An open letter against Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine had yesterday been signed by more than 5000 Russian teachers – and some signatories are facing pressure and threats from their managers.
“Violence goes against the very essence of our profession”, the letter states, implicitly supporting teachers who are resisting the propagation of the Kremlin’s military aims and ideology in classrooms.
The open letter, and the names and regions of each signatory, were published on line by the Teachers Against War group. But with the introduction last week of heavy penalties – up to 15 years in prison – for public statements of opposition to the war, the letter itself was removed. The group’s campaign continues.
Trades unionists in Russia are appealing to teachers’ unions and professional associations in other countries to voice their solidarity with Teachers Against War.
■ Teachers’ unions and associations, at national, local or branch level: please contact Teachers Against War and indicate your support. The best way is to email directly to teachershelpnow[at]gmail.com (in English is fine). Or go via their website, telegram channel or facebook) and indicate your support.
■ Individual teachers: please join the Teachers Against War facebook group and send your own messages.
Here is the text of the teachers’ open letter, in English and then the Russian original. Below that is a letter posted on the Teachers Against War page from Igor Tsyvgintsev, a Ukrainian teacher, who this week evacuated most of his pupils to Poland.
Open letter by Russian schoolteachers against the war on Ukrainian territory
All wars have human victims, all wars cause destruction. War inevitably brings in its wake a mass of breaches of human rights. War is catastrophe.
The war with Ukraine that began on the night of 23-24 February is not our war. The invasion of Ukrainian territory began in the name of Russian citizens, but against our will.
For us, schoolteachers, violence goes against the very essence of our profession. Our pupils may die in the fires of war. War inevitably intensifies the social problems in our country. We support anti-war protests and demand an immediate ceasefire.
The original text of the petition which Russian teachers signed and were forced to take down, due to legislation introducing heavy penalties for public statements opposing the war. I reproduce it here for Russian-language readers.
Учителя против войны
Любая война — это человеческие жертвы и разрушения. Она неизбежно влечет за собой массовые нарушения прав человека. Война — это катастрофа.
Война с Украиной, которая началась в ночь с 23 на 24 февраля, — это не наша война. Вторжение на территорию Украины началось от имени российских граждан, но против нашей воли.
Мы — учителя, и насилие противоречит самой сути нашей профессии. В пекле войны погибнут наши ученики. Война неизбежно приведет к обострению социальных проблем нашей страны. Мы поддерживаем антивоенные протесты и требуем немедленного прекращения огня.
A letter from a Ukrainian teacher
This letter from Igor Tsyvgintsev, translated from Russian, was posted on the Teachers Against War facebook page on 5 March, and greeted with a tide of positive emotion. I hesitated before deciding to publish it. Before praising those who are taking a stand against the war, Tsyvgintsev berates teachers who have by omission or commission acquiesced in authoritarianism and war propaganda, and – as a Ukrainian from a Russian-speaking family – says he will never write in Russian again. His fury is not against Russian people, history and culture, but against the authoritarian regime and the atmosphere it has produced. Tsyvgintsev’s argument is a world away from the obscene denunciation of all things Russian by western politicians (who hold the doors shut in Ukrainian refugees’ faces) and some journalists (in their comfy offices thousands of kilometres from Ukraine). I abhor those denunciations. Russian friends reassured me that Tsyvgintsev is simply nothing to do with them. “I am Russia, those teachers are Russia, the demonstrators are Russia – Putin is not Russia”, said one. SP.
Dear сolleagues, teachers!
My name is Igor. I am the headmaster of a small lyceum for up to 80 students. Today I sent 50 of my students to Poland. Further away from the war. So that they would not hear the exploding shells, and would not see their friends lying dead in the road. Let them learn about it from Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front. That should give them a sufficient impression.
Once, in a history lesson, teachers asked me who was my favourite educator. Without thinking twice I said Janusz Korczak [a Polish children’s writer and educator, headmaster of the orphanage for Jewish children in the Warsaw ghetto, who refused the Nazis’ offer to leave and save his life, and was sent with the entire orphanage to Auschwitz, where they perished in the gas chambers.] A few years later, when we were setting up our little lyceum, we named it after this educator, who did not abandon his children in the darkest of times. But I had never thought that I would have to face the choice that he had faced. That I would have to start an agonising search for any possibility to send the children as far away as possible from the horrors of this world. The world we had taught them about in lessons.
Across all of Ukraine today, every headteacher is Janusz Korczak. Every single one is forced to save children’s lives. Saying goodbye to my own children (I am not sure that I would see them again, because our cities are being bombed and levelled), I asked them to remember that the entire curriculum of school studies comes down to humaneness. By any means! At any price! And this is what they need to pack into their suitcase on the road to their adult life.
In the standard of education of the Federal State Educational Services it is written that educational outcomes must reflect the “civic stance as an active and responsible member of the Russian community who understands their constitutional rights and duties, who respects law and order and possesses a sense of dignity, who consciously adopts the traditional national and universal humanitarian and democratic values”.
With your pupils you study [the twentieth-century Russian writers] Bunin and Pasternak, Shalamov, Solzhenitsyn, Tvardovsky and many other humanitarians of their times. Why then are your top students so riled up against Ukraine today, why do they thirst for blood? (I don’t mean soldiers, who might have their orders?)
