Russian education - Not Quite Authoritarian

So this came across my Twitter feed, having been published about a week ago:

The context seemed to suggest that this was an undercover student operation to expose the indoctrination and belittling that students in Russia faced, when they questioned their government following an incident where a student was arrested (right in front of his classmates) for trying to incite protest.

The other context, implied, was that Russia is an imperialist, authoritarian state that indoctrinates their students. And there was maybe some element of that, but what honestly surprised me was the maturity and level-headedness of the student and principal response.

The full transcription is available at that link, so I'm just going to cherry-pick a few of the exchanges that surprised me.

Student 2: And what exactly is our foreign policy? America is against us. Europe is against us.

Principal: And why’s that? Tell me: what’s the reason?

Student 2: Because of Crimea. We basically took it.

Principal: And do you think that’s bad?

For one, I'm surprised this conversation happened at all. The impression I got from the (mostly-western, admittedly) media was that any conversations about Russia having unfairly taken Crimea would have been shut down. In this context, it was actually encouraged.

Also, America and Europe were "against Russia" pretty much since the Cold War. The fact that Ukraine was the only major geopolitical event this student could come up with indicates a big lack of historical context.

Also, it completely ignores the very Russia-friendly Trump era we're entering. Which is a pretty big oversight for a student.

Principal: You know why… And why did the whole war in Ukraine start in the first place?

Student 2: Well, because of the revolution…

Principal: Because of the what?

Student 2: The transition of power.

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

Student 2: It didn’t intervene openly.

Two things:

First, it's ironic that a principal of a school would tell a student they don't know anything (isn't the whole point of being at school, to learn?), but later on it kinda pans out that the principal is correct.

I imagine that statement is what most people will run with when reporting this incident - that the principal was "belittling" and "insulting the intelligence" of the students, but I think the reverse is true: The principal was willing to engage the students despite their limited knowledge, and did not use her authority to shut down the conversation. Which is what an authoritarian would do.

Second, the America angle. Western media does not report much on what the US gets wrong overseas, so as a result I don't have a full picture of what actually happened there. But Student 2 seems to be of the notion that America intervened subtly (not openly) and that it was a good thing.

Any spot check of where America has intervened in the world usually doesn't come back with positive outcomes. (Two words: Drone. Strikes.)

Student 2: Yes. There are videos going around — you have no idea.

Principal: The videos are staged, for starters.

Homeroom teacher: And you shouldn’t believe them…

We know for a fact that western media does this. The top-of-mind example is when Fox News ran a clip of a few Muslims on a bus from 2011, in the context of "islamic terror migration" in 2016. Media is so often twisted and abused to assert an agenda, that it's more or less the industry playbook at this point.

I have no idea what videos Student 2 is referring to, but if they originated from American-based or American-friendly outlets (or "reporters") I have no problem believing that some element of them has been manipulated. Maybe not outright staged, but definitely some selective editing.

Principal: Guys, I can see that you’re looking at this problem one-sidedly. And that you lack range in your political view. It’s a very narrow problem: you see Navalny, you watch his video, and — boom — you believe it all. You don’t have your own opinion about this issue — only what’s being imposed on you. And so sometimes you embrace sources that are unverified or maybe even outright provocative.

This was the stunner, for me. Calling attention to the fact that people use information to impose their opinions on you is the least-authoritarian thing about this exchange. Granted, it could be a very subtle double-bluff, in that the Principal is trying to argue that Western videos are false, and everything Russia says is true, but it's still a tactical risk in conversations like this.

You don't really want to undermine your own position by giving up the game like that. Imagine if casinos told their patrons that every game was rigged so that the house would win most of the time (which is the truth).

Student 2: And what if our opinion coincides with his?

Principal: But do you even have an opinion? You go ahead and read. I’m pushing you not just to look at these sources… If they say that, yeah, it’s bad here, then look at other sources.

Homeroom teacher: Challenge every fact!

A principal exhorting students to look at multiple sources, and a teacher advocating for challenging every fact. We're straight into libertarian principles here, when it comes to this Russian school in particular. Sure, the principal and teacher may still be fully pro-Russia biased, and would only accept pro-Russia opinions as correct, but the approach they're pushing here is not wrong at all.

Student 2: Okay, but we’re not looking at a single source.

Principal: Well, apparently you’re only looking in a single direction.

Another important thing to highlight - sources can be aligned along a similar path. It creates the illusion of authenticity when multiple voices concur on a point. It doesn't matter much if, in the background, those voices are all from the same echo chamber, or pandering to the same paymaster.

Principal: I got it. Somehow, we messed up your civic education. In terms of civics, you’ve got big shortcomings. Do you all mean to tell me that there are no patriots in your class?

Fuck me sideways. A Russian principal openly admitting fault on the part of the education system. This was the point in the conversation where I seriously started considering a different interpretation of the facts: That these teachers are actually doing a good job, and it's the students being brainwashed by alt-facts.

