“Democracy has to be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife.”
–John Dewey (1916).
Education is a dangerous thing for authoritarian leaders and regimes, for it nurtures free-thinking individuals capable of asking questions and seeking their own answers. For this reason, teachers have long been on the front line of the struggle for democracy.
In the U.S., teachers are facing a well-orchestrated political campaign by the far-right to limit the teaching of certain subjects and perspectives in public schools, all in the name of a “patriotism” that is manifestly hostile to a multi-ethnic and multi-racial democracy and a well-educated citizenry.
Right now Russian teachers are facing an even more nefarious and powerful campaign by Vladimir Putin to restrict education and attack academic freedom in the name of his brutal war of aggression in Ukraine.
As Putin’s war as dragged on, and signs of opposition have appeared, Putin has responded with harsh repression. He has arrested over 8000 protesters, and instituted a new law banning public references to “war” and criminalizing so-called “fake news.” As part of this effort to crack down on an independent public sphere, the Russian Education Ministry has just instituted a new mandate for teaching about the current situation in Ukraine. As Human Rights Watch reports, teachers will be required to read out loud a two-page text informing students that Russia is currently undertaking “special peacekeeping operation” in Ukraine designed to stop a “nightmare of genocide” against Russian=speakers,” and that the Russian government is committed to “peace” and freedom,” and “is not going to impose anything on anyone by force.”
Human Rights Watch also reports that Russian teachers who speak out against the war could be fired or face criminal prosecution and imprisonment for up to 15 years for “defaming” the Russian military.
This has not stopped Russian teachers from speaking out.
This past week a group called Teachers Against War circulated a petition that gathered over five thousand signatures. Unfortunately, the petition is no longer publicly available to be read, as explained at the group’s website:
We removed the full text of the appeal from Russian teachers from the Teachers Against War website, as a new law was passed on March 4. Now, for anti-war appeals, a person can receive administrative or criminal punishment.
We left the following text:
“Teachers against the war
An open letter against the war [now we cannot indicate which one] was signed by 5,000 Russian teachers. Any war means loss of life and destruction. War is a disaster.”
We continue to collect signatures under this appeal.
If you are faced with pressure from the employer for leaving a signature under this appeal, please contact us for help.
There are no legal grounds for dismissal because you signed an appeal against the war, and there cannot be!
We can support you with legal advice, a letter of support, or just a conversation about how best to behave in such a situation.
To get support write to:
telegram – @teachers_consult
email – email@example.com
I learned of this effort while reading a fascinating interview with one brave Russian teacher at The Russian Reader, a web platform posting “news and views from the other Russias.” The teacher’s name is Irina Milyutina, and the interview is published under the heading “I Think About What Will Become of My Students.” Ms. Milyutina has participated in protests since the February 24 Russian invasion of Ukraine, and has been detained by police. She has also kept vigil outside of her school, holding a sign that says “Stop this madness! No War!”
The entire interview is compelling, and Ms. Milyutina is a remarkable woman who is performing exemplary acts of ordinary civic courage. And she does this in the name of her democratic convictions but also in the name of her profession, her vocation, and her concern for her students. This part of the interview is particularly worth quoting:
Did your school react to your protest against the war with Ukraine?
— The school’s management reacted by asking whether I understood that we teachers are dependent people and saying that I was only making things worse for myself by my actions, that I was not thinking about the future at all. Although just the opposite was the case.
The Kaluga Regional Ministry of Education has ordered schools to teach lessons on “patriotism and pride for their country” because of Russia’s recognition of the LPR and the DPR. Have your or other schools been asked to teach similar lessons?
— I have not yet heard that teachers in Pskov have been ordered to teach patriotic education lessons due to the current situation. I hope this doesn’t happen. It’s nonsense. I think that school teachers, like other educators and scholars, could have a lot of impact, but, unfortunately, they are perhaps the most disenfranchised people, deprived of the opportunity to express their opinions. Some of them, out of fear of losing their jobs, dance to the tune of the authorities by meeting frankly criminal demands. It’s a very sad situation.
— Why did you sign the open letter by teachers against the war with Ukraine?
— I was incredibly pleased that so many teachers finally realized that they have the right to speak out, the right to be outraged by the situation, and wrote this open letter.
Just like them, I think about the future of our country, about what will become of my students. The current actions of the authorities are leading to a catastrophe that will ruin everyone’s lives. Can we let this happen?
— What do you expect in the near future when it comes to your protest activity and the situation in Ukraine?
— I don’t expect anything from my activism. I’m doing it because my heart tells me to. I stand for justice, for peace and good relations with other countries, for progress. But what’s happening now will only lead us to isolation, collapse, and being hated by our neighbors, and not only by them. I’m in favor of ceasing hostilities and withdrawing the troops. We would do better to deal with matters inside our country, because there’s total ruin all round us as it is.
To me, the most profound line is “I don’t expect anything from my activism.” It is clear that this is not to be taken literally, for she clearly is raising her voice, taking a public stand, participating with and reaching out to others, hoping to make a difference. What she seems to be saying is something like this: ‘the immediate situation is desperate, we face serious obstacles, and I can’t really have any confidence in the immediate impact of my—our—protest. But I know it is right, “my heart tells me” to do it, I can’t do otherwise, and I act because I have a sense of hope for the future.’
There is a modesty, and a realism, in Ms. Milyutina’s words in her interview. They bring to mind Vaclav Havel’s idea of “living in truth.” Havel developed this idea in the 1970’s, when Czechoslovakian memories of the 1968 Soviet “peacekeeping” invasion were still fresh, and Charter 77, the human rights initiative he helped to found, was new and politically marginal. Havel believed, even then, that “even a purely moral act that has no hope of immediate and visible political effect can gradually and indirectly, over time, gain in political significance.” Like Ms. Milyutina, Havel could not know when the refusal to submit, and the determination to “simply straighten your backbone and live in greater dignity,” might create a real political opening, and a real challenge to the regime.
In Havel’s case, it took more than a decade.
We really can’t know how long it will take the brave Russian teachers currently saying “no!” to Putin’s war, and the broader range of dissenters who are taking to the streets to protest the war, and also to protest the autocrat who is responsible.
But we know that the Ukrainians do not have decades, or even years. Putin’s war has already created a humanitarian emergency unlike any since World War II. If the war is not soon brought to an end, there will be even greater death, destruction, and disaster to follow, and it will spread very far, and very wide, very quickly.
And so it is urgent that American educators, teachers, academics, and writers and citizens do everything we can to support Irina Milyutina and the thousands of her colleagues who are bravely speaking out against Putin’s war. For their struggle is our struggle.
The lives and freedoms of countless Ukrainians and Russians hang in the balance.
And in a broader sense democracy itself is at stake.