LONDON (Reuters) – Days after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, Andrei Shestakov opened a group of files in a WhatsApp group chat for history educators like himself in his eastern Russian town.
The files – reviewed by Reuters and contain dozens of pages of documents and presentations as well as video links – are instructions on how to teach teenage schoolchildren about conflict. It is not clear who shared the files in the group chat, but several documents bear the logo of the Ministry of Education in Moscow.
The material includes lesson guides stating that Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine were heroes, that the rulers of Ukraine made common cause with people who collaborated with the Nazis in World War II, that the West was trying to sow discord in Russian society, and that the Russians should stay together.
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Shestakov said he browsed through the files during one of his lessons. The slender 38-year-old said that before he became a teacher in January, he spent 16 years as a police officer. But he said he has had growing doubts in recent years about whether Russia’s rulers are living up to their professed values about democracy, influenced in part by prominent Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.
He decided not to teach the units to his pupils at Gymnasium No. 2 where he worked in Neryungri, a coal-mining town in eastern Siberia, about 6,700 kilometers (4,160 mi) east of Moscow.
Instead, Shestakov told his students the contents of the teaching manual and why they were historically inaccurate, he told Reuters. For example, he said he made it clear that material claiming Ukraine was an invention of Bolshevik communist Russia, but history textbooks discussed centuries-old Ukrainian history.
He went further. On March 1, he told students during a civics class that he would not advise them to serve in the Russian army, that he opposed the war against Ukraine, and that Russian leaders had demonstrated elements of fascism even as they said they were fighting fascism in Ukraine, according to a signed statement taken by police and seen It is Reuters.
In the following days, Shestakov was summoned for questioning by local police and the Federal Security Service, known as the FSB, according to the statement signed on March 5 about the class’s comments. He said no charges had been brought against him in connection with these comments. The FSB and local police did not respond to requests for comment.
A court fined 35,000 rubles (about $420) on March 18 for defaming Russia’s armed forces after it reposted online videos of interviews with captured Russian soldiers in Ukraine, according to a court ruling seen by Reuters.
He told Reuters he quit his job last month because he believed he would be fired anyway because of his public opposition to the war. 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 by phone, a woman who identified herself as the school’s acting headmaster said she declined to comment on Shestakov’s case and ended the call.
Teachers across Russia received the same or similar teaching guides, according to teachers’ union officials, two other teachers and social media posts from two schools stating that they taught the units.
Olga Miriasova, an official at a trade union called Teacher, said the regional education authorities distributed the teaching manual that Shestakov received to several schools across the country. Reuters was unable to independently determine how many schools received the units. One of the teachers said that they received a teaching package different from the one received by Shestakov, although it contains similar content.
The initiative shows how the Russian state – which is intensifying its grip on the mainstream media – is now expanding its propaganda efforts around the Ukraine war in schools as the Kremlin seeks to garner support. Since the war began, many Russian schools have posted pictures on social media showing pupils sending messages of support to forces fighting in Ukraine and standing in formation to illustrate the letter “Z”, a symbol of support for the war in Russia.
Educators who disagree with the war are now joining the ranks of opposition activists, NGO activists and independent journalists in feeling the pressure of the Russian state, with fines, trials and possible job loss. President Vladimir Putin in early March signed into law legislation making the dissemination of “false” information about the Russian armed forces a crime punishable by fines or up to 15 years in prison.
Even before the invasion, the Kremlin was cracking down on its opponents using a combination of arrests, internet censorship, and blacklists.
The Kremlin did not respond to requests for comment about its handling of the opposition to the war, the educational advisor 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 implementing laws to thwart extremism and threats to stability. It says it is carrying out what it calls a “special operation” to destroy its southern neighbor’s military capabilities and “discredit” Ukraine and prevent genocide against Russian-speaking people, especially in the east of the country. Kyiv and its Western allies dismissed this as a baseless excuse for war and accused Russian forces of killing civilians.
