The civic responsibility of teachers: a view from Russia

epishkola - kto ia?

Late last Spring, my Russian colleague Mikhail Epshtein publicly shared a letter he had originally sent to the school community of which he has been principal for over 20 years. Epishkola is a private progressive school in St. Petersburg, born in the liberalizing era of the early 1990s. It is a school that continues to evolve its philosophy and practice of progressive education – albeit in an atmosphere of increasing fear and repression. In his letter, Mikhail mourns the dismantling of a “cornerstone of civil society” in the city. TSRNO, a non-profit incubator whose beneficiaries included Mikhail’s school, was targeted by a new law that designates non-profit organizations as “foreign agents,” effectively removing them from society and shutting them down. However, Mikhail’s letter doesn’t focus on the threat to his own school and other non-profits posed by this event. Rather, it focuses on his own complicity in what happened. His interpretation outlines the civic responsibility of teachers. My translation of Mikhail’s letter follows (click here for the original Russian version); in an upcoming blog post I will discuss connections with the education context in Chicago.

ABOUT CITIZENSHIP: Reflections at the broken trough

by Mikhail Epshtein

I wrote a private letter to colleagues – teachers, graduates, parents of students at the school, in which I have been working for 20 years. But writing it, I realized that what had happened could be important beyond just this community. I decided to publish my thoughts more widely. As an opportunity for all of us to reflect… on our near future.

This is the situation, which, unfortunately, has recently become the usual: prosecutors come to a non-profit organization in order to close it, or at least drastically complicate its life. The formal reason for coming? The organization has received grants from foreign foundations. Informally, though, the reason is that the organization has dared to act independently: it comes to public authorities with new ideas as to how they can improve their activities for the benefit of their citizens.

And for our government such impertinence is offensive, so, instead of stretching out a hand of cooperation, it clamps down on troublemakers by establishing draconian laws against NGOs.

This time, prosecutors came to check on the St. Petersburg NGO Development Center (TSRNO). The specialist found that TSRNO has committed two serious offenses (in essence – criminal offenses): it receives grants of foreign funds, and engages in political activities. So, under the guise of the Center, a nest of “foreign agents” has hatched.

And so, the employees of the organization get to choose one of two things: either “with feeling, with propriety, with deliberation,” drowning in a sea of ​​bureaucratic problems, or, self-destruct immediately.

TSRNO is one of the oldest non-profit organizations of the city. It helps other nonprofit organizations to operate more efficiently; it organizes dialogue between the community and the city government and business. I believe that TSRNO today is one of the cornerstones of civil society in St. Petersburg.

Our private school is one of these non-profit organizations. We have cooperated with TSRNO for many years. And, along with other colleagues involved in this work, I have been friends with people in this organization for almost 30 years. I know their motives and am deeply aware of the importance of this organization for the city. Of course, they are not in any way “foreign agents” – in whatever sense this term is used. They are people who freely and thoughtfully try to make life in Russia better.

What exactly is the “political activity” TSRNO does? It is charged with the desire to actively cooperate with the state, preparing draft legislation, participating in the examination of laws and so on. Today, this is called “undesirable activity.”

I, like my colleagues at TSRNO, believe it is important to cooperate with foreign counterparts – for the common good. I do not see why we have to be closed off from the outside world. I have lots of friends and partners in different countries, and I know that they wish us only well. And our organization has received numerous grants from foreign organizations and we used the money to develop the school. Should we therefore be considered foreign agents?

I see what is happening in the country – again, as in the 1930s and at the turn of 1940-1950-s: mutual hatred is being sowed, people are being forced to hang labels on others, labels which will block and ultimately shut down their activities.

But why do I go on at such length and with such pathos?!

Because this story is very personal to me.

* * *

The fact is that that prosecutor, who came to TSRNO and charged it with being a “foreign agent,” happens to be a graduate of our school.

What are my feelings and thoughts about this?

First. I consider it necessary to apologize to my TSRNO colleagues and the entire nonprofit community of the city. I apologize for the fact that it was a graduate of our school who was the prosecutor taking part in this awful event.

We took part in his education for 10 years. Hence, we bear some of the blame for his choice.

Second. I feel personally guilty in this situation.

Guilty in the first place toward our graduate who is now working in the prosecutor’s office. Obviously, we were not able to make school a place that would help him understand the value of civil society. We weren’t clear enough in telling him about the persecution of the Communist regime, the atmosphere that prevailed in the country during that time, the role of the interrogators and the judiciary, and about the mechanisms that initiated and maintained the persecutions. We did not create the conditions for kids to be able to get experience in civic participation in the life of the school, city and country. In the time that he was in our school, we didn’t succeed in instilling in him a sense of the joy of freedom – his own and others, and of the need to defend this freedom.

This guy always wanted to be a lawyer. And we didn’t succeed in warning him about the moral complexities that he would inevitably face while working in the prosecutor’s office at this time.

Third. I do not think it’s right to gloss over the situation. It is necessary to talk about it and to draw conclusions.

Many believe that a particular contractor is not at fault. They submit that this decision came down from above, and the employee of the prosecutor’s office just did what his bosses told him to.

But I do not think it’s right to put this all at the feet of the system. There are always specific actors. Remember, like E. Schwartz in the play “Dragon?” “I was taught …” – “We were all taught…” -“But why did you have to be the best student, you bastard?!”

Yes, of course, we can blame Stalin and the Communist Party in general for the repression way back then, but there were also those many individual neighbors and co-workers who “knocked,” and the many specific investigators who abused people in the dungeons, and took pleasure in it.

There are always specific people who could have, in their particular situation, done something differently.

It’s convenient to hide behind the “system” in doing harm. But I think that in these cases, the country must know the faces of its “heroes.” And it is important to publicly name all those involved: including that official, who had the power to make the lives of a large number of people really hard, and the school in which he was raised.

Maybe, if this kind of public naming had been done at the time, we would not now be experiencing this apparent return to the past.

Finally, the fourth matter. We need to think seriously about what this story pushes us to change in schooling. This young man was our student for 10 years. And he was a very diligent and successful student. In terms of learning the curriculum.

But his participation in “the TSRNO story” once again shows that academic success is not enough: it is important to help students to make ethical decisions in difficult situations – for example, when it comes to a choice between conscience and career.

We need to understand – as we continue to work to the socio-political situation that is emerging now in this country. The difficulty is that we are in a very contradictory situation.

We in the school can not (in fact – we aren’t allowed) to actively and thoroughly acquaint children with the current political situation; we can not articulate our point of view on what is happening. If we do, we pull children into political debate, and they and their parents may have different ideas about what is happening. Plus, there isn’t enough time for anything but physics-mathematics-geography …

But teaching the values of freedom must be more central in the educational program of the school. We must not fail to warn children about the time in which we live today, what difficulties they will face. They did not live in the Soviet Union, but we did, and we have experience.

Otherwise, I fear, very soon we too will find ourselves “foreign agents,” and our graduates will come to designate the school as unreliable and close it.

So I ask: Is it worth ten years of diligently providing children with an arsenal of intellectual tools, only then to see them put to use as prosecutors who destroy what is civically and humanly precious to us?