“She had never read Vvedensky. It was so disgusting that I still feel physically sick.” • Teacher Serafima Saprykina recounts how Kharms and Vvedensky were put on trial during an emergency meeting at a Petersburg high school • Venera Galeyeva • Fontanka.ru • February 6, 2022
The class in which tenth graders listened to poems written by “fascist accomplices” and “enemies of the people” was guest-taught by the young teacher-organizer, who had been invited by the social studies teacher. Everything started because the school’s “literary sector was lagging” and they had been having a hard time finding a library director.
Serafima Saprykina, whose Facebook post detailing the unusual approach of the 168th Gymnasium’s principal to the avant-garde OBERIU poets has gone viral, spoke to us about what exactly the director didn’t like about the work of [poets Daniil] Kharms and [Alexander] Vvedensky, why she decided to make the story public only now, and what she hopes will come about as a result.
Serafima, why did you decide to tell the story of your departure from Gymnasium No. 168 just now?
I watched the latest film from [journalist] Katerina Gordeyeva, about the children of people who were persecuted [under Stalin]: Mama Won’t Come Back: Women of the Gulag. I became terribly ashamed, I even started crying. I realized that I was doing the wrong thing. I had a chance to stand up for the repressed and I didn’t do it. I don’t hold a personal grudge against the person who fired me, otherwise I would have made the situation public right away. I just want evil to be called by name.
So why did you keep mum back in December?
I figured that I would go on working in the school, or maybe in a different one. And if I told the story no school would ever hire me. But after working in various schools for seven years I have seen all kinds of things and I understand that school, the system that schools are part of, is not going to change. When I was in school in Volgograd I was subjected to bullying. I was different, I read a lot and my classmates disliked me. I would never have thought that I would become a teacher myself but at a certain point I found my calling there.
How did you come to teach the OBERIU poets?
I wrote a dissertation about religious imagery in the work of the OBERIU poets for my master’s at the St. Petersburg State University philosophy department. I’ve been into this topic for a long time and wanted to tell the kids about it. But this wasn’t a one-off lecture, it was part of a series of lessons. The first one was about the [classical modernist] Silver Age poets, then the OBERIU poets, then a lesson about the stadium poets [of the late 1950s—Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Bella Akhmadulina, and others—trans.] and [Joseph] Brodsky, with contemporary literature at the end. Unfortunately, I only got to the second lesson. The series had been officially approved and accepted by my immediate supervisor, head teacher Tatyana Nikolayevna Golerbakh.
The lesson on the OBERIU poets came after the students’ regular classes?
No, I taught it in place of their social studies class—the teacher had invited me to take over that hour. This is standard procedure at the school, the librarian must ask the other teachers for permission to run a “library hour” during their classes. But I didn’t talk to the kids about the precise circumstances in which Kharms and Vvedensky died after their arrests in 1941, or about the arrests either. What’s the point in scaring the kids like that, anyway? I told them about the OBERIU group.
OBERIU (the Association of Real Art—Obedinenie realnogo iskusstva) was a group of writers and cultural figures that existed between 1927 and the early 1930s in Leningrad (now Petersburg).
When we got to Vvedensky, I gave the kids his poem “I regret that I’m not a beast” [Mne zhalko, chto ia ne zver’]. And that really sparked the whole situation that followed. All the people who participated in the emergency meeting called by the principal, including the director of the school museum, had been working with me for half a year and had nothing but praise for me. If the principal had said that I needed to quit because she didn’t approve of my work, I would have understood. But she said, “What a filthy title: he regrets, you know, that he’s not a beast.” She had never read Vvedensky. It was so disgusting that I still feel physically sick.
Your Facebook post went viral within three hours, it’s all over social networks and the media. What has changed in your life since then?
Absolutely everything in my world has changed. When I was writing the post, I thought that I’d get like five likes and three comments, with two of those claiming I was making it all up. I didn’t think that my post would elicit such a response and that people would start calling me a hero. What kind of hero am I? I haven’t even read all the messages and comments yet. But I am sure that the homeroom teacher for the tenth-grade class where I taught the Kharms/Vvedensky class will confirm that I didn’t tell the kids anything horrible during the lesson.
How long did you work at the 168th?
I was hired there in late August of 2021. The school was looking for a library director, and they saw my resume on a recruiting site and liked it. The principal called me and said that the school was very interested in me. At the interview she explained that their literary curriculum was lagging, and they really needed lessons on extracurricular reading, which I as library director could teach. When I came in to get registered for employment, it turned out that they couldn’t hire me as director without my having librarian experience or education, so they hired me as a teacher-organizer and tacked on 25% of the librarian salary.
Surely that is no grounds for firing someone?
Within this system it’s enough for there to be even a hint that they don’t want you around anymore. And whatever you do after that, however hard you try, you just have to leave. I’ve never had a serious conflict with anyone in my life, that’s just not who I am. This is just the systematic stigmatization of teachers with initiative. It’s happening everywhere.
What exactly were your duties at the 168th?
What does the school library director do? There are two options. Either she just sits there and doesn’t let anyone into the library, and if a pupil comes and asks for a book, silently hands it over. Or she doesn’t [hand it over], if the book isn’t in the library. Or the director runs classes on extracurricular reading, reading competitions, talks about what’s going on in contemporary literature. For instance, I invited Kira Anatolyevna Groznaya, head editor of [youth journal] Aurora, and she talked to the kids about literary journals and how to publish in them. They really liked it.
And how much were you paid for this work?
Schools pay well, I never had any problems with how I was paid. But I won’t tell you exactly how much. Even if I never have work ever again, it won’t turn me into a person who thinks the wrong way. I really want to do research, to do graduate study. And more than anything I would like to work for Memorial (an organization declared to be an “NGO-foreign agent” by the Russian Justice Ministry and liquidated in December 2021 by order of the Russian Supreme Court—Fontanka.ru), to help keep alive the memory of repressed people. But Memorial is gone. I really love my country and don’t want to emigrate. Everyone is ruled by fear right now. You asked what I experienced in the three hours after publishing my post. It would be better to ask what I experienced during the month and a half since getting fired. And what I experienced was, probably, everything that a person in the 1930s experienced.
Why? No one’s being lined up for the firing squad and there’s no Gulag, right?
It seems like that, yeah. But meanwhile I’m being fired for reading poems by “enemies of the people.” And I’m afraid that no one will hire me again if I speak up. But what does it mean for me to speak up? My voice is the voice of one little person who wants to live her little life. I’m not a hero. I’m a coward who was brave enough to speak up one time. But the worst thing already happened — I got fired, because the principal thinks that Kharms and Vvedensky are “German accomplices” and “enemies of the people.” There is plenty of work out there, I’ll find something. And if I can’t, I’ll just live with my husband. But maybe with my silly little voice I can inspire others to speak up as well. And then we definitely won’t find ourselves back in 1937.
Are you not afraid that the school will accuse you of making everything up? You don’t have a recording of that meeting, after all.
No, I’m not afraid. I know I’m telling the truth. One person and God are already a majority. Now I’m not afraid of anything. And you shouldn’t be either.
Translated by the Fabulous AM. Photo courtesy of Fontanka.ru via Serafima Saprykina