Western Hybrid War
The teaching manual obtained by Shestakov says that it is intended for pupils from 14 to 18 years old. It consists of detailed lesson plans for teachers, links to videos of President Putin’s speeches and short films to illustrate the lessons.
According to the teaching materials, the West is waging an information war to try to turn public opinion against the rulers of Russia, and all the Russian people must stand firmly against this.
One lesson plan shows that Russia has been fighting a culture war against the West that has destroyed the “traditional family institution” and is now trying to impose its values on Russia.
It says that since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine has pursued an anti-Russian policy. “There were attacks on the Russian language, our common history forged, and war criminals and criminal groups from World War II turned into heroes,” the document, which refers to Ukrainian nationalists who allied with Germany during that war, reads.
Another lesson is that the West is deploying “hybrid warfare” – a combination of propaganda, economic sanctions and military pressure – to try to defeat Russia by fomenting internal conflict. “It is precisely for this reason that they are urging us to attend unauthorized demonstrations, urging us to break the law and try to intimidate us,” the statement read.
“We must not succumb to provocation,” the document says.
The units include a game where students have 15 seconds to decide whether a statement is true or false. “Organizing protests, provocations by the authorities and assemblies is an effective way to resolve a mixed conflict,” one of the two statements read. According to the lesson guide, the correct answer is “false”.
Reuters found social media posts from a school in Samara, on the Volga, and a school in Minusinsk, southern Siberia, showing slides from the same presentations used.
Daniil Plotnikov, a mathematics teacher in Chelyabinsk in the Ural Mountains, told Reuters his superiors had asked him to teach similar content but from a different teaching package than Shestakov’s. Plotnikov did not specify who the chiefs were. Tatiana Chernenko, a mathematics teacher in Moscow, said her classmates at other schools told her they were asked to teach similar units but were not taught at her school.
Teachers Reuters spoke to said some districts and schools pushed lessons more than others. None of the five teachers said they had heard of instances where teachers were explicitly instructed to teach the units. They said it is usually framed as a request, or a recommendation from a school or regional education authorities.
Some have refused, and faced no consequences, said Daniel Keane, president of an independent teachers union called Teachers Alliance. Kane said others did not teach the lessons but told superiors they did. Rejection is a risk, he added, as teachers don’t know if their principals will pressure them to quit.
Kane said his union heard about half a dozen teachers a week saying they were resigning because they didn’t want to promote the Kremlin line – something that Reuters was not able to independently verify.
Shestakov wears his hair short and practices sambo, a martial art developed in the Soviet Army. He said his police career included one year in the Interior Ministry’s Special Forces, an arm of law enforcement whose officers are now fighting in Ukraine. The Interior Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
By 2018, when he was a community officer working with juvenile delinquents, he had a political awakening, according to Shestakov. He said he had started watching videos posted by Navalny, the opposition figure now imprisoned in a Russian prison, alleging corruption by Kremlin leaders. Read more
“You have become a real dissident person,” Shestakov said.
He said that when the war in Ukraine began, he was disturbed by images of victims and spent hours watching videos of the fighting on social media.
Under a pseudonym, he republished videos of interviews with Russian soldiers captured in Ukraine in the comments section of a local media outlet with some 5,200 subscribers, according to Shestakov and a March 18 court ruling seen by Reuters.
The court said his actions constituted a violation of a law prohibiting defamation of the Russian armed forces.
Shestakov said he suspected the FSB had in recent weeks been eavesdropping on his phone conversations, although he had no evidence of this. He also said he had seen people he recognized as undercover FSB officers three times in recent days. The FSB did not respond to requests for comment on whether it was monitoring him.
Now, Shestakov plans to leave Russia because he says he fears more sanctions against the authorities. He will join tens of thousands of Kremlin opponents who have also fled the country since Putin began cracking down on dissent in 2018.
He said he intends to go to Turkey, unless the authorities prevent him from leaving the country.
Shestakov said that staying and dropping his public opposition to the war was not an option for him. “It would be hard for me to keep my mouth shut,” he said.
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Editing by Christian Lowe and Brian Lowe Castle
Our criteria: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.
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