“Schools face hard times ahead”

November 30, 2022
  • Mack Tubridy
  • Helga Pirogova
    Co-chair of the independent teacher's union Alians Uchitelei
Mack Tubridy discusses the impacts of the war and mobilization on Russian schools with Novosibirsk municipal deputy Helga Pirogova, who co-chairs the independent teachers’ union Alians Uchitelei.
As the war in Ukraine drags on, more and more of Russian society finds itself pulled into the protracted conflict. This is no less true for schools, where patriotic lessons introduced into the curriculum this year aim to inculcate children of all grades with “traditional” and “patriotic” values, as well as boost national pride. Meanwhile, Putin’s mobilization order added further strains on Russia’s educational system as some male teachers were sent to fight, while others fled abroad to dodge mobilization.

To better understand the impact of the war on Russia’s school system, Mack Tubridy spoke to the Novosibirsk municipal deputy Helga Pirogova, who co-chairs the teachers’ union Alians Uchitelei (Alliance of Teachers).

Founded in 2018, today Alians Uchitelei is made up of 16 regional branches and offers membership to educators from kindergarten teachers to university instructors. By offering legal support and launching awareness campaigns, the organization works to defend the rights of its members. While many professional unions in Russia are under direct or indirect influence of the state, Alians Uchitelei maintains its independence and often takes positions against the government, such as calling on the release of the opposition activist Alexei Navalny from prison.

Pirogova herself has openly criticized the war since Russia launched its invasion against Ukraine. In March, she showed up to a municipal council meeting wearing a blue vyshyvanka – an embroidered Ukrainian shirt – and wreath of sunflowers as a sign of protest against the war, sparking calls from other Novosibirsk municipal deputies to have her stripped of her mandate. In August, Pirogova was forced to flee Russia after the country’s interior ministry initiated criminal charges against her for spreading “false information” about the armed forces in a tweet.

Mack Tubridy: A lot of people know you for your political work in the Novosibirsk city council, and more recently for your public opposition to the war. However, far fewer likely know that you co-chair Alians Uchitelei. Can you talk a little bit about your role at the organization?

Helga Pirogova: I joined Alians Uchitelei in 2020 after becoming a municipal deputy for the city of Novosibirsk. In the city council, I began serving on two committees – the committee on local self-governance and the committee on social policy and education. Education has always been important to me, especially since I earned an education degree. It’s something I understand well, and I have an idea of what education should look like. I got to know the people at Alians Uchitelei a couple of months after I entered public office. At first, I joined the organization as a regular member, but later I started serving as the chairperson for the Novosibirsk regional branch. Part of our work is to offer legal assistance to educators. The government does as much as it can to make people ignorant of their own rights. Teachers are no exception. This [ignorance] is quite widespread regardless of a person’s professional background. But another big part of our work is to provide psychological support to teachers. Russian society is very atomized, to the point where a person might think they’re alone if they disagree with the government. A person might think that everyone around him supports Putin or the war. It’s difficult to know that there are others who think like you do. So our goal is to bring together like-minded people and let them know that they’re not alone in their views.

MT: How has the work of the organization changed since the start of the war?

HP: Since September, Alians Uchitelei together with the women’s activist movement Miagkaia sila (Soft Power) have been helping teachers and parents figure out how to deal with the new patriotic lessons in schools called “Conversations about Important Things.” We deconstruct these lessons, explain what to do, and how not to be manipulated by propaganda. Besides that, we’ve had more queries from teachers who don’t support the government and who’ve faced pressure – sometimes even threats – because of the views they hold. In this sense, there’s been more work. In the past, teachers could express opinions that were, let’s say, not supportive of the government. But people usually just ignored it. There weren’t a lot of open confrontations. Of course, sometimes there were instances when school administrators tried to fire teachers because of their views, but they were far fewer in number before February 24. Likewise, we’ve also seen an increase of people reaching out to us for psychological support since February.

MT: In September, the Russian government designated the head of Alians Uchitelei, Daniil Ken, a foreign agent. And you yourself have been forced to leave Russia because of your public opposition to the war. How has this affected the work of your organization?

HP: Without a doubt, it makes our work generally more difficult. But on the other hand, our members live in different regions across Russia, and so Alians Uchitelei has always been run mostly online. And who would have ever imagined that we’d one day thank COVID, which taught us to work better remotely!

MT: During the first month of mobilization, independent Russian media reported that some teachers were fleeing the country. However, when reading those news stories, it was difficult to understand the scale of mobilization dodging among teachers. No concrete data was ever cited. Do you have a sense of how many teachers left Russia because of mobilization?

