The Russian teacher rejected the Kremlin's propaganda, then paid the price

The Russian teacher rejected the Kremlin’s propaganda, then paid the price

The Russian teacher rejected the Kremlin’s propaganda, then paid the price

LONDON (Reuters) – Days after Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine, Andrei Shestakov opened a series of files in a WhatsApp group chat for history teachers like him in his hometown in eastern Russia.

The files – which Reuters reviewed and contain dozens of pages of documents and presentations, as well as links to videos – are instructions on how to teach teenage school children about conflict. It is unclear who shared the files in the group chat, but many documents bear the coat of arms of the Moscow Ministry of Education.

The material includes lesson guides that claim that Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine were heroes, that Ukrainian rulers made common cause with people who collaborated with WWII Nazis, that the West was trying to spread discord in Russian society and that the Russians must remain united.

Shestakov said he browsed through the files during one of his lectures. The skinny 38-year-old said he had spent 16 years as a police officer before becoming a teacher in January. But he has had growing doubts in recent years, he said, that Russian rulers lived up to the values ​​they professed about democracy, influenced in part by prominent Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.

He decided not to teach modules to his pupils at Gymnasium school No. 2 where he worked in Neryungri, a mining town in eastern Siberia, about 6,700 km (4160 miles) east of Moscow.

Instead, Shestakov told his pupils about the contents of the teaching guide and why they were historically inaccurate, he told Reuters. For example, he said he explained that the materials claimed Ukraine was an invention of Bolshevik Communist Russia, but the history textbooks discussed Ukrainian history dating back centuries.

He went over. On March 1, he told pupils in a civics class that he would not advise them to serve in the Russian army, which opposed the war against Ukraine, and that Russian leaders showed elements of fascism even saying that they were fighting fascism in Ukraine, according to a signed statement taken by the police and revised by Reuters.

In the following days, local police and the Federal Security Service, known as the FSB, summoned Shestakov for questioning, according to the statement signed on March 5 about his class’s comments. He claimed he was not charged in connection with such comments. The FSB and local police did not respond to requests for comment.

A court fined him 35,000 rubles (about $ 420) on March 18 for discrediting the Russian military after he reposted online videos of interviews with Russian soldiers captured in Ukraine, according to a court ruling seen by Reuters.

He said he quit his job last month because he believed he would still be fired for his public opposition to the war, he told Reuters. The local education authority and the Ministry of Education did not respond to requests for comment on Shestakov and the teaching guide. When Reuters reached the school on the phone, a woman who identified herself as an interim principal said she refused to comment on Shestakov’s case and cut off the call.

Teachers across Russia have received the same or similar teaching guides, according to two teachers union officials, two other teachers, and social media posts from two schools reporting that they taught the modules.

Olga Miryasova, a union official called Teacher, said regional education authorities circulated Shestakov’s teaching guide to several schools across the country. Reuters was unable to independently determine how many schools received the forms. One of the teachers said he received a different educational package from Shestakov’s, although it contained similar content.

The initiative shows how the Russian state – which has stepped up its hold on the mainstream media – is now extending its war propaganda effort in Ukraine into schools as the Kremlin seeks to bolster support. Since the start of the war, many Russian schools have posted images on social media showing pupils sending messages of support to troops fighting in Ukraine and training to spell the letter “Z”, a symbol of support for the war in Russia.

Teachers who disagree with the war are now joining the ranks of opposition activists, activists from non-governmental organizations and independent journalists in feeling the pressure of the Russian state, with fines, prosecutions and the prospect of lose the job. President Vladimir Putin signed a law in early March that makes the dissemination of “false” information about the Russian military a crime punishable by fines or prison terms of up to 15 years.

Even before the invasion, the Kremlin had tightened the screws on its opponents using a combination of arrests, internet censorship and blacklisting.

The Kremlin did not respond to requests for comment on the handling of the opposition to the war, the didactic guide and the Shestakov case.

Russian Education Minister Sergei Kravtsov told a parliamentary committee in March that his ministry had launched a nationwide campaign to discuss Russian-Ukrainian relations with pupils, amid questions from children about the situation in Ukraine and sanctions. .

