Friday, November 27, 2015

Do Russians Know English Well?

By Stephen Wilson

(Moscow, Russia) --  The advertisements appear ubiquitous. You come across them in your letter box and even on the minibus you wave down in Moscow. To state that the lessons of English First, a Swedish-based English language company is highly promoted is an understatement. You come across posters with photos of girls with class 'A' looks saying ' With English I can speak to children from different countries', 'With English I have many friends',  'English is a joy' but the more serious appeal to adults show a businessman leaping over a hurdle with the words 'English gives you a competitive advantage,' 'boosts your salary' or Helps you get promotion'. The message seems to be if you don't know English you are not a whole or complete person. No wonder some people get  a complex about not knowing any English. All the promotion is designed to persuade people that knowing English is a necessity and in the worst cases, almost a panacea for everything. Despite some research which finds, that in certain situations, knowledge
of English helps you get a job and even a pay rise, much of this claim is just hype. I have come across many rich businessmen in Moscow who don't know English and rarely use it in their day-to-day lives. Much more important in making a living is a useful profession which is in great demand or your place of life.

            I attempted to forget those E. F . advertisements by opening up a Russian newspaper 'Kommersant'. But alas, again, I came across an article on an E.F . Language survey.
There is no rest for the wicked!

            The study is based on an analysis of tests carried out on 910,000 people in 70 countries over the world assessing
their competence in English. The authors of this survey
make the claim that a country's level of English has a direct
connection with its economic competitive capacity as well as
affluence. The more a nation's people speak English, the
better their level of income. So there is a correlation between
mastery of English and a country's gross national income,
quality of life, access to the internet etc.

            The survey found that top countries who speak English well are Sweden, with 71 points, the Netherlands, with 70 and Finland with 64. Countries with a low level of English are Saudi Arabia (40 points), Cambodia (39 Points) while Russia has (52 points).

            However, France also has a low level of English and their people are far from poor.

            There is no real evidence to suggest a direct correlation between linguistic competence in English and the wealth of people. It is sheer unwarranted speculation  or rather a continuation of marketing by other means. The real reasons for poverty in Russia are not absence of English but the unfair distribution of wealth which is perpetuated by a rotten and ruthless government that serves the rich and bureaucrats.

            In fact, many English teachers happen to be among the poorest groups of Russians. I have lost count of the number of Russians who speak perfect English but are poor and abused by others.

            It is worth noting that the country which speaks the best English from the 70 countries is Sweden. English first just happens to be a Swedish company. The Swedish managers are so patriotic that the walls and the ceiling of the classroom are painted the colours of the Swedish flag; yellow and blue.

            Sorry, but it is difficult not to suspect this survey is flawed by experimental  bias.

            A pleasant Swedish manager who was visiting Moscow once told me, 'The Swedes are proud of their Viking heritage'.

            He also reminded me of how it was a Swede who invented dynamite! Well, to be fair, he never said they invented the elephant.

            At least the drive to globalisation has not dented the Swedish sense of patriotism!

Thursday, November 26, 2015

We're Still Here

We're Still Here - Happy Turkey Day!
By Jim Vail

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

And yes, Second City Teachers news blog is still here. 

There must have been a glitch because this news blog is a part of Google, so the temporary glitch put our website offline.

But we're back on!

And there's nothing more warming to the heart during this holiday season than to hear from our dear readers their concerns about not being able to access our site.

It tells me, well, I ain't hitting 100,000 followers a day like some celebrities, but those who read us care enough to write and ask where are we when we disappear, if only for a moment.

So Second City Teachers must be doing something right!

The pressure in the Chicago Public Schools these days only seems to get higher and higher, and with a possible major teachers strike just around the corner, the news we feed our readers is more important than ever.

The issues we would like to focus on in our upcoming news blasts include assessing the Reach evaluation system for teachers, why schools can't hire or replace teachers who leave, negotiations between the board of ed and the CTU from the inside (we're getting some crazy reports that CPS is actually thinking about turning the tables and imposing a 'teacher lockout' in January?), our monthly delegates meeting report next week (possible official strike vote announcement?) and continuing political reporting (our political system is rigged folks!).

I worked as a journalist in Russia before I became a city teacher.

