“I think that I acted properly,” said Irina Gen, a 45-year-old English teacher from Penza, a Volga region city of about half a million people. “I don’t regret it. The only problem is that I didn’t manage to reach the minds of our students.”
Gen is under criminal prosecution for discussing Russia’s war in Ukraine with a group of eighth-graders on March 18. One of the students recorded the conversation and released it publicly, prompting prosecutors to file criminal charges that she disseminated “demonstrably false information about the armed forces of the Russian Federation.”
Specifically, Gen was charged for mentioning Russia’s March 9 air strike on a maternity hospital in the Azov Sea port of Mariupol — an incident that Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) officers who questioned her claimed, without evidence, was “fake.”
She could face up to 15 years in prison under a new law enacted by President Vladimir Putin shortly after Russia’s February 24 invasion of neighboring Ukraine.
Gen is just one of a growing number of teachers, activists, and others who have faced similar denunciations — some of them issued anonymously — as the Russian government expands its crackdown on information and dissenting opinions about the war in Ukraine, in which thousands of Ukrainian civilians and soldiers on both sides have been killed.
The developments inside Russia have many Kremlin critics comparing the current crackdown to the darkest political repressions under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
In a speech to government ministers on March 16, Putin called for a “natural and necessary self-cleansing of society” and said that Russians “will always be able to distinguish patriots from scum and traitors and to spit them out like a fly that accidentally flew into their mouths.”
“We have reached a time of denunciations,” Gen said. “And we understand that perfectly.”
“I think this all originated with their parents,” Gen told RFE/RL’s Idel.Realities. “That is, one child in some conversation mentioned that their English teacher had a completely different point of view. I know that a parent of one student in that class works for the [FSB].
“I think they were sent to record me…and ‘leak’ it to law enforcement,” she said. “That is my opinion, but I am sure of it 100 percent.”
After 10 years at the school, Gen quit her job, saying, “It wasn’t very nice working in a school where such an unpleasant thing happened.”
Shades Of 1937
In Astrakhan, a city on the upper delta where the Volga River pours into the Caspian Sea, mathematics teacher Yelena Baibekova was fired on April 1 after her school’s administrators claimed that unnamed students had complained about “political discussions” in her classes. Baibekova was not shown the complaint.
Although she says she participates in anti-war demonstrations in her free time, she denies ever discussing politics in school. Baibekova told RFE/RL that other staff members at the school had been trying to get her fired for some time because of her dissident political opinions.
“The accusations against me are completely made up. I told the director of the school that now I know what the people looked like who wrote denunciations in 1937,” she said, referring to the peak of Stalin’s Great Terror, when millions of Soviet citizens were arrested on the flimsiest of pretexts. “She responded that now she knows what fascists and traitors to the motherland look like.”
In his 1982 novella The Zone, dissident Soviet journalist and writer Sergei Dovlatov wrote: “We endlessly curse Comrade Stalin and for good reason. But nonetheless I’d like to ask — who wrote the 4 million denunciations?…. They were written by ordinary Soviet people.”
In the eastern Siberian town of Neryungri, former police officer and history teacher Andrei Shestakov lost his job at the end of March when school administrators asked him to resign after he was convicted of the administrative offense of spreading “false information” about the Ukraine war on social media. He was fined 35,000 rubles ($420). He has appealed his conviction.
Shestakov, who had been fired from the police earlier for his support of imprisoned opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, told RFE/RL that he had discussed Ukraine’s democratic elections and peaceful power transitions in a recent 11th-grade social studies class. After students told their parents about the discussion, they filed complaints to the police, the FSB, and the prosecutor’s office. Shestakov was not shown the complaints and does not know who filed them.
There are many variations of these scenarios, but they are all predictable and they are all based on one thing: fear.”
“I don’t think the student did this intentionally to cause me problems,” Shestakov said. “Most likely, the student just wanted to learn his or her parents’ opinion. Sort of, ‘We were discussing such-and-such in school today — what do you think?’ And the parents were extremely negative that such things were discussed at all and about my views.”
In late March, English teacher Marina Dubrova, who worked in the Sakhalin Island town of Korsakov, was fired for discussing the war with her students after one of them recorded her class and a parent filed a complaint. She was also fined 30,000 rubles ($360) for the administrative violation of spreading “fake” information.
Dubrova told RFE/RL’s Siberia.Realities that she was “horrified” by the anger expressed by students when discussing the war in Ukraine, as well as by official Education Ministry instructions on how to discuss what the Kremlin euphemistically calls a “special military operation.”
‘A Close Friend’
The wave of denunciations has not only affected teachers.
In the North Caucasus city of Nalchik, a married couple named Oksana and Aleksandr Veselov were in a cafeteria discussing the death of a relative who had been serving as a volunteer in Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Force outside Kyiv.
Four women sitting at a nearby table began cursing the couple and then called the police. When the police officer who arrived refused to detain them, the offended women called the FSB. An FSB agent arrived and also declined to detain them.
The women then called the police a second time. This time, a patrol officer agreed to write up Oksana and Aleksandr for “petty hooliganism.” Aleksandr was later charged under the “fake” information law for purportedly telling the officer that the Russian Army had illegally entered Ukrainian territory. He was convicted and fined 30,000 rubles ($360).
In the Volga region city of Naberezhnye Chelny, 30-year-old IT specialist Albina Ardakhanova was also fined 30,000 rubles ($360) earlier this month after a neighbor complained to police that she had a sign reading “No to war” on her balcony.
In the southern city of Krasnodar, local activist Konstantin Trudnik left Russia earlier this month after a person that he described as “a close friend” wrote a denunciation to police against him that claimed Trudnik was “against Putin.”
“The growing number of denunciations is predictable,” said human rights activist Rostislav Pavlishchev, who is based in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don and who was himself briefly jailed in December because of an anonymous denunciation.
“In some cases, we are talking about anonymous denunciations that, most likely, are written by the police themselves,” he said. “In other cases, the complainants are frightened public-sector workers who are forced by police or their bosses to write denunciations. Some denunciations are written by fake ‘activists’ who are cooperating with the Anti-Extremism Center. There are many variations of these scenarios, but they are all predictable and they are all based on one thing: fear.”