Wed, Jan 02, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Russian teenagers use social media to rebel against teachers

A generational gap between students and teachers exposes a microcosm of Russia’s overall power structure

By Nataliya Vasilyeva  /  AP, SAINT PETERSBURG, Russia

Illustration: Mountain People

The principal of a prestigious school near Saint Petersburg summoned 16-year-old Leonid Shaidurov and 14-year-old Maxim Dautov in for a chat. Then he threatened them with expulsion, a criminal probe and being blacklisted from all Russian universities.

Their crime? Setting up an independent student union.

However, Shaidurov and Dautov, children of the social media era, did not take the threats lying down. Instead, they went public about their altercation with the principal in November.

The student union’s ranks swelled and education authorities in Saint Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest city, came out in support of the teenagers, not the principal.

Many other young Russians have had their first taste of political activism in street protests against corruption and the banning of rap music, protesting the authoritarian “status quo” that their parents have unhappily gotten used to.

Russian teenagers putting up a social media fight against the rigid, Soviet-like attitudes of some teachers was one of Russia’s political highlights of last year.

Shaidurov and Dautov came up with the idea after reading about Vladimir Lenin, Karl Marx and the US trade union movement. They realized that their own problems — strict and unnecessary testing, dress code restrictions — had resonated elsewhere and would make a rallying cause for a student union.

“At first, everyone was laughing at Leonid and me, because it was just the two of us,” Dautov said, wearing multiple rings and a “Revolutionary Workers Party” badge on his scarf.

Two separate groups of the new student union held their first meetings in mid-November at a soccer field near the sprawling concrete school.

Shaidurov, who led both meetings, was summoned to the principal’s office and told he had organized an “unsanctioned rally” that would be investigated by prosecutors. His and Dautov’s parents were later hauled over the coals.

Later on, police officers visited the school to conduct “a preventive discussion” to warn the students about the dangers of staging unsanctioned rallies and extremism, a widely defined term that Russian authorities have used to go after dissenters of all stripes.

At the next parent-teacher meeting, parents were told that their children had joined an “extremist organization” and would be blacklisted from entering college, said Shaidurov’s mother, Yelena, who teaches history at the school.

To the boys, this was only “pouring the oil onto the flame,” Dautov said.

They spread the word on social media about the pressure and their case was taken up by the media. The number of student union members swelled from 70 to 200.

Soon, the Saint Petersburg Department for Education said that students had the right to set up a union “as long as it doesn’t impede the educational process.”

The principal and the department would not respond to multiple requests for comment by The Associated Press.

Students elsewhere in Russia have started standing up, too.

A high-school student in the Urals city of Perm was turned away from class last month, because she dyed her hair pink, and was told not to return until she changed it back. She mounted a social media campaign.

Prosecutors went to check the school and found that the girl’s rights were breached. Later, the Perm education department banned schools from strict dress code rules.

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