I also write for a publication called My Chicago News ( There you can read my stories and analyses of what's happening in CPS and the city in general. My cover story 'Show Me the Money' generated a lot of interest for the newspaper recently.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Teacher Pay Woes!

By Stephen Wilson

(Moscow, Russia) --  Getting fairly and fully paid what you are due isn't apparently always simple. Firstly you have to remind your boss how many hours you have worked by completing timetable sheets, then you have to discover 'When you are going to be be paid ?' and at times, even, 'Where you are going to be paid?' And in Russia, you might wonder if you will be paid at the end of month at all. A further question is, 'How you will be paid;  in hard cash of rubles or dollars or through the banks?'

            I recall when I was working for one of the 'respectable' and 'acceptable'  foreign  language companies that few teachers in the staff room knew when the exact pay day was. It was almost a state secret. I kept asking other teachers and received a vague 'sometime at the end of the month.' Formal notices announcing when you would be paid rarely went up in the staff rooms. When one American boss actually put up a notice it declared quite offensively that, 'If you don't turn up on the date for payment you won't be paid', insinuating that it was the lateness of the teachers who were to blame for not being paid rather than the indifference of the administration. Not only was this notice illegal (no employer has the legal right to withhold due salaries for work) but very suspicious. It raised the question as to what would this boss do with the money he did not pay to teachers? Would it go back into the company or would it simply vanish?

           Well once I turned up to collect my pay and found that this boss not only forgot my name but was about to pay me the part-time wage of  'Derek'. I had to remind him that my name was Stephen Wilson and that I was full-time. I almost lost half my monthly salary!  Shortly afterwards I heard he had been 'tranferred to a new position'. However, I later learned from someone in 'the know how'  that this boss had been fiddling the accounts and that the scandal had been hushed up and swept under the carpet. I now began to question 'the lapse in memory of my former boss'  and every time I entered the office to obtain my pay I counted it so meticulously the newly appointed boss was a bit disconcerted.

           It would be tedious to recall all the situations in which I was never paid my due by this company and others. I will just state that I parted company with them when I never received pay for three substitute teaching lessons.

           What is astonishing is how violations of pay are not even concealed but shamelessly made public! It stretches the limits of incredulity when your employer publically declares that you have received a monthly payment of 71,000 rubles when you actually obtained far less! Those shameless claims have been published in Moscow by many local papers such as Metro, the Moscow evening News and Argument and Facts'. One article states, 'The average pay of teachers at secondary schools has risen from 39,200 rubles in 2010, to 71,000 rubles in 2015. We note that in the capital more than 123,000 teachers are employed and that the number of 'school officials' over the past 5 years  has been cut from almost 22,000 in 2010, to 11,000 in 2015. '

           The statement would make any normally rational person blush. For instance, would any normal person  boast about making approximately 11,000 employees, officials or not, redundant? What pleasure can any normal person derive from depriving a person of his livelihood? Notice how the word officials are in italics, leading us to question whether they are actually officials all. They are very possibly psychologists, speech therapists and nurses not officials.

           When teachers heard those published claims the reaction was one of outrage and indignation. 'Do we receive that much?', 'This is news to me?' and 'Where did they obtain those figures?

           'We can only dream about such a fantastic salary!'

            Further investigation indicates that there is a vast discrepancy between recorded figures in payment sheets and sums in the Financial Report. It is worth offering some concrete examples to illustrate this point below.

             (The figures are from a survey by Novaya Gazeta, Number 121, 2.11,2015, , Pay-Capacity, by Ludmila Ribina)

            A teacher of Russian at a state school in Volgograd earns 21,125 rubles and 51 kopeks for working 27 hours. Yet
Rosstat claims the average teacher salary amounts to 27,968

            In Ivanova, a teacher who works 20 hours attains 13,606 rubles and 79 kopeks. Rosstat claims the average salary of a teacher in the Ivanovski region is 24,184 rubles.

            In the Tambovskaya region  a teacher who works 21 hours earns 13,102 rubles. Rosstat claims the average salary of a teacher is 25,649 rubles.

            A teacher in the Astrakhanskaya region works 38 hours and obtains a miserable 16,854 rubles. Rosstat claims the average salary of a teacher in the Astrakhanskaya  region amounts to 29,712 rubles.

            We could provide more examples but it would grow tedious.

