooperation, solidarity, dialogue between generations, a sense of local community. These, I believe, could show us a way out of the social and political catastrophe that we are experiencing. I will return to this later, once I’ve described several narratives that characterize the situation of secondary education since the onset of the so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine.
Standardization and optimization
Russian schools report to local authorities at a municipal and/or regional level; their funding is almost entirely dependent on local budgets. Determined by a local budget’s size and structure, the resources available to schools in different regions — even in neighboring municipalities — obviously vary. This unevenness is exacerbated by the principle of per capita financing, in which a wage fund is determined by a given school’s total enrollment, and each teacher’s salary depends on the number of students in class. In many cases, wages are also impacted by school managers’ arbitrary decisions regarding particular matters that factor into their calculations: these managers may, for instance, manipulate the workload and withhold or unfairly distribute incentives and rewards. On top of this, per capita standard rates of school funding remain at the same level for years without adjustment, and thus do not reflect the actual financing needs per student. As a result, school funding gradually loses touch with reality: at best, it stagnates, at worst, it diminishes in real terms.
The state regards secondary schools in purely functional terms, as an instrument that must dutifully serve its political and social objectives and, to boot, be cheap to maintain. Accordingly, following the onset of full-scale war in Ukraine, demands to double down on patriotic education in schools has not been accompanied by a significant funding boost. The only measures have entailed raising class supervision bonuses to 5,000 rubles [less than €100] per month and allocating 15,000 rubles per school per month for educational outreach specialists (i.e. creating a new position, “Deputy Principal for Educational Outreach”, to be paid at this rate). Even by the standards of an average small-town school, none of this amounts to serious financing that could change the situation in a meaningful way.
In this context, both the public and education workers can only wonder at the Ministry of Education’s innovations, most of which resemble hollow publicity stunts or attempts to please President Putin personally — for example, by launching a students’ history movement, “Power in Truth”. Of particular note is the addition of courses like “Crimea and Sevastopol’s reunification with Russia” and “the special military operation in Ukraine” to the standard curriculum in Russian History for high school students.
So far, the impression one gets is that the recent educational innovations’ main objective is not a concrete change in terms of substance but rather the standardization of teaching and learning processes. Amid serious political challenges and the worsening economic crisis, both of which are directly connected to the war in Ukraine, the Russian state intends to make secondary education as uniform as possible, which would in theory make it easier to control.
In this respect, the educational reforms implemented in Moscow in the early 2010s offer a paradigm for today’s officials. The reforms were championed by the then chairman of the Moscow Government Department of Education, Isaak Kalina, who notoriously compared students to gherkins that need to be pickled by the school system in a standardized fashion. In Moscow, this regularization was an almost complete success, flattening erstwhile diversity and whittling the system down to just two kinds of institutions: prestigious public schools that enjoy some circumscribed autonomy, and all other schools that must submit to any and all demands without question.
Something similar to this model is now, apparently, envisaged for all schools across Russia. But there is one catch: money. The state does its best to avoid investing in the education system, especially in mainstream public schools. Kalina’s authoritarian standardization in Moscow necessitated some increases in per capita funding for regular schools, thereby mitigating the reforms’ negative consequences with an additional cash injection. In most regions of the country, public secondary schools rank extremely low in leaky local budgets.
Rallying ‘round the flag
September 1, 2022 heralded two innovations by the Russian government: a weekly, solemn ceremony of raising the national flag (for which imposing flagpoles were installed on school grounds in Moscow) and a special new class, pompously entitled “Important Conversations”, mandatory every Monday. To illustrate how students and teachers have responded to these ideological interventions, I’ll cite several examples from school life this past autumn.
One of the episodes was at a mathematics-focused high school in Moscow, which I recently visited on a colleague’s invitation. Two senior students, a boy and a girl, were sitting in the school lobby, reading the classic dystopian novels, Orwell’s 1984 and Zamyatin’s We, for everyone to see. This act was the students’ response to being assigned to flag raising duty on the first day of the new school year. In this school, classes raise and lower the flag on a rotational basis, so it was going to be a few months before these Orwell readers would have a chance for another escapade.
Also worthy of a mention is an account by a form master from a different Moscow school, whose class was assigned to officiate the flag raising ceremony for the whole school year: “Only a few students were willing to participate in raising and lowering the flag. And yet these students’ eagerness to do it was somewhat unsettling. They were very upset that the ceremony would not involve a marching drill.”
