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Irina Shcherbakova on pressure on participants in Memorial’s history-writing competition for schoolchildren. ‘Parents were told that in Moscow the children would be turned into extremists.’ [Kommersant]

posted 1 May 2017, 04:07 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 1 May 2017, 10:46 ]

23 April 2017 

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Kommersant]


Photo of Irina Shcherbakova: Moscow Helsinki Group

On April 22, Memorial International Society announced unprecedented pressure had been put on schoolchildren who won the history-writing competition called “A Person in History. Russia and the 20th Century.” Last year activists tried to disrupt the awards ceremony, and now unknown people are trying to prevent the children’s arrival Moscow. Irina Shcherbakova, leader of educational programs for Memorial International Society and a winner of the Moscow Helsinki Group Award, spoke about how the contest, which is funded by a presidential grant, was suspected of extremism. […]

— Despite support from such well known people [Ella Pamfilova, Liudmila Alekseeva, Vladimir Lukin, Mikhail Fedotov, Liudmila Ulitskaya - ed.problems still emerged surrounding the competition? 

— In recent years, as soon as the government began its fight for a positive and victorious representation of the past, we noticed some changes in attitudes towards the contest. Indeed, the story of an ordinary Russian family in the 20th century is almost always accompanied by very tragic events — years of war, repressions… However, a large part of our participants lives in small cities, in villages. These are rural families, and you recognize that very often they discover difficult, sad stories about those close to them. And the fact that schoolchildren decide to write about them is not always met with approval from various officials. It seems to many of them that it is unpatriotic to call attention to the difficult and grave pages of Russia’s history. But children write to us saying that only thanks to the contest they found out the kinds of difficulties their great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers dealt with during wartime, for example. In general, in recent years this has already started to cause annoyance, especially against the backdrop of the movement towards a universal history textbook. And last year a sharp deterioration began.

— Do you mean the actions of the National Liberation Movement (NLM)?

— Yes, when they came to disrupt the awards ceremony. They yelled and humiliated the young children and schoolchildren, poured green paint over Liudmila Ulitskaya, Anatoly Golubovsky, some of our other guests… They poured paint over our international guests from the network of historical contests, and they smeared trash on them. And to think that for many of our visitors this was their first time in Russia.

— How did the children react?

— We were amazed that the schoolchildren accepted this as just a prank done by some hooligans, sheer mavericks, and basically homeless people. After all, they have seen plenty out in the Russian sticks — all different types of drunk people and simply squalid people… Of course we tried to lead the children away as quickly as possible so as to not spoil their celebration. But what happened to the guests afterwards was completely abominable. We naturally called the police, we filed a complaint. As a result, one of the attackers received a 500-rouble fine. The NLM has been following us all year. They have picketed all of our teachers’ seminars. When we published our latest collection of the best children’s works, they tried to disrupt the book’s presentation at the Non-Fiction Book Fair. And all of this has been accompanied by a slanderous campaign against us. On REN TV and Russia 24 there were stories about how we use foreign money to teach schoolchildren to slander the history of Russia. That we supposedly indoctrinate the children with sympathy for Hitler. Something completely made-up. We wrote to the commission on journalistic etiquette, and they condemned this fabricated story, but the TV channels ignored this. We filed a lawsuit against REN TV, and the hearing will be held on May 15.

What’s happened now?

About three weeks ago REN TV had a quite lengthy report, with photos, on last year’s award ceremony. And it was said that our competition turns children into extremists, encourages them to take to the streets in protests. But that was only the beginning. Suddenly we were refused access to a building for the award ceremony. Last December we signed a contract with the organization Telegraf for the rent of a large hall in the central Telegraph building. We chose them partly for security reasons – they have reliable security guards and, at the time, Telegraf assured us that all would be all right. They said that they very much like our competition. The contract was signed, the money transferred. But ten days ago they telephoned to say that they were opting out of the contact – ‘on the grounds that agreement could not be reached regarding the event’. That of course put us in a very difficult position – it’s very difficult to find, at short notice, a hall in Moscow for 200 people. And then the Mark Rozovsky theatre at the Nikitskie Gates kindly agreed to provide us with a venue. On 5th April we sent letters to the school children, telling them that they were winners in the Memorial competition, and invited them to come to Moscow for the awards ceremony. All, of course, were delighted, we got the tickets, were getting ready to greet the children – and then it all started. Literally two days before they were due to depart, children and teachers began to ring us, in tears. They all told the same story – the headteacher of the school had summoned them and forbidden them to attend the award ceremony.

How did the headteachers explain this to them?