            We could also point out that teachers are not even being paid for taking some classes out on day excursions, filling in all kind of paperwork and many 'non-teaching duties ' such as being asked to write newspapers or do research unconnected with their work. In fact, one recent estimate discovered that teachers are being asked to complete 300 reports a year.

            Teachers are being constantly asked to fill in this or that evaluation form.

            A chairman for the union 'Teacher', Vsevolod Lukhovitsky argues that using the 'average salary' as the main indicator of changes in salaries is bad because it can be so easily manipulated. In deed, as the figures indicate, the state has been grossly distorting the actual figures. The main point is that actual pay should be linked to one fully discerned workload. Or in  simplier terms; a teacher must be paid the exact amount for the exact number of hours he performs. He also argues that educational officials should not be paid more than twice the income of a teacher. At the moment, an official earns three times the average salary of a teacher in Moscow.

            School teachers not only evidently but urgently require the aid of trade-unions. Unfortunately, the membership of the Russian Union 'Teacher' is only approximately 6000. Compare this with Chicago which has 30,000 teachers enrolled in a union!

            Despite this fact, union membership is still steadily growing and discontent won't simply be dissipated by time.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Core Slate Uncertain?

CTU Leadership Ticket In Flux
By Jim Vail

CTU VP Jesse Sharkey is not sure if he will continue in his position.

Union politics certainly ain't what it used to be.

Back in the day there was opposition between different caucuses in the Chicago Teachers Union after the United Progressive Party ruled the roost for years and years.

Enter PACT and Debbie Lynch in the early 21st century who upset the UPC to win the union. She was a constant in the delegates meeting to challenge the ruling company union.

Then Core can along to fight for school closings and do activist union work that the UPC not only neglected, but tried to thwart.

Eventually an unprecedented 5 groups ran for the CTU presidency in 2010, before a run-off gave the election to Karen Lewis and Core.

Today, there appears to be no more UPC, nor any other caucus within the union to fight for the presidency.

However, that doesn't mean there isn't a little intrigue.

According to Core sources, financial secretary Kristine Mayle will not run for re-election as the financial secretary. Sources say Core is thinking of nominating Maria Moreno, who has served as a delegate at Nightengale Elementary School on the South West side.

She has been a consistent fighter with Core from the early days.

Perhaps the biggest surprise so far is current CTU vice president Jesse Sharkey, who has told Core that he may step down and not run on the Core ticket again.

Sharkey told Second City Teachers it is up to the Core steering committee to decide who they will nominate for officers.

Whether this means certain elements surrounding the union leadership are having differences, or fatigue in the overwhelming battle against the board of education and its relentless anti-union pro-privatization agenda, are anyone's guess.

The next CTU union election will be April, 2016. Karen Lewis announced her candidacy to run for re-election.

Another Chicago teachers strike may occur before the union election. 

Monday, November 16, 2015

UFT Delegates Report

Report-back from the UFT DA -NY City Teachers Union 
Nov. 12, 2015   
By Marjorie Stamberg


Fracas on the First Floor at 52 Broadway

            Before we even got into the meeting, we had to face down three burly goons who surrounded us in the lobby and demanded that all United Federation of Teachers members handing out flyers go outside the building.  This exclusion attempt did not work, as we stood our ground and would not be moved out of our own union hall.
These guys refused to say who ordered them to throw us out.  They muttered something about “building management”; they got in our face and tried to push us out the door with our flyers. I would say this was a foray to “test the waters” and see if UFT oppositionists could be pushed out of talking to members and leafleting inside our own union hall. We couldn’t and wouldn’t.

            Norm Scott has reported on the fracas, see  (Video: Taking a Stand Against UFT/Unity Attempt to Ban Lit Distribution in Lobby of 52 Broadway)  and has a note on the history of Unity Caucus’ undemocratic measures against oppositionists. I can only add cell phone cameras may not be a game changer, but they come in handy.   

            What leaflets were being handed out?  MORE Caucus had a resolution in opposition to the Buffalo receivership. Adult Ed teachers had a flyer against the huge cutbacks in ESL and Basic Ed services for adults, and the ongoing vicious  harassment of teacher in that unit. My group, Class Struggle Education Workers, had a flyer denouncing the UFT/AFT endorsement of Clinton and against both Clinton  and Sanders support for corporate “education reform”.  All of which are extremely relevant to teacher delegates.

