Readings — From the August 2017 issue

Teachable Moment

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From a conversation that took place in March in a high school classroom in Bryansk, Russia. Earlier that day, Maxim, a student, was arrested for spreading information about an unsanctioned demonstration that called for an investigation into corruption allegations against Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. He had also created a student group in support of Alexey Navalny, an opposition leader. A video of the conversation was published by Meduza, a Russian news site, and translated by Global Voices.

principal: For those who have taken an interest in Navalny’s activities: Okay, he proposes that we smear our top leaders. He says “no to corruption” and so on. But what specific actions does he propose? Assemble for a protest? Tell Medvedev what a jerk he is?

student 1: He filmed a video about Medvedev, and he wants answers from the authorities.

principal: And so what?

student 1: The authorities are silent.

principal: No, hold on. If you film a video about me, and write about how I’m not doing my job, how there are cockroaches running around all over the school, and you come out demanding answers — do you think I’ll have a conversation with you?

student 2: No.

principal: Medvedev won’t either. What Navalny is doing is pure provocation. Do you get it? Right now, our economic situation is very unstable. It’s an economic pit. And why is this happening? You’ve taken social studies and all that. You know that we’re basically living under an economic blockade. But I want to hear what you think. What’s going on right now?

student 2: A crisis.

principal: What’s causing this crisis?

student 2: Sanctions, the European Union, this blockade.

principal: One more time — what’s the cause? The European Union. Our leader is managing a very stable and very strong policy. He has an enormously high rating on the world stage because of foreign policy.

student 2: And what exactly is our foreign policy? America is against us. Europe is against us. Because of Crimea. We basically took it.

principal: Do you think that’s bad?

teacher: There was a referendum.

student 2: Why did they impose sanctions against us?

teacher: Because they wanted to show their strength.

principal: Kid, you haven’t read anything about this and you don’t know a thing. You’ve got some very superficial knowledge. What started this whole conflict? Maybe it was because America stuck its nose in?

student 2: It didn’t intervene openly. Did you see American troops in Ukraine?

principal: Did you see Russian troops in Ukraine?

student 2: Yes. There are videos.

principal: The videos are staged, for starters. I can see that you lack range in your political view. You see Navalny, you watch his video, and — boom — you believe it all. You embrace sources that are unverified or provocative.

teacher: Like puppets.

student 2: What if our opinion coincides with his?

principal: Do you even have an opinion? If they say that it’s bad here, then look at other sources.

teacher: Challenge every fact!

student 2: We’re not looking at just a single source.

principal: You’re looking in a single direction.

student 1: Our TV networks show only what’s good for the government.

principal: Do you all mean to tell me that there are no patriots in your class?

student 3: What does it mean to be a patriot? That you support the authorities?

teacher: Students, please, organize a neighborhood cleanup group on your streets.

principal: Guys, raise your hands: How many of you do any volunteer work?

[Silence]

principal: There’s your civic position! You don’t need to be looking down from on high at Putin and Medvedev.

student 2: The volunteering that’s organized and supported by United Russia?

principal: Yes.

student 2: We’re against United Russia.

principal: And you’re for what, exactly?

student 1: We’re for justice. When the authorities care about their people, not just about themselves. When they care about ordinary citizens and not about their millions.

principal: So you think that life in this country got worse with the arrival of Putin and Medvedev?

student 1: They’ve been in power for too long.

principal: Did you live in some other era that I somehow missed? Under whom did you live well?

student 2: We’ve studied history.

principal: I’m asking you: Under what ruler did you live well? You never lived through the hard years of the 1990s, when everyone carried around a knife and a firearm and the country was in chaos. This was when it was scary to go out into the street after eight at night. You didn’t see this.

student 2: They just arrested a person for absolutely nothing. They carried him off to the police station.

principal: This is civil war.

student 2: This is lawlessness.

principal: What is the aim of any protest?

teacher: Political crisis, then civil war.

principal: Fratricide.

teacher: You want it to be like in Ukraine? Or like it was for us in 1917?

student 2: We don’t want these officials. We will gather together. People will at least see that there are citizens.

teacher: Citizens. In other words, a bunch of young people led by adults with nothing to lose.

principal: Guys, we tried to warn you about this. What’s happening now is called polemics, and nobody needs it. I’m thinking about your future. I tried to defend Maxim. I said that these were just juvenile antics. Believe me, he’s not having a good time right now. I don’t want any of you to land in a similar situation. I’m telling you: Grow up and make something of yourselves. That’s the right thing to do.

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