As schools decay, Russian teachers protest
By Renfrey Clarke
MOSCOW — When Russian authorities learned on December 15 that striking teachers had blocked an important rail line, it may finally have dawned on them that the situation in the country's schools was a disaster threatening civil peace, as well as future prosperity.
But even if Russia's rulers grasped this point, there was no sign that they were planning serious moves to stop the education system from decaying further.
Prosecutors immediately launched a criminal investigation into the actions of the 100 or so teachers and parents who had held up trains for four hours near the town of Suda, in Vologda province north of Moscow.
Meanwhile, the people responsible for wage arrears to teachers throughout Russia of more than 16 billion roubles (about US$800 million) remained unpunished. And students continued trying to study, often with inadequate textbooks or none at all, in dilapidated buildings that at times lacked water and heating.
It is too early to speak of a movement of teachers as a major new presence in Russian political life. But since the school year began in September, barely a day has passed without protest actions by education workers. Often, teachers have withdrawn their labour and sent pupils home.
In late November, the Trade Union of Popular Education and Science Workers (TUPESW) reported, 52,000 employees of 1250 educational institutions in 32 of Russia's 88 administrative regions were on strike.
Almost everywhere, the teachers' main demand has been for the payment of back wages. In November, the press attaché at the federal education ministry was quoted as admitting that only in Moscow, and in the cities of Samara and Sochi, were teachers receiving their pay on time.
Federal and regional officials have reacted to the wage backlog by trying to off-load the blame.
Under the current formula, 50% of the money for teachers' wages comes from the federal government, and 50% from the budget of the local republic or province. Challenged to explain the arrears, federal officials claim that money transfers for teachers' wages have been going out on time, or close to it. But once in the provinces, the federal authorities complain, the funds are misdirected by local administrators.
Regional leaders counter that, especially since the Russia-wide financial crash last August, huge shortfalls in local revenues have left them no choice but to plug the most dangerous gaps with whatever funds are at hand. Education, it is implied, can wait.
The depth of the crisis in schools varies from one region to the next, but a more or less typical picture is found in Novosibirsk province in western Siberia. Significantly, this region was not in a recently published list of areas where school problems were most acute.
Total spending on education in Novosibirsk province in 1998 was only half the projected sum, and the Moscow daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta on November 13 quoted the head of the local education administration as admitting, "We can no longer guarantee the right of everyone to free education".
Working as a teacher in the region is at best a marginal economic proposition. Compared to an average monthly wage for all workers in the province of a little over 1000 roubles (about US$50), teachers in the capital, Novosibirsk, average about 600 roubles. The "subsistence minimum" income for an urban resident of the province was 650 roubles in October.
Wages in the countryside are less, about 400 roubles for an experienced teacher. As Nezavisimaya Gazeta remarked: "A teachers' college graduate, working in a rural school, cannot afford even a proper diet."
Bad as this situation is, it would not be so disastrous if wages were paid on time. But the best that teachers in Novosibirsk province can expect is to receive their pay two or three months late. In some rural schools, wage arrears stretch back for as much as nine months.
Because the wages of Russian teachers are paid out — or at least promised — by regional governments, protests have been aimed almost exclusively at the provincial and republican authorities.
In Novosibirsk province, rural teachers struck for two weeks in October and November, coming to the capital and mounting daily pickets outside the provincial administration building.
At times, unpaid teachers in provincial Russia have resorted to hunger strikes. In the city of Ulyanovsk on the Volga, 430 teachers from 10 schools began a protest fast on November 18, demanding payment of arrears owed since July.
The action attracted national attention when one of the participants, 43-year-old primary school teacher Aleksandr Motorin, died of heart failure on December 2.
So far, few victories for teachers have been reported. A typical experience seems to have been that of technical school teachers in Yekaterinburg in the Urals who, in mid-December, picketed the provincial government building demanding eight months' back pay. According to Izvestia, on December 17, the response from provincial leaders was that there was no money to pay them, and that it was impossible to say when there would be.
It seems probable that there will be a further radicalisation of teachers' tactics to include mass acts of civil disobedience — as prefigured by the rail blockade in December.
There is also likely to be increasing national coordination of the protests, with a view to making education a political issue at the federal level.
In recent months, leaders of the TUPESW have been pushing the idea of Russia-wide protest campaigns. The leaders have called on the federal government to establish special regional funds, outside the control of provincial governors and presidents, to ensure that money for wages goes directly to teachers.
A further prospect is the increasing politicisation of teachers. In St Petersburg before the December municipal elections, a strong teachers' movement arose, demanding that candidates make specific commitments on education issues.
According to Olga Makarova, a Moscow journalist who follows education workers and their struggles closely, teachers in many parts of Russia are now voting heavily for Communists.
As one of the most socially aware groups among Russian workers, teachers are well placed to understand the implications for their country if the collapse of education continues.
Russia has only a limited future as a supplier of raw commodities; its real economic potential lies in its highly trained work force. But these skills are a quickly wasting asset.
Makarova describes high schools that no longer teach foreign languages or even mathematics. Even basic literacy is declining; according to figures cited recently in the weekly Literaturnaya Gazeta, as many as 10 million children in Russia do not attend school at all.
The Communists sound off about "national salvation", but it is the country's teachers who embody it in the most real sense. As they move increasingly into political struggle, they are unlikely to be satisfied with the existing left parties. The ideas teachers will embrace, and the formations they will help build, are among the more important riddles of Russia's political future.