President’s Report
President Mulgrew started his report by noting that an “incident’ had occurred down in the lobby. He blamed it on building management. (Who they?  We own the building!) He said since it is our building, UFTers could hand out flyers in the lobby during the D.A. (like, duh!). 
Then he began his report.

National:  the tide is turning in our favor after the years of teacher bashing, Common Core testing mania and other markers of the corporate privatization drive. Mulgrew lauded that Hillary Clinton made some lukewarm criticism of the charters.

The Supreme Court Friedrichs’ case is the biggest threat to public workers unions around the country right now. The court’s aim is to throw out the agency shop for public employees. Mulgrew said there will be a co-ordinated campaign of SEIU, AFSCME, AFT and UFT to fight it.  How will they fight it?  They will be filing an amicus brief with the court and seek the support of attorneys general in the states to support it. (This is pretty lame in response to this attempt to financially gut the unions — more later on this).

Statewide, the biggest challenge is Buffalo receivership, where a new NYS law was passed to override the Buffalo Teachers Federation collective bargaining agreement. Their plan is to starve schools of funds then close them,  push out teachers, and unilaterally lengthen the school day and year. Two motions came up at the DA to support Buffalo teachers in this fight:  one put up by UFT VP Janella Hinds, and another by MORE caucus.  The two authors agreed to collaborate on a single motion for the next DA. What we really need to do is what they are doing in Brazil right now, where teachers, students, parents and people from the community are occupying a number of the several thousand schools slated for closing.

 Part 154 Instruction --  Servicing of ELLs. Mulgrew said Bloomberg gutted ESL instruction. Now new changes in the state regs have devastated ESL services, cutting back stand alone ESL classrooms, and even ESL teachers in the content areas if the content area teacher has 12 ESL credits. Mulgrew stated the new regs are a disaster and physically impossible to comply with.  For more information, see the informative piece by Arthur Goldstein of Francis Lewis High School – who posts on NYC Educator blog. He and ESL teacher Aixa Rodriguez had an interview on Spanish Telemundo 47 explaining the devastating cutbacks.


Success Academy:  Eva Moskowitz got caught out when the press reported on Success Academy’s  Fort Greene “got to go list” of students who will be constantly suspended, and their families harassed, until they are forced out of the school. At the DA, a motion was passed to call for a state investigation into disciplinary conditions and high rate of suspensions at Success Academy and for a moratorium on new Success Academy Charter Schools.

Q&A:  Questions included the UFT’s position on abusive principals, the advantages of the new contract’s PROSE schools (juggling working hours, such as a long 4-day week for teachers in some pilot schools); the state’s Common Core commissions, the procedures for getting rid of metal detectors at some schools; what should be done to support ATRs in a building.


Friedrichs v California Teachers Association Supreme Court case. 

Friedrichs will be a watershed battle for public workers – it is aimed squarely at bankrupting teachers unions across the country.  And labor’s response to this is pathetic, electoralist, and losing, before the battle is even engaged. Since this issue is a big deal, I want to go into it a little here. Believe me, it will affect you.

I spoke on this motion, put up an amendment and was able to give my “cheese-head” speech. (Green Bay Packers fans wear headgear that looks like a slice of Wisconsin cheddar cheese. It’s the “dairy state,” right? During the union battle there, we picked up a button saying “Solid Dairy Forever”!) My point was about the (negative) lessons of the huge Wisconsin labor battle for collective bargaining rights. Remember all those thousands of teachers and public workers in Madison in the freezing cold winter of 2011 – ringing the capital by the thousands, day after day for weeks? This struggle was sold out on the eve of a general strike when the Wisconsin AFL-CIO labor bureaucracy spiked it in favor of a “recall vote” against Republican governor Scott Walker. The recall failed as did the whole electoral capitalist game of Republicans v Democrats.

And now they want to repeat that capitulation, only bigger, in Freidrichs. If you’re not following this case, or even if you are, here are the bullet-points:

 ·         The Supreme Court solicited this case from a small group of right-wing California union-busters who want to outlaw the “agency shop.” The union shop was targeted by Taft-Hartley in 1947. Specifically the teachers unions which have been the main target of the so-called “education reformers.” The union-busters have been unsuccessful so far, so now they’re trying to bankrupt us through the courts.

