“Teachers could have a lot of impact, but they are probably the most disenfranchised people,” argues Irina Milyutina, a teacher from Pskov. After Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, she held a solo picket and signed an open letter by Russian teachers against the war with Ukraine. The police detained Milyutina during the protest, and her school hinted that the young woman was only harming herself by her actions. In an interview with 7×7, Milyutina talked about how it came about that she held an anti-war protest, whether local teachers have been forced to teach “patriotism lessons” in connection with the events in Ukraine, and whether teachers can stop the war.
“I don’t have anything to prove to anyone”
— Tell us about yourself. What do you do? What are your interests?
— I work as an English teacher at a public school in Pskov. We have a dynasty in our family: Grandma and Mom are also teachers. I like working with children, I really love my subject, I try to improve my English skills. In my free time I make cosplay costumes for photo shoots, play computer games, dance, and read. And I’m interested in politics.
— Have you been involved in protests before?
— I have gone to protest when it was impossible to be silent. I went to solo pickets against the amendments to the [Russian] Constitution, in memory of [slain opposition leader] Boris Nemtsov, in support of journalists labeled “foreign agents,” and twice against the war with Ukraine.
— Was it scary to go to a public protest?
— What is there to fear? Solo pickets are legal, first of all. Second, what would I feel like if I sat home shaking in fear? I would stop respecting myself.
— What consequences did the protests you were involved in have for you? Did the police, officials, school management, colleagues, or parents of students put pressure on you?
— There was no pressure generally, only questions about why I was doing this, because “nothing will change anyway.” And the [local] Department of Education has been very interested in my actions. They even called me at home in the fall, although it’s not clear why.
— How do your superiors, colleagues, and parents of students feel about your civic stance and involvement in protests?
— I don’t bandy my views about at work and I don’t talk about them with anyone there. Only my social media audience knows about what I’m involved in, and if someone else knows, I don’t discuss it. Most likely, there are rumors. Some [coworkers and parents] support me, while some condemn me, and this is normal. I don’t have anything to prove to anyone.
“How can the authorities so shamelessly deceive and muzzle the people?”
— Why did you decide to protest the war in Ukraine by picketing on February 24?
— I hoped to the last that the conflict would not grow to such an extent, although Russia’s arms exhibitionism has been covered by the propaganda channels from all angles for many years, as long as the hybrid war continued. I protested against this in the spring, when the situation was heating up more and more.
But as soon as I learned on the morning of February 24 that troops had been officially sent in and the war had become conventional, I was shocked. I realized that I couldn’t ignore it. The Russian Federation’s foreign policy has raised many questions before, but this [was beyond the pale].
— How did passersby react to your protest? Did they support or condemn you?
— When I was standing there with my placard, people came up to me. Many thanked me, saying that they agreed with my position. But I was only thinking about one thing: how can the authorities so shamelessly deceive and muzzle the people and misrepresent the truth?!
I was terrified at the thought of how the world community would react, how the people of Ukraine, who are now forced to hide in bomb shelters, would treat Russians. What terrible consequences await the whole world because of the ambitions of the Russian Federation. The damage is irreparable.
— Why did the police detain you during the picket?
— I still don’t understand why I was detained. I am well aware of the rules for solo pickets and did my own picket in full compliance with them. They detained me just like that, despite the fact that I had my documents with me. They said something about a “public event” at the police precinct, but there was no public event. They have only done a field interview with me at the moment.
“Teachers are disenfranchised people”
— Did your school react to your protest against the war with Ukraine?
— The school’s management reacted by asking whether I understood that we teachers are dependent people and saying that I was only making things worse for myself by my actions, that I was not thinking about the future at all. Although just the opposite was the case.
— The Kaluga Regional Ministry of Education has ordered schools to teach lessons on “patriotism and pride for their country” because of Russia’s recognition of the LPR and the DPR. Have your or other schools been asked to teach similar lessons?
— I have not yet heard that teachers in Pskov have been ordered to teach patriotic education lessons due to the current situation. I hope this doesn’t happen. It’s nonsense. I think that school teachers, like other educators and scholars, could have a lot of impact, but, unfortunately, they are perhaps the most disenfranchised people, deprived of the opportunity to express their opinions. Some of them, out of fear of losing their jobs, dance to the tune of the authorities by meeting frankly criminal demands. It’s a very sad situation.
— Why did you sign the open letter by teachers against the war with Ukraine?
— I was incredibly pleased that so many teachers finally realized that they have the right to speak out, the right to be outraged by the situation, and wrote this open letter.
Just like them, I think about the future of our country, about what will become of my students. The current actions of the authorities are leading to a catastrophe that will ruin everyone’s lives. Can we let this happeen?
— What do you expect in the near future when it comes to your protest activity and the situation in Ukraine?
— I don’t expect anything from my activism. I’m doing it because my heart tells me to. I stand for justice, for peace and good relations with other countries, for progress. But what’s happening now will only lead us to isolation, collapse, and being hated by our neighbors, and not only by them. I’m in favor of ceasing hostilities and withdrawing the troops. We would do better to deal with matters inside our country, because there’s total ruin all round us as it is.
Source: Ivan Zhurakov, ‘I think what will happen to my students’: Why a teacher from Pskov protested the war against Ukraine,” 7×7, 28 February 2022. Translated by the Russian Reader