All the head teachers said that they had received a phone call from higher up – either from the regional ministry of education or from the city administration. The callers, in their turn, stated that they had been rung by the federal Ministry of Education and Science with the message that neither the children nor the teachers should travel to Moscow for the ceremony. Different reasons were given. Some directors were told that there was an increased terrorist threat and therefore children should not travel to Moscow. If parents said that they would go with their children, they were told that only the teachers could accompany the children. And pressure was put on the teachers. Some were told the competition has been organized by a banned organization, hence the children will be turned into extremists in Moscow.

And how many children did they try to prevent coming?

All our winners. We discovered that without exception every child had come under pressure. This year we chose 43 essays, with 58 authors – and effectively all came under pressure. And there’s a further important detail. We only publish the complete list of the winners after the award ceremony. Even the children themselves only know of their ranking at the ceremony itself – it is a surprise. And as we are not a state institution, we don’t give the names of the winners to the Ministry of Education, nor to anyone else. Until the ceremony itself only I and two fellow workers have access to the full list of the children kept in an electronic file. So the question arises: how did people who were authorized to exert pressure on headteachers get access to the list?

— Who were these people?

— I don't know. We began ringing round these regional ministries which supposedly rang the headteachers, but no one replied. We sent an official request to the Russian Federation Ministry of Education and Science, but were told that the minister was on holiday. But her deputy replied, although not in writing, that she didn't know of any such guidance being issued by the federal ministry. We're continuing to look into this. Yesterday the first children arrived and we're trying to clarify the details with them. But as you'll realise, bewildered children are hardly going to ask their headteacher who telephoned him or her — they're not used to asking the teacher questions. For now we've heard that the regional minister of education telephoned a school in Krasnoyarsk personally. In other cases we don't know the names and positions yet of the people who phoned. It's a very Russian affair, downright Gogolesque, although it's not a laughing matter. Everyone mentions some phone call made from Moscow to all districts and regions, then the regional people salute obediently and ring up schools, and then the headteachers admonish the children and teachers. But there are no paper records of it at all, no official decree. Mikhail Fedotov, chair of the Presidential Human Rights Council, has already sent an official letter to the Russian Federation Ministry of Education, and we'll see how they respond. We would like the mass media to join in too and try to work out what's been going on.

The most surprising thing is things didn't use to be like this. Even just a few years ago, the winners of the competition were praised by their schools, written about in the regional press, and given awards by the heads of local government. Staff from the Moscow offices of some regions used to come to the prize-giving to support young people from their region. But now people want to stop children coming to the prize-giving.

— How many children end up not coming?

— To our surprise, despite all these bans and controversies, the majority of children and teachers have behaved fearlessly. Teachers and parents have dropped everything, taken time off and come to the event. For now, we only know of nine children out of 58 who are not coming. The final figure won't be known until Monday. It's especially sad that some of them are in their final year at school and so this was their last chance to take part in the competition. That's often the way it works with this competition — a child might get third place but enjoy it so much that the next year he or she writes another project and wins again. But this is the last time ever for those in the final year of school. What is even sadder is that they then forfeit the chance to gain a Prokhorov Fund scholarship. To be in with a chance of winning a scholarship, you have to write an essay in Moscow and be interviewed — a face-to-face meeting is part of the application process.

— How did the school pupils themselves react to all these goings-on?

— Although there had been these attempts to spoil the festive atmosphere, we did all we could to make it a special event: to show them around Moscow and make the prize-giving ceremony enjoyable. But for children, of course, this was all very traumatic. Just imagine what it's like for them now. Let's say you live somewhere a very great distance from the capital, write a project, do your best, and actually win. You receive an invitation to Moscow, where you've never been before — remember how much a ticket from Krasnoyarsk region to Moscow costs. You already start imagining what it's going to be like to see the Kremlin and Red Square for the first time in your life — and then you're suddenly summoned by your headteacher. Then, instead of praising you for winning the competition, they put pressure on you, you're intimidated, and they say that you took part in something illegal. Just imagine how that pupil feels at that moment. You'll agree that that's the sort of thing you never forget.

As the Ministry of Education and Science told Kommersant, "the Ministry was not actively involved in the organisation" of the International Memorial Society's school competition "and did not send any letters banning children from participating in it". "Any organisation may hold events intended to encourage learning and research", the Ministry emphasised. Andrei Emel'yanov, press secretary for the head of the Ministry of Education and Science, also confirmed that Valentina Pereverzeva, the deputy minister, had already told the competition organisers that no instructions were issued by the Federal Ministry with regard to this event.

Translated by Mary McAuley and Suzanne Eade Roberts