LONDON (Reuters) – Days after Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, Andrei Shestakov opened a set of files in a WhatsApp group chat for history teachers like himself in his town in east Russia.
The files – which Reuters reviewed and contain dozens of pages of documents and presentations as well as video links – are instructions on how to teach teenage school children about the conflict. It’s unclear who shared the files to the group chat, but many of the documents carry the crest of the education ministry in Moscow.
The material includes lesson guides stating that Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine were heroes, that Ukraine’s rulers made common cause with people who collaborated with World War Two Nazis, that the West was trying to spread discord in Russian society, and that Russians must stick together.
Shestakov said he leafed through the files during one of his lessons. The slim-built 38-year-old said that before becoming a teacher in January he had spent 16 years as a police officer. But he had growing doubts in recent years, he said, about whether Russia’s rulers were living up to the values they professed about democracy, influenced in part by prominent Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.
He decided not to teach the modules to his pupils at the Gymnasium No. 2 school where he worked in Neryungri, a coal-mining town in eastern Siberia, some 6,700 km (4160 miles) east of Moscow.
Instead, Shestakov told his pupils about the contents of the teaching guide and why they were historically inaccurate, he told Reuters. For instance, he said he explained that the materials claimed Ukraine was an invention of Bolshevik communist Russia yet history textbooks discussed Ukrainian history going back centuries.
He went further. On March 1, he told pupils during a civics class he would not advise them to serve in the Russian army, that he opposed the war against Ukraine, and that Russia’s leaders exhibited elements of fascism even while saying they were fighting fascism in Ukraine, according to a signed statement taken by police and reviewed by Reuters.
In the following days, the local police and the Federal Security Service, known as the FSB, summoned Shestakov for questioning, according to the March 5 signed statement about his classroom comments. He said he has not been charged in relation to those comments. The FSB and local police didn’t respond to requests for comment.
A court did fine him 35,000 roubles (about $420) on March 18 for discrediting the Russian armed forces after he re-posted videos online of interviews with Russian soldiers captured in Ukraine, according to a court ruling seen by Reuters.
He said he quit his job last month because he believed he would be fired anyway for his public opposition to the war, he told Reuters. The local education authority and the education ministry didn’t respond to requests for comment on Shestakov and the teaching guide. When Reuters reached the school by phone, a woman who identified herself as acting head teacher said she declined to comment on Shestakov’s case and ended the call.
Teachers across Russia have received the same or similar teaching guides, according to two teacher’s union officials, two other teachers and social media posts from two schools reporting they had taught the modules.
Olga Miryasova, an official with a trade union called Teacher, said regional education authorities circulated the teaching guide Shestakov received to multiple schools around the country. Reuters was unable to determine independently how many schools received the modules. One of the teachers said they received a different teaching pack from the one Shestakov did, though it contained similar content.
The initiative shows how the Russian state — which has been intensifying its grip on the mainstream media — is now extending its propaganda effort about the Ukraine war into schools as the Kremlin seeks to shore up support. Since the war started, many Russian schools have posted images on social media showing pupils sending messages of support to troops fighting in Ukraine and standing in formation to spell out the letter “Z,” a symbol of support for the war in Russia.
Teachers who disagree with the war are now joining the ranks of opposition activists, non-governmental organisation campaigners, and independent journalists in feeling the pressure of the Russian state, with fines, prosecutions, and the prospect of forfeiting their jobs. President Vladimir Putin in early March signed into law legislation that makes the spread of “fake” information about the Russian armed forces, an offence punishable with fines or jail terms of up to 15 years.
Even before the invasion, the Kremlin had been tightening the screws on its opponents using a combination of arrests, internet censorship and blacklists.
The Kremlin didn’t respond to requests for comment about its handling of opposition to the war, the teaching guide and Shestakov’s case.
Russia’s Education Minister Sergei Kravtsov told a parliamentary committee in March that his ministry had launched a nationwide drive to discuss Russian-Ukrainian relations with pupils, amid questions from children about the situation in Ukraine and sanctions.
The Kremlin has said it is enforcing laws to thwart extremism and threats to stability. It says it is conducting what it calls a “special operation” to destroy its southern neighbour’s military capabilities and “denazify” Ukraine and prevent genocide against Russian speakers, especially in the east of the country. Kyiv and its Western allies have dismissed this as a baseless pretext for war, and accuse Russian forces of killing civilians.