Haw can you read Remarque, Böll, Nobel Prize laureates? Your fate is now to inhabit the novel A Hundred Years of Solitude. Because your students are born of incest between the governing regime and the education system.
You, who should sow all things wise, good and eternal, sow enmity and hatred, death and destruction. You, who in history lessons should teach about wars and collapses of civilizations, so that they would never be repeated, teach children to hate the world.
You, who should be raising thinking, rational, just individuals are yourself cowardly carrying out orders from above. You lie to children, who are far more honest than you. What moral right do you have left to teach children anything?
You think that children don’t see you grovelling before the authorities, your readiness to salute them? Are you not that very “wise minnow” that spent its life trembling in fear?
You are the very model of Orwellian doublethink. You still haven’t learned how to answer children’s complex questions. When our children ask why our soldiers had invaded Afghanistan, and hadn’t they been occupiers there, we try to get them thinking about mistakes. We acknowledge that not everything is clear-cut and our nations have not always made the right choice. But we never tell them that we are always right, and that to ask such questions is a “thought crime” or treason.
Contrary to your myths, our children by and large can’t even coherently answer a couple of historical questions about Stepan Bandera [the Ukrainian nationalist leader who fought on the German side during the second world war]. They struggle to unravel the impenetrable tangles of politics in the first half of the 20th century. And every time, our history lessons prompt debate about whether anyone on history’s battlefields is squeaky clean. Back in the 1990s, my history teacher told us: “read the memoirs from both sides, because war is a dirty thing”. We read Ukrainian history textbooks and Oles Buzina, Victor Suvorov and the Soviet version; we read both Solzhenitsyn and his opponents alike. Nobody told us that there is a “correct version of history”.
I am a chemistry teacher. And in every lesson, I tell children about the tragedy of chemical weapons in the World War I, about the IG Farben company that manufactured the Zyklon-B gas used to poison people in the gas chambers. I tell them about napalm, sarin, phosphene, about the most horrific crimes in which chemists from all over the world were complicit. I tell them that science must be used for the benefit of humanity and that nobody should suffer the consequences of new inventions. But what do you tell them?
There is a phrase ascribed to Theodor Adorno that “Poetry is impossible after Auschwitz”. I would say that, after the current events, the term “Great Russian” is impossible. It doesn’t matter what, be it literature, culture or science. None of it matters.
If before, my pupils didn’t like history books, barely skimmed across them, then now they understand everything that is written there. Now they understand those stories of treachery, dirty tricks, and villainy. They can see the parallels that echo those lines in their textbooks. And I doubt that in the world literature curriculum we would now study Russian literature, which used to account for about 30% of it. The great masters of Russian literature have not managed to influence even you, to instill goodness in you, so why do we need them? Are they really that Great?
I grew up in a Russian-speaking family and only began to learn Ukrainian when I started school. On my bookshelves, 70% of the books are in Russian. But this letter is the last thing that I will write in the language of the occupiers. The Russian language will no longer feature in my life.
It is a shame, that not all Russian educators are like Dmitry Bykov and Rustam Kurbatov, whose thinking is close to mine, and whose lectures we watch with students. Sadly, all your “great educators” are not that great, if their methods have led to “the war to end all wars”. When Janusz Korczak went with his schoolchildren into the gas chambers, he tried until the last moment to protect these orphans from the horrors that surrounded them. But you fan the flames in immature minds that will incinerate both them and you.
Not everyone can be a hero, not every person can throw themselves in the path of tank. But sometimes you don’t need to. Sometimes you can save millions of lives by just being honest with children. By telling them the truth, or even just staying silent so as not to tell a lie. The next time you get an order you can’t refuse — stay silent. Or take sick leave. Save your children’s lives.
Today on social media I am reading posts from teachers who have refused to follow the official script in their conversations with children. Thank you! You are teaching children how to be heroes by example!
Headmaster of the Janusz Korczak Polish Lyceum, Vinnytsia, Ukraine.
PS. The hardest scene to watch in the film Schindler’s List, for me, is Schindler leaving. He is weeping and saying: “I could have saved more lives.” I too could have saved more lives if I had a million coaches. But I don’t. But you have the chance to save a million lives. Don’t lose it. In the name of our profession.
□ Russians revolt against Putin’s war – People & Nature, 28 February
Solidarity with Russian teachers opposed to Putin’s War. Ukraine is entitled to decide it’s own future. Russia must stop these military attacks and withdraw from Ukraine. Solidarity with Ukraine and Ukrainians. From Northampton District National Education Union.
As a teacher of forty years my heart and soul goes out to the teachers who have to comfort and protect children , comfort and protect them from war and from the instigators of war. May you find the path of peace and of humanity of all peoples
May your children know you speak to them of truth and of civilisation and may they themselves be comforted by your integrity and by your humanity dear fellow teachers.
Thanks for these comments. Please also email them to teachershelpnow[at]gmail.com, and they will go directly to Teachers Against War. I should have made that clear in the article, and have now amended it so that it is clear.