"Many pedagogues had their formative years at a time when the opinion of a pedagogue was the indisputable truth and in all cases the rule was 'the teacher is right.' And parents were more likely to submit to the teacher's opinion than to listen to their own child. Now the situation has changed."
PERM, Russia — One day last spring, Inna Kolyada’s son announced he would not do his homework anymore.
"He said there was no point because he was a ‘retard,’" Kolyada told RFE/RL.
"My son explained that his teacher had told the entire class that they were all ‘retards,’" she continued. In addition, her son said the teacher, Vasilisa Chistova, threw his notebook into the corridor in front of all the students and had taped the mouth of another student shut.
"The children were so frightened that they were scared to go back to class after the break," Kolyada added. "But the teacher told them it was just a ‘game.’"
"The children were so frightened that they were scared to go back to class after the break."
Kolyada’s accusations against primary-school teacher Chistova were among several similar stories that were assembled by Lyudmila Yoltysheva, the head of a local NGO called For the Rights of Large Families, and published in a now-deleted post on social media on May 18.
The post included claims that Chistova, who teaches at public school No. 114 in the Volga region city of Perm, had bound the hands of children and kicked them out of her classroom, had gagged children with adhesive tape, and had regularly shouted and cursed at them.
"All the complaints have been submitted by the parents to the Education Department and sent to the school’s director, Valentina Fedotova, who is Chistova’s mother," Yoltysheva said. "But, of course, there have been no repercussions for her. As a result, over the last four years, at least 10 students have withdrawn from her class."
Contacted by RFE/RL, Chistova confirmed that Fedotova was her mother, but dismissed the allegations in Yoltysheva’s post as "lies." She accused Yoltysheva of "paying" parents who "can’t handle their own children."
A week after Yoltysheva’s post appeared, Chistova filed a defamation suit against her, seeking 10 million rubles ($135,000) in compensation for "insomnia and stress."
It was not the first time Yoltysheva, a prominent activist in Perm, had been similarly targeted. In 2019, several anonymous people claiming to be her neighbors filed complaints with the municipal family services department alleging that she was neglecting her children in order to carry out her activism. Although the complaints were determined to be groundless, police declined to open an investigation into them.
In response to Chistova’s suit, Yoltysheva filed her own complaint containing the accusations with the Prosecutor-General’s Office and the Investigative Committee. Those agencies, in turn, sent the file to the Perm regional prosecutor’s office, which then transferred it to the local police.
"It was established that the teacher Chistova, during a class lesson, taped a student’s mouth shut and bound his hands behind his back," reads the police report, a copy of which has been obtained by RFE/RL.
The report adds that investigators established that another student had been physically struck, although the child’s mother declined to cooperate with the investigation. Yoltysheva believes the woman made this decision out of fear of retribution from the school administration and notes that the student in question had been transferred to another class.
"The school administration has been informed of the unacceptability of the use of physical or psychological violence against students and the present situation is under the control of the Education Ministry," a ministry statement attached to the investigation says.
However, no criminal charges were filed. The investigator cited a positive evaluation of Chistova submitted by the school administration. Concerning the episode in which a student’s mouth was taped shut, investigators accepted Chistova’s explanation that the incident "happened with the consent of the student and in the form of a game."
Chistova’s defamation suit against Yoltysheva lasted more than two months. Several of the parents involved testified on Yoltysheva’s behalf. In August, a district court dismissed the suit, and in November the regional court upheld the lower court’s decision and rejected an appeal by Chistova.
Chistova told RFE/RL she had not yet decided whether to appeal a second time.
Teachers No Longer ‘Always Right’
Tatyana Udina, chairwoman of the branch of the Federation of Educational Psychologists in Chuvashia, another Volga region, said the Perm case was part of a growing trend of tensions between parents and educators in Russia.
"The two sides have differing expectations of one another," Udina told RFE/RL. "This is partly because many pedagogues had their formative years at a time when the opinion of a pedagogue was the indisputable truth and in all cases the rule was ‘the teacher is right.’ And parents were more likely to submit to the teacher’s opinion than to listen to their own child. Now the situation has changed."
In part, the increased opportunity for parents to communicate with one another afforded by social media and the ubiquity of video-capable telephones have shifted the balance of power away from teachers.
In 2018, a history teacher in the Siberian village of Tayozhny was caught on video upbraiding high-school students for criticizing President Vladimir Putin, saying they "would have been punished in the Soviet era with execution by firing squad."
In May 2019, the principal of a school in the southern Krasnodar region was fired for berating a 5-year-old boy in front of other children and then forcibly pushing him down to kiss the ground of the country that "feeds and waters you."
"What am I supposed to do, rip your head off?" the woman was heard shouting at the child in a video recorded by a passerby.
A few months later, in November, a "life safety" teacher in the Siberian village of Borovsky was fired after being caught on video striking several students and calling them "retards." The teacher later said the students provoked him and he snapped.
"The cause of such a situation may be connected with the behavior of the child who supposedly ‘provoked’ a teacher, although that in no way justifies the teacher," psychologist Udina said, commenting on the Perm case. "And, on the other hand, it may be connected with the emotional-psychological state of the teacher. If such behavior is repeated, that means that we need to look not only at the teacher’s understanding of ethical norms, but also at his psychological-emotional state."
In Russia, she added, there is no platform for school administrators, teachers, and parents to air their concerns and work together to find solutions. In fact, she said, ethical norms for educators need to be more fully worked out.
"Such norms are often poorly or incompletely laid out and are de facto ignored by teachers," Udina said.
Written by Robert Coalson based on reporting from Perm by Zoya Simbirskaya of the Idel.Realities desk of RFE/RL’s Tatar-Bashkir Service