·         The overwhelming majority of teachers sign up with the union when they start work, recognizing that it’s there to defend their rights. Agency shop means that if you don’t join the union, you pay a fee in recognition of all the services the union provides (contractual salary rates, health care plans, no lunch-room duty, a six-hour-fifty-minute school day, etc.).

·         Union dues and fees are deducted by the DOE from our paychecks. The union should have never allowed the employer to be the overseer of our funds. There’s a class line here, and the boss and the government are on the other side. We need to go back to the union shop, collect our own dues, and build union power through hard class struggle.

·         You cannot beat this onslaught through “hard work in the political and legislative arenas” as the UFT motion stated. This can only be stopped in the streets.  That was the crux of my amendment. Particularly because the  Supreme Court is not elected and not subject to legislative control, we need a nationwide campaign of massive mobilizations of union power. The amendment passed, but unless we pull this fight out from under the labor bureaucracy, Friedrichs will mean a terrible defeat for public sector labor. Think PATCO air controllers, under Reagan, which led to years of defeats. And this is being done under the Democrats!

 The rest of the meeting was pretty much bread and butter resolutions.  A motion was passed divesting union pension funds from companies with a big carbon footprint. Mulgrew announced that the union no longer has any investments in hedge funds. The billionaire hedge fund operators, of course, are funding oodles of charters because they have “good cash flow.”

That’s it for now.

*As one of your UFT delegates I report-back on the monthly meetings.  These reports are "my take" on the meeting. For official minutes, let me know and I'll send them along to you.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Dems Endorsement?

Why Do We Keep Endorsing Democrats? 

   By Ed Hershey, Delegate Lindblom High

The CTU endorsed state rep Cynthia Soto and others.

The Political Department presented a resolution to endorse six state representatives early for next fall's elections.  This writer thinks working people need their own political organization, their own party. I think CTU ultimately should not be endorsing Democrats – because the Democratic Party in Chicago and in Illinois is fundamentally a party of the ruling class.

What has the Democratic Party done in Illinois and Chicago lately? For starters, Madigan and company passed the PERA law, which implemented our hated REACH system; then they did Emanuel a favor and passed SB7, which allowed him to lengthen the school day without any extra funding, and put the ridiculous legal limits on our right to strike. Pat Quinn spent his last term attacking public worker pensions, and capped off his term by picking hated former schools CEO PAUL VALLAS as his running mate. That record is as responsible for Rauner’s victory as anything Rauner ever did.  And then Barack Obama promoted Arne Duncan, and took Renaissance 2010 national, with its closings, charter schools, test-test-test and Common Core.  That’s the education policy of the Democrats.  

That’s why endorsing and voting for Democrats is a dead-end that we need to break out of. 
At House of Delegates, we got a six page document in our packet asking us to vote to endorse seven Illinois Assembly candidates.  Does anyone else think it’s a problem that we’re expected to vote things like this, without having time to read – much less come to any kind of considered decision? 

In any case, at House of Delegates, there was some debate on these endorsements.  In particular, Jim Vail, delegate at Hammond, took issue with endorsement of Cynthia Soto (IL District 4).  Soto is presented as an ally of the union. Cynthia Soto did push a law in winter of 2009 to put a moratorium on school closings, turnarounds and other school actions.  Of course, the moratorium was nixed.  The sop the Democrats were willing to throw to the opponents of school closings came that fall, when the Illinois House voted to pass the Chicago Facilities Bill, which established the Educational Facilities Committee, and required the Board to follow a timeline and to hold a set of public hearings for any school action.  Progress perhaps, but it certainly has done little to stop the tidal wave of school closings and turnarounds. 

Soto is not a consistent defender of public education.  In summer of 2012, Soto voted for the “charter full funding bill,” which would have given more funding to charter schools.  The union pointed out to her at the time that her vote was contrary to the spirit of her earlier work, as charter school proliferation is one of the forces driving school closings. 
Vail pointed out, from the floor of the House, that when Emanuel wanted a waiver to push back the schedule of hearings for school closings, after the strike in fall of 2012, Soto did not speak up against it.  When he and others tried to get her on the phone, to ask why, she made herself scarce. The political director said this was a "mischaracterization", but she spoke to the fact that Soto supported the union during the school closings fight -- in spring 2013. That’s exactly the point: Soto could make a symbolic show of support, in spring, when it did not matter. But she did not take a stand a few months earlier, when it might have thrown a speed-bump in front of Emanuel’s school-closing bulldozer.   

