Lessons under a portrait of Stalin: High school teacher Sofia Ivanova tells why she was fired (via Radio Svoboda)

posted 24 Jan 2016, 09:02 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 24 Jan 2016, 09:04 ]
18 January 2016

Source: HRO.org (info) [original source: Radio Svoboda]
A teacher of social studies and coordinator of the Ryazan section of the Golos movement, Sofia Ivanova, has been dismissed from the high school No. 4 in the town of Ryazan after a phone call “from above”. The management team of the school asked Ivanova to write a voluntary letter of resignation, “otherwise there will be big problems for the school”. The teacher believes that she was dismissed because of a denunciation by a colleague, also a teacher of social studies. The colleague decided that in her lessons Sofia Ivanova was criticising the actions of the Russian authorities and was therefore a threat to society. Sofia Ivanova told her story to the Radio Svoboda journalist, Darina Shevchenko.

- You have been working for a long time with the organisations Memorial and Golos. You ran training in human rights. Why did you go off to be a teacher in a high school?

- A twist of fate. In 2013 an acquaintance phoned me up, a deputy head in school No 4 whom I had known through Memorial projects. She asked me to fill in for a social studies teacher who was ill. I knew that they were inviting me to a very good school.

There they have a high standard of education, a capable head teacher and they treat the children well. They don’t undermine their dignity, and discipline is maintained with the help of positive reinforcement, and without corporal punishment. For six months I did supply teaching for the teacher who was ill, and after the summer holidays they invited me to stay on as a permanent member of staff. Management was happy with my work.

- But the head teacher knew that you worked, for example, in Golos, which is now recognised as a so-called “foreign agent”?

- Yes. Moreover, I expressed my reservations to her. “I am a public person and someone who does not always agree with the opinion of the authorities, so the school could have problems because of me. Are you sure that you need a teacher like this?” The head teacher answered that times were different and the school had the right to choose its own teachers. Her optimism surprised me and I promised that if there were any complications with my being in the school, I would leave. The head teacher replied that the school was outside politics, and the main thing was that a teacher should carry out their duties well.

- How did you teach social studies?

- Of course we discussed the socio-political system in the country. The children themselves raised current topics. They were interested in whether Crimea was ours or not, what I thought of gays and why Americans are now called enemies. The children expressed various opinions, but did it in a very methodical way. I tried to get them to form an objective attitude to the question being discussed. I always reiterated to the pupils: we are all different; we must listen to one another. I kept tabs on myself so that my own personal political views did not influence the subject I was teaching. Otherwise the children would have stopped trusting me.

- How did your pupils learn about what was happening in the country? From television?

- They hardly watch television. They live on the internet. And try to extrapolate the truth from a wide variety of information sources. Many of them take part in voluntary movements, or take part in socially significant projects.

And this includes being in touch with organisations that consider patriotism in the framework of ‘Crimea is Ours’. But the children are trying to think with their heads and have their own convictions. For example, one time one senior pupil from this school refused to sit at her own desk in a lesson because next to it hung a portrait of Stalin. They had it all done up like a display stand for Victory Day. The girl said she would never sit next to a picture of a tyrant.

- What did your pupils say about Crimea and the war with Ukraine?

- Many said: in Crimea everything has been built by the Russians, and Khrushchev made a big mistake giving Crimea away to Ukraine, but Putin has reversed this. Regarding Crimea, I have a different point of view, but it was important to me that the children did not repeat my judgements, but reached their own conclusions based on facts. I told them about the norms of international law, which do not allow territories to be annexed in the way that our government has done.

Once in the 11th class we were discussing the persecution of LGBT people in Russia. In Ryazan back in 2006 the regional parliament passed a law “On the protection of morality and health of children in the Ryazan region” which forbade public acts directed towards so-called “propaganda of homosexuality among underage children.” I told them that the people involved with the LGBT movement (in Ryazan) were fined for “violating” this law, but were able to contest this decision at the European Court of Human Rights. Straight away the children in the class found the text of the law on their phones and tried to make sense of it.

But for fairness’ sake it must be said that such discussions were very rare among us. In lessons we studied the topic of the lesson – the foundations of philosophy, sociology, law, political science, cultural studies, economics.

The social studies programme is such that there is not much time for discussion and argument. Plus the preparation for the Single Leaving Certificate exam for classes 10 – 11, and the Foundation State Exam in classes 8 – 9…. And this is work has different kinds of classroom activities: with texts, documents, tests, social studies tasks.

The exam results for social studies were not bad…. And before the start of the following academic year the school management asked me to take lessons not only for “my own” class, now in Year 10, but also in other classes, in Years 8 and 9.

The form teacher for one of the Year 10 classes was the same teacher of social studies whom I had stood in for. By that time she had recovered her health and went back to work. The teacher began to keep a close eye on how I was teaching social studies in her class.