Student 2: We’re against United Russia.

Principal: And you’re for what exactly?

Student 1: We’re for justice.

Principal: And what exactly is justice?

Student: It’s what we don’t have right now.

I can't quite find the words to adequately convey how I feel about this part of the conversation, so I'll probably update these later, but:

  • Wanting what you don't have right now, is not by default a good position (grass is always greener-argument).
  • You have no idea what you have, until you lose it. These students have lost nothing.
  • That's such broad thing to want (what we don't have right now) - it could mean anything, and could be interpreted in any given way. If students have the mindset of "something sucks and we're missing a new idea", anyone can shove in any shitty idea they want, and students will rally behind that. For example, Bernie Sanders.

Student 1: Justice is when the authorities care about their people, and not just about themselves. When they care about ordinary citizens, and not about their millions [of dollars]. Many people want to live in a free state, in a free country…

Not quite accurate - Justice is really just people getting what they deserve. In both a good way (rewarding honest, hard work) and bad way (being punished appropriate to the crime). Justice is also not a function of the state, as much as it is a function of society. We all need to be just and honest with eachother in daily life, to have a just society. You can't create justice through enforcement alone.

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

Student 1: No, but they’ve stayed too long. They’ve just been there [in power] for too long.

This is pretty astonishing too. Putin and Medvedev, say what you will, have been in power for about as long as these students have been conscious of the world around them. They have no basis for making the argument that it's "too long", since they've never had an alternative.

It's like complaining that penicillin been around for "too long" and we need a "revolution" for "natural remedies". And in doing so, kill half the planet because it turns out that actually we needed penicillin.

The principal picks up on that though:

Principal: Did you live in some other era that I somehow missed? Under whom did you live well? And under Putin and Medvedev things got worse for you?

Student 2: We’ve studied history.

Whose history, though, I wonder. If there's an element of American propaganda floating around here, there's a good chance they've studied history through a biased lens.

Principal: You said that things have become worse. But you never lived through the hard years of the 1990s. When, forgive me for saying this, everyone carried around a blade and a firearm, and the country was in chaos. And this was when I was studying in college! This was when it was scary to go out into the street after eight at night. You didn’t see this.

Lived experience is hard to trump, unless if you have stats. And we have stats:

A simple reading of that chart shows that the principal is not wrong - there was a huge spike in the crime rate in the 1990's (the hard years), and it's starting to come under control over the last few years.

Student 2: And you want that all over again?

This is where I, personally, started getting annoyed by these students. That question makes no logical sense - if something has been decreasing because of a certain set of policies, then keeping those policies in place will result in those things continuing to decrease. Arguing for the status-quo is the exact opposite of advocating for change, and right now the principal is on the side of the status-quo.

That's not even a political or social argument - that's just logic. And that cognitive shortcoming is about to show itself in what is probably the funniest exchange so far:

Homeroom teacher: You want it to be like in Ukraine? Or like it was for us in [19]17?

Student 2: We don’t want these officials.

Homeroom teacher: Tell me: can you actually do this right now? How?

Student 2: Well, just gather together.

Homeroom teacher: And then when?

Student 2: There will be a crowd.

Homeroom teacher: A crowd. And then what?

Student 2: People will at least see. They’ll see that there are citizens.

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

Holy shit what a smackdown.

First: That logic is about as far as most student protests go. Beyond getting a crowd together, they have no plans for actionable change. They seem to think that just showing up en masse is somehow enough to enact social progress. And when no progress is made, they self-destruct (as we're now seeing with Fees Must Fall).

Second: That homeroom teacher is spot-on. Especially in the context of Fees Must Fall here in SA, it was a protest agitated by students that apparently did not have the need to study for their careers, supported by political parties that had no real power (and therefore nothing to lose).

Principal: Guys, we tried, at least, to warn you about all this, and let you know. What’s happening now is called polemics, and nobody needs it. Regardless, what you need now… I’m advising you, I’m not insisting, but I’m advising that you listen to what we said, and you draw your own conclusions. More than anything, I’m thinking about your future.

I'm on the side of the principal at this point. Advising students to listen and draw their own conclusions is a principle I stand for, and is the exact opposite of authoritarianism. The principal also stood against the state, with the arrest:

Principal: I put up a fight with these law enforcement officers. I tried to defend Maxim. I said that these were just some juvenile antics that nobody needed. Believe me, he’s not having a good time right now. Not at all. I don’t want any of you to land in a similar situation. Everything that you’ve said here from behind your desks has been empty words. I’m telling you again: get up, grow up, and make something of yourselves. That’s the right thing to do.

Mic-drop moment.

In summary, for this exchange in particular (given this translation and these words), there are still educators in Russia that have their heads screwed on straight - and far more libertarian than I would have assumed, in a post-Soviet Union world.

Wogan May

A South African citizen looking for Truth and Reconciliation among all the noise. Believes in Libertarian principles, and Capitalism as the engine for prosperity.

South Africa

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