And there you have it – a case-in-point of why endorsing Democrats is a dead end. Emanuel and Quinn are clearly enemies. The union’s best “friends” like Soto occasionally get a law through for something like the CEFTF. It’s window dressing – it did not do anything to seriously impede school closings.  And as soon as  those minor restrictions threatened to inconvenience the mayor’s plan to pull off the largest school closing in history, no one was around to make the law stick.

Democratic politicians like Soto are allowed a small margin of maneuver. They can get a bill passed to pose as “our friend”, but they need to operate within the Democratic Party, which means they cannot fundamentally oppose its policy.  The problem being, the Party represents the ruling class, and the ruling class’s policy right now is to take apart public education in Chicago (and elsewhere). We make a mistake to endorse them, or to think of them as “friends” – they cannot and will not consistently represent the interests of working people, while at the same time maintaining any hope for a future within their party.  This is why I voted “no” on those endorsements, though the vote was overwhelming to endorse.  And this is a big part of why I ran as a candidate for alderman – to raise that we need our own organization and our own party, independent of the Democrats. 

Details of Soto’s history of working with CTU and CORE can be found in Back issues of Substance, for example:
Initial “Soto Bill”

Monday, November 9, 2015

Poll Upsets a Few

CTU Practice Vote Poll Ruffles Some Feathers
By Jim Vail

Substance writer and high school teacher Sharon Schmidt speaking to the Board.

Usually I am a critic of the Chicago Teachers Union and do not always agree with the leadership. Especially when it comes to aligning itself too closely to the democratic party.

However, after teachers voted Yes or No to a Practice Strike Vote last week, Substance News posted a critical article that various teachers commented on to criticize the poll.

"Chicago Teachers Union members who were expecting to vote on Nov. 5 on their willingness to strike were instead given the CTU's "Contract Poll Practice Vote" handout that asked four lengthy questions, confusing voters and angering many in the high schools," Sharon Schmidt wrote in her lead in Substance.

She quoted mostly high school critics who said the poll took "long to read," and were "annoyed with the questions."

The union's response was they wanted to "educate" the members and "remind them of contract demands."

The story was well written, as Schmidt, wife of Substance editor and founder George Schmidt, presented both sides of the issue, something rare in today's increasingly partisan media.

In this case, I have to side with the union.

I put out an email to my staff before the vote to notify them about the vote on the contract. Some teachers said they were confused and thought the vote was to strike. I said no, this is not an official vote for a strike, it is about the contract demands of the bargaining team. The union never wrote that this was the "strike" vote.

The idea behind referendums is to educate the populace. For example, you had the city referendum on electing a school board. You actually had to read the question before voting on it. And no, it did not mean if it passed, which it overwhelmingly did, that the city would immediately usher in an elected school board. No, that is the job of the state.

I remember when I worked as a journalist in the 90s in Russia and President Boris Yeltsin won a referendum to back his leadership. It merely meant the people were behind him in the beginning, but later everybody hated him once they realized his neo-liberal reforms meant losing jobs, pensions, and health care.

I mean, come on, it took time for teachers to read the four questions? Really?

I as the delegate at my school was rather delighted to see teachers want to read the four questions rather than ask me which way to vote. And they should educate themselves on issues that are important to them. Many do not attend our union meetings and that is a shame. The union is the reason we have a decently compensated job.

My teachers did not register any complaints.

I did speak with another high school math teacher in Bronzeville who said the way the questions were worded forced his hand to support a possible strike.

This poll's questions reflected what our union leadership wants, and the members can either vote yes or no to fight, yes or no to strike.

Meanwhile, while Hammond School voted overwhelmingly yes to all four questions, Lindblom High School further south did the same. On question 2, Hammond recorded the only 3 no votes, while the Lindblom teachers voted 87 Yes to 7 No. Only four Lindblom teachers voted No to Questions 3 and 4 concerning a no-confidence vote in Forrest Claypool and supporting CTU demands for more teachers in the classroom.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Russia Children & Stalin

By Stephen Wilson

Russian schools are focusing more on Stalin's feats.