- What do you mean by “keeping a close eye”?

- She approached the deputy head teacher of the school for the sciences and humanities and said that parents were complaining about me because during classes I was criticizing the Russian government.

It turned out that after a lesson on political propaganda in the media, one pupil from the Year 9 went home and shared their impressions with their parents, highly placed officials with the United Russia party. In the lesson I had asked the children to watch state TV at home and to give them a percentage as to how much of a broadcast was evaluative opinions, and how much was based on facts. No other parents had any complaints about me.

- How did the school management react to this situation?

- Calmly. But they asked me to be more circumspect: parental complaints are always unpleasant. Then this teacher copied two photographs from the internet and showed the school’s head teacher. One was of me standing with the Ukrainian flag (in fact I had once taken part in a demonstration in memory of the people killed on the Maidan – “The Heavenly Hundred”). In the second I was at a rally against electoral fraud in the presidential elections. Then she found out that on Human Rights Day I handed out to my pupils stickers with quotations from the Russian Constitution. And as they later told me, she had continually complained against me to the management team: “Sofia Iurievna does not follow the right political line: she is a dangerous person”. The school managers guardedly tolerated her complaint. Then the teacher decided to take another route.

- Did she complain about you to the education department?

- At the beginning of December I was summoned by the headteacher. She was worried and upset. She said that she had been phoned from a certain organisation with which it is useless to argue and there was nothing that could be done. The head expressed her gratitude and asked me to write a letter of resignation. I did this without further discussion. Earlier I had also met the fact that museums and libraries in Ryazan would initially agree to give room for discussions, round table talks and human rights training sessions, but then refuse at the last minute.

- Does the teacher who got rid of you have very strong pro-government convictions? Or was she afraid of competition from you? What sort of motives does she have?

- We have known each other for a long time. In 2000 – 2007 her pupils took part in the competitions run by Memorial, “Human Rights in the Contemporary World”, and won prizes.

- It’s clear that the wind then started blowing in another direction and she began to think that quotations from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were dangerous?

- It’s difficult for me to judge. I tried to talk to her but she avoided all communication with me… She has been seriously ill for a long time, and apart from that, her husband works in the security services. Possibly she was influenced by him and so she changed. Other teachers said that she talked behind my back about me getting instructions from the British intelligence services and the State Department. She probably sincerely believed this.

- How did the pupils react to your dismissal?

- I told the children everything as it is. The children were upset and asked what could be done to make me stay, perhaps have a parents’ meeting…. I explained to them that right now the situation in the country is extremely complicated. They were outraged. I was also sad. I had found out a great deal over the past two years when I was preparing lessons and talking with the students. It was an interesting new experience for me at the age of 52.

- And clearly your pupils would have understood from this experience what is the state of human rights in Russia?

- The children understand everything perfectly well. They told me that they expect nothing good from the government. Children from good families are certain that in the future they can only rely on their parents and their own resources. Teenagers from problem families generally don’t believe in anything and never plan for any future. They live from day to day. It seems to me that this is a generation of anarchists in some form.

- Last year government employees – teachers and doctors - began protest rallies. What is the mood now among teachers?

- To be quiet so you don’t lose your job.

- Are the teachers not even dismayed at how Putin’s May directives are being carried out?

- They express indignation when they are at home in their kitchens. I don’t know where this submissiveness comes from, even among the cleverest and most talented teachers. Sometimes the teachers ask me: “Do I have any rights?” I answer – Yes, you do, of course. Then they ask the question: “Why then is nobody defending me?” I tell that that they have to defend their rights themselves.

- Are young teachers also afraid? They haven’t lived in the Soviet era.

- The young ones grew up in the 90s. They want stability at any price.

- The teachers are forced to take part in pro-government rallies, forced to take part in the rigging of elections. Do teachers come to you often for help to defend their rights?

- They often complain about injustice but very few are bold enough to get involved in concrete action. They don’t believe that they can achieve anything. Of course there are exceptions.

For example, a headteacher from one of the schools in the region went to court over her dismissal. She was reinstated in her position, and now she is working in this school as a teacher of social studies. She says it was an experience which taught her a lot, and now she tells the children how to defend their own rights.

Raivo Shtulberg, a teacher from a village in Ryazan region who refused to campaign for the United Russia party was also dismissed along with his mother, who is also a teacher. […]

- What kind of character does the government want to see schools developing in their students nowadays?

At departmental meetings on education there is fine talk about education being focussed nowadays on the development of individual personalities, but in fact they give schools the task of carrying out “moral and patriotic upbringing.”

Morality in their eyes is the Russian Orthodox faith, under the subject taught in lessons under the heading of the Basis of Orthodox Culture, which is supposed to be optional but is embedded in the school by all possible means, and patriotism as a blind endorsement and acceptance of all the actions and decisions of the government.

Translated by Frances Robson