‘Whatever they say, it all comes down to propaganda’

How Russian teachers protect their students from war and propaganda lessons

Tatiana Chervenko, a trade union activist and a middle school mathematics teacher, has been fired from her job at Moscow school №1747  for refusing to peddle pro-war Russian state propaganda in the government mandated “Important conversations” lessons to her pupils. Chervenko received two reprimands from the school administration, one for “deviating from the topic” during the “Important conversations” lessons, and another for giving an interview to an independent Russian channel TV Rain. In October 2022 Chervenko was arrested by the security forces, while she was teaching a class, and detained for several hours. She was officially fired in December 2022, and is now trying to appeal her dismissal.

Chervenko received an undergraduate degree from the Faculty of Mathematics and Mechanics at the Moscow State University, and later obtained a Candidate of Science (PhD) degree in economics, also from the MSU.

Tatiana Chervenko recounted her story in Novaya Gazeta Europe in January, 2023.

‘The administrative representative started screaming at me, saying that some of my heroes are Armenians’

Tatiana Chervenko, maths teacher from Moscow

“I taught mathematics to 7th and 8th graders. When the war began, I went to a protest. I got arrested, and we were held at the police station for seven hours. Ultimately, I was charged with rallying and paid a fee of 20,000 rubles.

I explained to the children in class that a very bad time has started and it’s possible that things will be very hard for us. I didn’t say specifically that Russia attacked Ukraine. I just compared what’s happening with the last books of “Harry Potter”: the heroes lived under the rule of Voldemort, it was bad, hard, but they continued to do what they could. And this time passed. In the end everything ended with the victory of good [over evil].

I didn’t say anything more. The children knew what my position was. I understood that there are various views among the children’s families. I’m not trying to change anyone’s mind. I didn’t tell them that I participated in a protest: that’s my personal affair. They learned about that later from rumours and the media.

Sometimes during breaks or after classes, some children would ask me questions about what was happening between Russia and Ukraine or share that it was hard for them. When in the summer the school started preparing for the “Important Conversations” program, I knew that I didn’t want to lead these classes. Whatever they say, it all comes down to propaganda.

I decided that I would conduct extra maths lessons during this time. The parents weren’t opposed.

But also in the summer a denunciation was filed against me at the Department of Education. The author of the denunciation included the link to an interview I gave with Deutsche Welle, where I talked about the protest.

I believed it was important to give that and subsequent interviews. Many people think that in Russia everyone agrees with what’s happening. But that’s not true — many people don’t agree, but they’re just silent. I wasn’t able to go to protests anymore because of the threat of a criminal case, and I have a young child. I did what I could.

The school didn’t react at all to the first denunciation, but the second, it seems, began to have an effect. Apparently, a directive came from the children’s rights commissioner to fire me, and the school acted in this direction.

Representatives of the school administration began to come to the “Important Conversations” class where I taught maths. They gave me an [official] reprimand for deviating from the topic.

In a recent lesson about heroes, I chose peaceful examples not connected to war: I talked about Shavarsh Karapetyan, who in 1976 saved 20 people from a trolleybus that had fallen in the water, Stanislav Petrov, who prevented a nuclear war in 1983, and Ramazi Datiashvili, who reattached the legs of the Lithuanian girl Rasa, also in 1983.

I ended up saying that heroes are good, but that what makes them become heroes was someone else’s negligence. There isn’t a hero for every instance of negligence. And the truest form of heroism is to do your job well.

After class the children headed toward the door, and the administrative representative who had attended the class started screaming at me, saying that some of my heroes were Armenians, and I should have talked about Russia (although my examples were all from what was then the USSR, whose legal successor is Russia).

In the beginning of October, the school gave me another reprimand: this time because I gave an interview on TV Rain about my attitude toward “Important Conversations.” And at the end of October, I was arrested right in the middle of a lesson — following a complaint from the school, it seems.

The security forces carried themselves very insistently when they were trying to put me in the car. But they didn’t introduce themselves, they didn’t want to take off their masks. They tried to get an explanation from me about the TV Rain interview, and they wrote me a warning not to go to any more protests.

I sued the school over the two reprimands. On December 2nd the decision was announced, not in my favour. The school waited until the trial ended and after that they fired me.

In the beginning of January my lawyer and I submitted an appeal of this decision, and before the end of the month we will file another suit about the illegal dismissal.

Right now, I’m giving private lessons. Of course, I’m used to having my own classes, to different children. They said goodbye to me with tears in their eyes. I will try to keep in touch with them. If they need help, I will be happy to give them classes over Zoom. But I don’t want to return to school, to experience that pressure again.

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