The Kremlin has said it is enforcing laws to counter extremism and threats to stability. He says he is conducting what he calls a “special operation” to destroy the military capabilities of his southern neighbor and “denazify” Ukraine and prevent genocide against Russian speakers, especially in the east of the country. Kiev and its Western allies have dismissed this as an unfounded pretext for war and accuse Russian forces of killing civilians.

THE “HYBRID WAR” OF THE WEST

The teaching guide Shestakov received says it is aimed at pupils aged between 14 and 18. It includes detailed lesson plans for teachers, links to videos of President Putin’s speeches, and short films to illustrate the lessons.

According to the educational material, the West is waging an information war to try to turn public opinion against the Russian rulers and that all the Russian people must resist this.

A lesson plan explains that Russia was fighting a culture war against the West that had destroyed “the institution of the traditional family” and was now trying to impose its values ​​on Russia.

He says that since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine had conducted an anti-Russian policy. “There have been attacks on the Russian language, our common history has been falsified, war criminals and criminal groups from World War II have been turned into heroes,” according to the document, which refers to Ukrainian nationalists who have formed an alliance. with Germany during that war.

Another lesson is that the West is deploying a “hybrid war” – a mixture of propaganda, economic sanctions and military pressure – to try to defeat Russia by fomenting internal conflict. “This is exactly why they urge us to participate in unauthorized demonstrations, urge us to break the law and try to scare us,” it reads.

“We must not give in to provocation,” the document states.

The modules include a game in which students have 15 seconds to decide whether a statement is true or false. A statement reads: “Organizing protests, provocations by the authorities and mass rallies are an effective way to resolve a hybrid conflict.” According to the lesson guide, the correct answer is “false”.

Reuters found social media posts from a school in Samara, on the Volga River, and from a school in Minusinsk, southern Siberia, showing slides from the same presentations used.

Danil Plotnikov, a math teacher in Chelyabinsk, Ural Mountains, told Reuters that his bosses had asked him to teach similar content but from a different educational package than Shestakov received; Plotnikov did not identify who the leaders were. Tatyana Chernenko, a math teacher in Moscow, said colleagues from other schools told her that she had been asked to teach similar modules but had not been taught in her school.

Teachers Reuters spoke to said some regions and schools pushed classes harder than others. None of the five teachers said they had heard of cases where teachers were explicitly ordered to teach the modules. They said it was usually framed as a request or recommendation from a school or regional education authorities.

Some said no and they didn’t suffer any consequences, said Daniil Ken, president of an independent teachers ‘union called the Teachers’ Alliance. Others didn’t give the lessons, but told the bosses they did, Ken said. He added that refusing was a risk, with teachers not knowing if their principals would push them to resign.

Ken said his union heard about half a dozen teachers a week claiming they are quitting because they didn’t want to promote the Kremlin line, which Reuters hasn’t been able to independently verify.

POLITICAL AWAKENING

Shestakov wears his hair cut short and practices sambo, a martial art developed in the Soviet army. He said his police career included a one-year stint in the special forces of the interior ministry, a law enforcement arm whose officers are now fighting in Ukraine. The Interior Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

In 2018, when he was a community official working with minors, he had a political awakening, according to Shestakov. He said he started watching videos released by Navalny, the opposition figure who is now in a Russian prison, for alleged corruption by Kremlin leaders.

“I became a real opposition person,” Shestakov said.

He said that when the war in Ukraine began, the images of the victims disturbed him and he spent hours watching videos of the fighting on social media.

Under a pseudonym, he reposted videos of interviews with Russian soldiers captured in Ukraine in the comment section of a local media that has about 5,200 subscribers, according to Shestakov and the March 18 court ruling seen by Reuters.

The court said his actions were a violation of a law that prohibited discrediting the Russian military.

Shestakov said he suspected the FSB had intercepted his telephone conversations in recent weeks, although he had no evidence. He also said he has seen three times in the past few days people he recognizes as undercover FSB officers. The FSB has not responded to requests for comment on whether he is monitoring him.

Now, Shestakov intends to leave Russia because he says he fears further sanctions from the authorities. He would join tens of thousands of Kremlin opponents who have also fled the country since Putin started cracking down on the opposition in 2018.

He said he intended to go to Turkey unless the authorities prevented him from leaving the country.

Staying and abandoning his public opposition to the war was not an option for him, Shestakov said. “It will be hard for me to keep my mouth shut,” he said.

(Editing by Christian Lowe and Cassell Bryan-Low)

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