(Moscow, Russia) --  The 3Oth of October, the official day of remembrance of the victims of repression, was crowned by three profoundly significant events; the erecting of a national memorial to the victims, the opening of the first national museum devoted to victims of the Gulag and the launching of a campaign 'the last address,' where families will be encouraged to publicly name and display photos of their relatives who were victims of the repression. The last campaign appears to have been inspired by the huge success of the 'eternal regiment ' or 'Bessmertni Polk', where the families carried photos of their relatives who had died during the Great Patriotic War on the Day of Victory.

            A new monument to the victims of repression was erected at the corner of Prospect Akademika  Sakharova and the Garden Ring. In addition, a well-equipped museum devoted to the Gulag has also been opened. Activists from Memorial  have been busy putting up plaques at the last address where the victims of repression last lived displaying the names and fate of the victims.  Those achievements were not accomplished overnight.

            It has been due to years of persistent and endless campaigning. 

            It is due to this pressure from below that Putin felt obliged to insist the government develop a major conceptual framework to preserve the memory of those victims of repression. The Prime Minister even signed a document where the state has to lay the foundations of a huge infrastructure where a network of monuments, museums, books, the names of the victims, and memorials at execution sites and graveyards will be erected by 2017.


            However, as if making a mockery of those new memorials, approximately 40 new statues to Stalin have also been erected throughout Russia and a growing number of Russians are viewing Stalin in a positive light. Such statues have surfaced in Penza, Vladimir and Lipetsk. If you leave metro Lubyanka on the way to the square where the Solovetsky stone is, you can find kiosks casually selling busts of Stalin. At a publishing house in Moscow I was at some prayer service where my attention was diverted by a small painted tin soldier smoking a pipe.

            When I took a closer look I discovered it was a model of Stalin jovially smoking a pipe! Its origins remain a mystery.


            For all kinds of reasons, most Russians are reluctant to fully acknowledge the immense horror of this period. When one Russian actor was told that the number of victims of repression could run to 60 million, he could hardly believe it. Alekansdra Nikolaevicha Yakolevan, who specialises in the work of rehabilitating victims of the repression answered, 'If I could name you a real statistic, you would go crazy. This is a terrible tragedy not only for those who died, who lost close ones, but for the entire country'. The historian Orando Figes states that the most conservative estimate would be approximately 25 million figures who were repressed between 1928 -1953.

            Figes writes, 'Those 25 million people, shot by execution squads, Gulag prisoners, 'kulaks', sent to special settlements, slave labourers of different kinds, deported nationalities, represent about one eighth of the Soviet population'.

            (The Whisperers,Private Life in Stalin's Russia, Orlando Figes, Penguin, New York, 2007, page 31.)

            The untold misery is impossible to measure. Figes states, 'After years of separation by the Gulag, families could not be reunited easily; relationships were lost; and there was no longer 'Normal life' to which people could return.' The legacy is that 'a  silent and conformist population is the result.' If you live in Moscow you will get used to the fact that people don't often say 'hello' to you in the streets or even greet you with a 'Good morning'. This distrust of neighbours can be traced back to the years of repression. A recent survey of tourists who had visited Moscow found that they regarded it as 'the unfriendliest city in the World'.

            THE REAL TRAGEDY

            Stalin once stated to Churchill that 'While one man's death is a tragedy, the death of millions is just a statistic'.  That is why it is important to tell the story of each victim so as to personalise this tragedy. This is why the 'Last Address' is erecting plaques at the last address of the victims of terror. I decided to wonder down to the Arbat to try and find those newly installed plaques.

            It was not easy to find them. They are not conspicuous. A passerby can easily miss them. Even if you have the address, you might easily overlook them. At one address; 21 Sivsev vrozhek  you can read Boris Akimovich Shternberg lived here.

            A servant 

            He was born in 1886 and arrested  on 17.10.1937.

            He was shot on 9.12.1937.

            Rehabilitated in 1955.

            At 33 Bolshoi Afanasyesky Perelok, you can find a plaque 

            Andrei Andreevich Konsatiuv,


            Born 1901, arrested 1933, shot on 27.11. 1937.