When they lowered the flag right outside the classroom window where I teach on Fridays, the scene attracted a great deal of attention from my students — I even had to interrupt the class for a few minutes (unlike during the recent solar eclipse). It’s not the flag’s movement that primarily interests the students, of course, but the ceremony’s participants: the way they stand upright, lower the flag and solemnly carry it back to the school building. It’s hard to say how successful the ceremony is in inspiring patriotic feeling. Rather, I’d venture that the raising of the flag is perceived as a demonstration of the state’s power to compel obedience: no matter what our personal opinion is, we, both students and teachers, are obliged to comply and have no other option. In this sense, an experience of any kind of visible resistance to the ceremony is extremely important today.
As of this September, each school week starts with a newly introduced extracurricular class, “Important Conversations”, whose weekly topic is approved by the Russian Ministry of Education. Many school students aren’t exactly thrilled by the new class. My student, Kirill, said that, “although teachers make an effort to make the class informative and worthwhile, the very fact that it exists is annoying”. Kirill thinks that, by introducing the subject, the government is blatantly meddling in schools’ internal affairs.
Some of the topics for “Important Conversations” are hardly compelling for students on a Monday morning: it’s unclear, for example, how to capture students’ interest by discussing the meaning of recently introduced holidays like National Unity Day or the Day of the Elderly. Equally unattractive is the lesson plan for the topic titled “We are different, we are together!”, which invites the children to discuss how the “historical experience of intercultural and interfaith connectedness” serves to “reinforce Russian statehood”. Granted, there’s no doubt that intercultural communication is a highly relevant topic: rising social inequality often assumes the form of ethnic segregation. A stark example of such segregation is the outrageous existence of separate “gypsy classes” in many Russian schools. Sadly, the officially recommended guidelines for preparing and holding this “important conversation” include no mention of this or other relevant problems that students may actually encounter, which would be worth talking about.
Written in officialese, the lesson plans for these “Conversations” show no evidence of the state’s trying to help schools to address pressing issues in education, nor do they offer any tools for solving everyday disputes and conflicts, all too often underpinned by ethnic differences. Moreover, should a teacher make the decision to have a frank conversation of this kind, it’s unlikely their immediate superiors would support or appreciate the effort. However, some class supervisors, including those opposed to the war, have responded positively to the introduction of “Important Conversations”. Now they finally have time allocated for convening the whole class to discuss societal problems. Dialogue is unquestionably something that’s in short supply in all Russian schools.
The state is not exactly trying to refashion the secondary education system according to its political agenda, transforming it into a fine-tuned propaganda machine. Rather, the strategy is constantly increase pressure on schools by way of selective repressions, ideological interventions, endless inspections and compulsory bureaucratic reports. “Important Conversations” is a salient example of how this strategy is being implemented and how it works in real life. The new lessons have no real substance in terms of education but rather amount to pure violence, the purpose of which is to demonstrate to the children how their teachers are compelled to obey the demands of the state, thereby instilling obedience in the students themselves.
Propaganda at school
Reflecting on teachers’ role in propagating ideology recalls the famous quote that it was Prussian history teachers who won the 1866 Austro-Prussian war (the quote is sometimes falsely attributed to Bismarck himself). The authorities would probably be happy to have such teachers in Russian schools but for parents it’s the stuff of nightmares. Fear that their child will be subjected to propaganda is a reason many parents cite when they explain their decision to leave the country or to have their child transferred from a public to a private school (or even to switch to homeschooling). This isn’t unfounded, as militaristic propaganda is definitely present in schools. However, my experience of talking to teachers and parents suggests its main source remains television and other media.
School propagandists are, most often, a special breed of teachers who might be inclined to reenact something from a tv show like “60 Minutes” or “Tonight with Solovyov” during class. They didn’t learn this at the teacher’s college, nor at career enhancement training. They likely cultivated this skill themselves; some have a natural talent. This type of teacher isn’t all that common in contemporary Russian schools, since, strange as it may seem, there’s no extra salary for propaganda of this kind. The state makes no special effort to attract its ardent supporters to educational work: it’s far more interested in people who can take on additional responsibilities, supervise a class or two, fill in reports, and actively participate in organizing elections. In some particular regions, teachers have also been obliged to work at the Student Games construction sites (as in Tatarstan) or to undertake door-to-door surveys of school students to gather data (in Orenburg and Nizhegorodskaya Oblast). The currently existing school system sees the ideal teacher as someone who bows to its demands: a cog in a machine, not a soapbox orator. A teacher unwilling to partake in state propaganda can easily avoid it by sticking to their primary responsibilities, as there’s no one else to do all the required work.
Do teachers need a draft exemption?
