Ohen Irina Gen, a 55-year-old English and German teacher in the Russian city of Penza, launched into an anti-war speech in her class, she had no idea she was being recorded by her own students.
“I just wanted to broaden my students’ view of the world. I was hoping to break the propaganda that fuels this country. But look where it got me,” said Gen, who faces a long prison sentence for “discrediting” the Russian military after his post went viral.
On March 18, Gen’s students, aged 13 and 14, asked her why Russian athletes were banned from participating in international competitions – a decision by the West that she said she tried to put into context.
“Until Russia starts behaving in a civilized manner, the non-admission of Russian athletes to competitions will continue forever…I think it’s okay,” she said in the audio, which was first shared by Kremlin-linked Telegram channels. “Russia wanted to reach kyiv and overthrow the government! Ukraine is, in fact, a sovereign state, there is a sovereign government… We live in a totalitarian regime. Any dissent is considered a crime.
Gen also expressed disapproval of how Russian state media presented the bombing of a maternity hospital in the besieged city of Mariupol as a Ukrainian-style provocation.
Five days after her anti-war remarks to students, she received a call from the local branch of the FSB telling her to come to their office, where she was informed that security agencies had received the footage of her speaking. in class.
“I was shocked. I had no idea I was taped,” Gen recalled.
“I told the prosecutors that I was not lying. That I was just quoting respected Western media like AP and BBC, media that I believe are professional and objective in their reporting,” said Gen. “But, of course, that wasn’t really an argument they would accept.”
Late last month, Russian prosecutors announced they had opened a criminal investigation against Gen under a recently introduced law that criminalizes spreading so-called fake news about the Russian military.
Prosecutors specifically took issue with Gen’s statements about Mariupol’s motherhood.
Gen has since been banned from leaving the country and her lawyer said she faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
Russia has launched an unprecedented crackdown on anti-war sentiment, and Gen’s case is one of at least four known cases in which teachers who criticized the war were either fired or prosecuted after students complained about them to their parents and the authorities.
“I am simply being sued for a point of view which is not official. My family once suffered a denunciation campaign in the Soviet Union,” Gen said, referring to Stalin’s great purge, during which hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens denounced their neighbors, friends and relatives as “ enemies of the state”.
While she was “upset” to learn that she was being taped by the students she knew well, she didn’t blame them.
“I don’t blame my students; they just follow what their parents think and tell them to do,” said Gen, who has since quit her teaching job.
She believes one of her students’ parents encouraged their child to record her after Gen made “little” anti-war remarks earlier during class.
“This situation is terrible. It was very hard for me personally. But it’s also crazy how everyone around me, the vast majority of people I know, people I considered friends, support Russia in this conflict,” she said.
Six weeks after President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, polls indicate that the Kremlin, with the help of relentless state propaganda, has succeeded in mustering popular support for its military actions.
Moscow signaled early on that it would not tolerate dissenting voices in its education sector. The country’s education minister, Sergei Kravtsov, has openly described the schools as vital to Russia’s fight to “win the information and psychological war” against the West.
Since March 1, schools have introduced new lessons in which teachers have been tasked with explaining to their students why Russia was forced to start war against “a fascist regime in Ukraine”.
Hundreds of posts also appeared on Russian social media featuring schoolchildren posing for photos forming Z signs, the military markings that have become the main symbol of public support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Local kindergartens have even posted images of toddlers lying on a playmat in a Z formation and preschoolers painting their country’s military symbol in the colors of the Russian tricolor.
Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Moscow Center said the experience of Gen and other teachers pointed to a worrying “Stalinization” of Russian society.
“You feel like you are in a time machine. A climate is created in which denunciations are encouraged by the authorities. We saw the same processes develop under Stalin, which had devastating consequences”, Kolesnikov said.
Kolesnikov said he was approached by “many university professors” who said they were afraid to bring up the “Ukrainian topic”.
“They say the students are trying to get them to talk about the conflict just to report them.”
Kolesnikov said that if the current atmosphere in the country persists, Russia “will soon have a new generation of Pavlik Morozov”, referring to the Soviet boy Morozov who denounced his father to the authorities and became a propaganda icon, with statues of him erected. all over Russia.
Kolesnikov also argued that the effects of the current war frenzy would be felt far beyond the country’s classrooms.
There have been a number of reports recently of random passers-by denouncing small business owners for displaying anti-war messages on their windows.
“We see creeping signs of an authoritarian regime turning into a totally totalitarian regime, in which a mobilized society is actively telling each other,” Kolesnikov said.