            One of the great myths perpetuated by hard-line Stalinists was that at least they never executed children. However, a wealth of data from oral eye-witness accounts not to mention archives dispels this nonsense. In fact, under Soviet Law, a child could be summarily executed if he was 15 years of age for stealing a loaf of bread as this was deemed 'socialist collective property'. For example, Misha Shamonin was a 13-year-old boy who stole two loaves of bread. Someone must have caught him and reported him to the police. Since the luckless Shamonin could not legally be executed, the police illegally changed the date of his birth so that he became 15. 

            He was shot in the back of the head by a executioner who was drunk on vodka.

            Another victim of the terror was 20 year old driver, Raisa Bolchen, who was born in Kharbini, had  fled with her family abroad from Odessa but then returned to Russia. She was executed on charges of being a Japanese spy . She lived near the centre of Moscow at what is now 2 Novokuzhetski street.

            So faced with such strikingly evident facts why do Russians continue to deny, discount and play down how bad the terror was? Is it due to pride, shame or the real pain of recalling such unpleasant events?  Why are some people even prepared to condone mass murder?  Are those people psychopaths?

            Daniel Ogen, a teacher from America stated, 'Do you know I came across a young school student who said he supported Stalin', he told me with a sense of astonishment mixed with indignation. When I was also teaching some school children and blamed Stalin for 'helping to destroy a sense of real community in Moscow by fostering an atmosphere where people were afraid of their neighbours informing on them, a boy retorted, 'You can't blame Stalin. He was a great leader who turned Russia into a great power'. This 12 year old boy was hardly an exception. I heard the old story of how Stalin helped win the war, how Stalin made Russia a great superpower and how Stalin had effectively industrialised Russia and how the terror was justified because harsh methods were needed to motivate people to fight fascism. Without a strong leader, Russia would have fallen apart.

            Not all young students are keen on Stalin. I spoke to an 18-year-old graduate of the Academy of Art in Saint Petersburg, Sonya, who told me, 'I can't somehow agree with Stalin's wartime order, 'Not one step back.' I don't think I could go along with an order where a soldier who is retreating should be shot. But I came across an art student from Saint Petersburg who told me he liked Stalin because under Stalin great art flourished.

            He thought there was a lot of great architecture and art under Stalin'.

            Some school children express mixed feelings about Stalin. A 16-year-old actress called Nastiya told me, 'I don't condone what Stalin did during the repression but I think that he was a great war leader who helped us win the war.'

            A very intelligent 16-year-old son of a historian told me, 'We needed very strict measures during the war years or we would not have won the war. So we had to have a strong
leader. But people from the west seem to exaggerate the role
of punishment battalions in going straight up behind the soldiers and shooting them for running away or panic. They did not stand so close to the backs of soldiers but stood further behind in forests and trenches and they did not always shoot them but drove them back to fight. The western film, 'Enemy at the Gate', offers a misleading impression of the role of punishment squads.'

            When a 16-year-old student Anna was told that
monuments to Stalin had recently been erected, she said
            'I don't believe you. How can this be? This person was such a tyrant.'

            How might we explain how so many young people view Stalin in a positive light? One reason is that the Russian mass media as well as film industry has been increasingly portraying Stalin in a positive way. Russian officials and politicians, instead of explicitly condemning Stalinism, have promoted his role as a great war leader. Another reason, is that children are often brought up by grandparents while their parents are at work.

            Some of this older generation like to tell their children about 'the good old days of Stalin where there was real law and order in the country. '

            Another problem is that the education system has not risen to the monumental feat of explaining what happened during the repression and why. This is party because Russian history as a topic encompasses a huge amount of facts from Medieval Rus to the 21st century. The school student has to cram into his head endless dates and details about historical periods. This leaves only a few paragraphs to the 'times of repression'.

            In deed, open a school textbook and the repression warrants only a few sentences. To put it succinctly, the period is passed over or rather overwhelmed by the waves of facts from other historical periods. The Russian unitary state exam in history is not easy. So what could be  a unique opportunity to examine a fundamental period of history is missed. 

            It is because of this failure to address the lessons of history that many people are convinced the years of repression will return. The rising number of political prisoners, murder of opposition leaders, and a new law, the sadist's law, where prison officers have been given the right to physically beat up a prisoner for violating minor rules are hints about what may well happen in the future.

            It is the imperative and moral duty of teachers to tell the truth about history regardless of whether it is unpleasant. Even if the truth is beyond consolation it must be told.