The military draft in September of this year impacted Russian schools and their employees in different ways. In some villages in Bashkortostan, teachers were assigned to distribute draft notices before they began receiving call-up papers themselves, according to one school worker, Airat, who fled to avoid the draft. Anatoly, a teacher in Sakha (Yakutia), who was likewise forced to leave his native republic, also reported the drafting of teachers.
Male teachers began disappearing from Moscow schools as well. My colleague Oleg, who ended up in Tashkent, said that everyone was surprised when he showed up in his school on September 28, a week after the draft was announced: “Why are you still here?” The principal was the only person who didn’t urge Oleg to leave and, on the contrary, tried to persuade him to stay. In fact, unlike in many other cities and villages, teachers in Moscow were not drafted on a massive scale, and principals managed to help those employees who did receive a notice. Now that the draft has been ostensibly fulfilled, official draft exemptions are being prepared for Moscow school workers. Does this mean Moscow teachers won’t be affected by the next wave of mobilization? No one knows for sure.
It’s still unclear how severe the staff shortage is in schools but several Telegram chats for teachers who’ve left Russia list thousands of members. Some have decided to remain overseas for the time being and are looking for work abroad, while others have taken unpaid leave to wait out the draft in one of the countries associated with the current Russian exodus. Entire communities of teachers have formed in Central Asian cities. Tashkent is an especially popular destination: meetings of Russian teachers are held there on a regular basis, while local schools have been able to compensate for labor shortages by hiring new immigrants, according to Dmitry, one of the school principals.
There was a discussion recently on an anti-war online group for teachers about whether the community should push for draft exemptions for school workers. Some members of the group pointed out that a call to exempt teachers from being mobilized might appear to be a justification of the war: “we’re not against it, we just want teachers to be kept out of it”. Others insisted that the fewer resources the Russian army has, the better, and campaigning for exemption is also a form of anti-war resistance.
Meanwhile, fighting for labor rights at the workplace remains as relevant as ever. Members of the Teachers’ Labor Union say that current events have led neither to the growth, nor to the diminishing, of labor rights organizations. By necessity, teachers do keep cooperating and defending their rights across the country.
Resistance is possible
The past several months have witnessed at least several dozen scandals sparked by teachers’ openly anti-war statements in class. The scandals typically involved students secretly recording their teachers and publishing the recordings online or handing them over to their parents, who then complained to the principal or to another authority. These anti-war statements have often led to the teachers being fired, which is then publicized in the media. These cases starkly illustrate the vulnerability of teachers with anti-war views, especially where there is a conflict with a student, who can seize on an opportunity to take revenge for the teacher’s perceived high-handedness or for poor grades, or take action simply out of class hatred towards school workers.
Luckily, we have not yet heard of literature teachers being fired for their analyses of Leo Tolstoy’s anti-war prose or for discussing Leonid Andreyev’s The Red Laugh, nor have there been any known instances of punishing social science teachers for their discussions of ethics, humanism or international law, or condemnations of war as a means of resolving international political conflicts. On the contrary, there are plenty of photographs on social media showing doves and peace slogans pasted over walls in school hallways.
Right now, it feels more important for many teachers, myself included, to impart values of humanism and justice to our students rather than to pass a judgement on a particular political event. However, sometimes it is precisely this values-based approach that calls for us to speak out about current events in frank and categorical terms. Unfortunately, to be able to do so, one has to be confident that none of the students would use such statements to compromise the teacher. Expressing opinions and fostering anti-war attitudes in students is doubtless an element of resistance. In the current authoritarian system, every act directed against this war of conquest will weaken the hegemony of militarism and of putinism. By being honest in their work, teachers can make a contribution by bringing up a generation that won’t rush headlong to the military recruitment office to become occupiers of a neighboring country.
No less important is to continue to foster cooperation between teachers at their workplace, so that they can defend their basic interests: a respectable salary, decent working conditions and academic freedom. The logic of war means devouring the entire country’s economic, human and moral resources for the sake of a senseless delusion. In this sense, a consistent anti-war stance calls for us to reclaim these resources for ourselves, which should be directed towards solving Russia’s most serious social problems, including those found in schools. This is why, in spite of all the difficulties, the need for social and labor action feels as urgent as ever.
What comes after the war?
Educational reform could be among the ways out of the catastrophe into which the war has plunged Russia. Using revenue from commodity exports to invest in the creation of a humane, proficient mainstream school system; spending money on training teachers, the repair of school buildings; establishing a system of social, educational and psychological support for students — all of this would give Russian society a chance to solve its fundamental problems and heal the wounds inflicted by the senseless war. It is for good reason that members of the educational community have, for decades, insisted on the principle of school independence. It is the internal freedom of the school as a community that sustains it as a place where children can find trust and safety.