HP: Quantitatively, we can’t say anything for certain since border officials haven’t been collecting data on the professions of people who leave the country. You also have schools trying to hide information. However, there are generally about 1.2 million teachers in Russia, at least until recently. The teachers who left are mostly men, who account for only about 12% of the whole profession. That’s not a lot. Nevertheless, it’s a major blow for individual schools when teachers leave, even if the overall percentage isn’t so great. And we shouldn’t forget that some female teachers have also been leaving the country with their husbands and their sons. Broadly speaking, Russia doesn’t have enough teachers. There’s long been a serious shortage of educators in the school system, especially in rural areas. In some places, the departure of just one or two teachers creates a serious additional burden for the rest of the school faculty since usually the school can’t look for replacements. Often when teachers leave their workload is redistributed among the remaining teachers. And to put it lightly, teachers don’t earn a lot of money. It’s miserly pay, to be honest. It’s just barely a living wage. And for this kind of pay, teachers are expected to conduct several lessons on a daily basis, sometimes with a double or even triple workload, sometimes teaching subjects they’re not qualified to teach. It’s a massive, massive burden on the entire school system.

MT: Do you know of any specific cases where the absence of teachers who’ve fled due to the war has strongly impacted the educational process in a school?

HP: I can't say off the top of my head. But I do remember that in Alians Uchitelei we discussed how schools in the Moscow region are struggling.

MT: Any ideas as to why? Is it because teachers earn more money around Moscow, and so they’re more likely to have the resources to leave the country?

HP: There are probably a lot of factors involved. I can't say for sure, but just as a feeling, yes, better salaries probably have something to do with it. Also, when there are more towns and cities around – as opposed to rural areas – you’re more exposed to alternative viewpoints. There are more opportunities for some kind of self-enlightenment, in a general sense. And so, in the Moscow region, which is close to the country’s capital, people have greater opportunities for expanding their worldview, beyond simply what’s shown on state television.

MT: Have teachers been reaching out to your organization with questions about mobilization?

HP: Of course. Mobilization was announced almost out of the blue. It was this sudden decision that nobody really understood. Even military enlistment offices didn’t know what to do at first. So in the first few days after mobilization was announced everyone was just trying to figure out what was happening. Understandably, a lot of teachers asked critical questions, such as “Can I be mobilized?” or “Do I have an exemption?” Those sorts of standard questions.

MT: Does Alians Uchitelei have an idea of how many teachers have been mobilized?

HP: Well, from the government’s perspective, a person’s profession doesn’t matter, or what kind of education they have. What’s most important is that a man is of a certain age – and that’s it. So teachers are mobilized in the same way that men of any other profession are – the ratio isn’t higher. But, yes, some teachers have been called up to fight. Generally speaking, we see the same sad situation with teachers being mobilized just as with those of different professional backgrounds.

MT: Have school administrations helped teachers get out of mobilization?

HP: There are a lot of sides to the issue. On the one hand, schools have an interest in keeping teachers in the classroom. Yet on the other hand, some school principals have forced teachers to go out in the evening and hand out draft summons. This kind of duplicity is really shocking. At the same time, Russian society is being force fed pro-war, pro-government ideas, and so you have situations where someone might not want to go fight, but then they doubt themselves, thinking ‘Well, if my country is calling on me to go defend it, then I must.’ While in other cases, a man might think he’s a coward – not a true man – if he tries to dodge mobilization. These kinds of toxic masculine attitudes need to be confronted when we do our work.

MT: You also talked about teachers themselves handing out draft summons. I know that during elections Alians Uchitelei advises teachers to not give in to pressure from school administrators to vote for a particular party or candidate. Teachers facing pressure to hand out draft summons seems similar. So what position does your organization hold on this issue?

HP: Of course, we're consistent on this issue. Teachers have no legal obligations to give out draft summons. There are no grounds for it. In the same way, school principals have no right to force teachers to hand out summons. It’s not stipulated in a teacher’s work contract. It’s not their job. Plus, it’s additional unpaid work. So, of course, teachers should absolutely refuse to do this.

MT: What do you think the medium- to long-term impacts of the war on Russia’s schools will be?

HP: I want to be an optimist, but I can't think of anything positive to say. I think everything that’s happening will become exacerbated and worsen over time. Just recently the government announced that schools will start conducting basic military training for students. Schools did have this kind of instruction in the early 2000s, but nobody really gave it much thought. The problem now is the overall atmosphere of aggression in Russian society, and so military training cannot lead to anything good. In general, we’re going to see long-term problems emerging in schools. Even if the war suddenly ended next week, unfortunately, the psychological impact on children over the past several months has already been done. You can’t simply make all of that go away in an instant. Schools face hard times ahead. Likewise, good teachers – those who embrace humanistic values – are leaving the country or they’re fired for their views. However, we shouldn’t forget that there are still educators and school principals who remain decent people, and they do everything that they can to minimize the effects of the war on children.
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