WEST’S ‘HYBRID WARFARE’
The teaching guide that Shestakov received says it is aimed at pupils aged between 14 and 18 years. It comprises detailed lesson plans for teachers, links to videos of speeches by President Putin and short films to illustrate the lessons.
According to the teaching materials, the West is waging information warfare to try to turn public opinion against Russia’s rulers, and that all Russian people need to stand firm against that.
One lesson plan explains Russia was fighting a cultural war against the West which had destroyed “the institute of the traditional family” and was now trying to foist its values on Russia.
It says that since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine had conducted an anti-Russian policy. “There were attacks on the Russian language, our common history was falsified, war criminals and criminal groups from World War Two were turned into heroes,” according to the document, which refers to Ukrainian nationalists who made an alliance with Germany during that war.
Another lesson says that the West is deploying “hybrid warfare” — a mixture of propaganda, economic sanctions, and military pressure — to try to defeat Russia by fomenting internal conflict. “That is precisely why they urge us to attend unsanctioned demonstrations, they incite us to break the law, and try to scare us,” it reads.
“We must not succumb to provocation,” the document says.
The modules include a game where pupils have 15 seconds to decide if a statement is true or false. One statement reads: “The organisation of protests, provocations of the authorities and mass gatherings are an effective way of resolving a hybrid conflict.” According to the lesson guide, the correct answer is “false.”
Reuters found social media posts from a school in Samara, on the Volga river, and a school in Minusinsk, southern Siberia, showing slides from the same presentations being used.
Danil Plotnikov, a math teacher in Chelyabinsk, the Ural mountains, told Reuters he had been asked by his bosses to teach similar content but from a different teaching pack than the one Shestakov received; Plotnikov didn’t identify who the bosses were. Tatyana Chernenko, a math teacher in Moscow, said colleagues in other schools told her they had been asked to teach similar modules but they had not been taught in her school.
The teachers Reuters spoke to said that some regions and schools pushed the lessons harder than others. None of the five teachers said they had heard of cases where teachers were explicitly ordered to teach the modules. They said it was usually framed as a request, or a recommendation by a school or regional education authorities.
Some had said no, and faced no consequence, said Daniil Ken, chair of an independent teachers’ trade union called Teachers’ Alliance. Others did not teach the lessons but told bosses they had, said Ken. He added refusing was a risk, with teachers not knowing if their head teachers would pressure them to quit.
Ken said his union has heard from about half a dozen teachers a week who say they are quitting because they didn’t want to promote the Kremlin’s line – something Reuters wasn’t able to independently verify.
Shestakov wears his hair close cropped and practices sambo, a martial art developed in the Soviet army. He said his career in the police included a one-year stint in the interior ministry special forces, an arm of law enforcement whose officers are now fighting in Ukraine. The interior ministry didn’t respond to a request for comment.
By 2018, when he was a community officer working with juvenile offenders, he had a political awakening, according to Shestakov. He said he started watching videos put out by Navalny, the opposition figure who is now in a Russian jail, alleging corruption by Kremlin leaders.
“I became a real opposition person,” Shestakov said.
He said when the war in Ukraine started, the images of casualties disturbed him and he spent hours watching videos of the fighting on social media.
Under a pseudonym, he re-posted the videos of interviews with Russian soldiers captured in Ukraine to the comments section of a local media outlet that has about 5,200 subscribers, according to Shestakov and the March 18 court ruling seen by Reuters.
The court said his actions were a violation of a law forbidding the discrediting of the Russian armed forces.
Shestakov said he suspects the FSB has in recent weeks been eavesdropping on his phone conversations, though he did not have evidence of that. He also said that he has seen people he recognises as undercover FSB officers three times in recent days. The FSB didn’t respond to requests for comment on whether it is monitoring him.
Now, Shestakov plans to leave Russia because he says he fears further penalties from authorities. He would join tens of thousands of Kremlin opponents who have also fled the country since Putin began cracking down hard on opposition in 2018.
He said he planned to go to Turkey, unless the authorities bar him from leaving the country.
Staying and dropping his public opposition to the war was not an option for him, Shestakov said. “It will be hard for me to keep my mouth shut,” he said.
(Editing by Christian Lowe and Cassell Bryan-Low)