Educate, integrate, or alienate?

Nine-year-old Stepan was born in St. Petersburg and has always lived here. He goes to a run-of-the mill, state-funded local school. But, while he has a Russian mother, his father is British.

One day not long ago Stepan came home in a distressed state, fighting back tears. He had been upset by remarks fellow pupils made about Britain. “The boys at school told me that I come from a tiny, wretched island and that the Brits were useless during the Napoleonic wars,” he told his parents.

The teasing persisted for weeks, until Stepan began to dread going to school each day.

Matroshka dolls, a cultural symbol of Russia. Photo from Wikimedia.

Matroshka dolls, a cultural symbol of Russia. Photo from Wikimedia.

If he’d been older and more confident he might have felt able to engage in witty repartee and respond in kind. He could have reminded his tormentors of some shameful Russian losses and defeats over the centuries. He could have mentioned the Mongol invasion of 1237, which led to Russians living under the Tatar yoke for more than 200 years. But naturally his parents were reluctant to advise him to hit back, as this might only fan the flames.

Eventually word of Stepan’s plight reached the teaching staff and an internal investigation followed. It turned out that the narrative about the “wretched island” and “useless Brits” had become current in his classmates’ own homes. It seems their parents and siblings were taking their cue from nationalist rhetoric allegedly used by Dmitri Peskov, the long-standing spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In 2013, Peskov was reported to have mocked Britain as “a small island no one listens to,” although he later denied making the remark. Some of the parents, taking up the theme, began to ridicule Britain with relish. One or more of their sons shared the jokes at school, and the bullying of a boy with a British parent took off

Fortunately Stepan’s story had a happy ending. After his parents complained to the school, a teacher dealt with the issue gently but firmly. Discussions took place with all the parents of children involved in the bullying. And the school is now running free, monthly after-school lectures presenting a more enlightened and balanced view of different nationalities and cultures.

It seems, though, that this peaceful resolution is the exception rather than the rule in Russian schools when it comes to chauvinist victimization. Many schools do little to clamp down on the bullying of pupils over ethnic, religious, or sexual issues, or only wake up to it when it gets out of control.

Some schools are reported by nongovernmental groups to avoid ethnic tensions simply by not offering places to immigrant children, who make up 4 percent to 10 percent of total Russian enrollment, according to estimates cited in an explanatory note to a bill that came before the legislature last year. Schools that do accept immigrant kids often react to conflicts by being too ready to expel any “alien”  involved in an incident.

Tamara, an immigrant from Armenia who has three children, two of them teenagers, has developed a jaundiced view of how schools treat non-Russians.

“Schools see immigrant kids as some kind of a Pandora’s box, the source of many potential disasters, from failing language exams to getting into fights sparked by ethnic hatred,” she said. “We have changed schools several times – not because of bullying but because we were moving apartments – and I have to say that at every school we really felt unwanted and isolated.”

One support group that focuses on helping the children of immigrant parents to adapt to their new country is Children of St. Petersburg. Its files are filled with reports and complaints alleging the bullying and even beating of immigrant kids.

“Our children look different, and when they happen to make a grammatical error, which is natural – after all, they’re not speaking their native language – they’re ridiculed instead of supported,” Tamara said.

Mikhail Nikolaev, a lawyer who often represents immigrant families, suggests that some schools are reluctant to accept immigrant children because they fear these kids may get involved in conflicts with the police.

“If the parents get into trouble over their local immigration registration, the police will contact the schools and hassle them over the parents being in breach of the regulations,” he said. “There is so much prejudice against foreigners that whatever the problem is, schools just prefer to get rid of non-Russian kids as quickly as possible.”

According to a recent report by Children of St. Petersburg, some schools try to deal with the admission of immigrant children by spinning out the process, procrastinating, or endlessly requesting additional documents, all in the hope that the parents will give up and take their children elsewhere.

Other schools will offer immigrant 14- or 15-year-olds places only in the second or third grades, based on the results of their Russian-language test. This means the teenagers will be made to study alongside native Russian children aged just 8 or 9.

Yekaterina Glickman, a volunteer with Children of St. Petersburg, said officials at one school came straight out and told one set of immigrant parents that their 15-year-old son would, because of his limited Russian, “destroy the positive statistics” in the end-of-year final exams.

After fruitless efforts to get the boy into a regular school, he ended up at one for children with learning difficulties. His parents were reluctant to to put him into a class of mentally disadvantaged children, but this school at least provided free state tuition.

The double standards adopted by many schools are severely at odds with Russia’s growing dependence on immigrant labor. Day after day in Russian cities one can hear loud complaints from residents about the broken Russian they hear from immigrants – whether drivers, shop assistants, street vendors, construction workers, or cleaners.

And yet when these immigrants bring their children to local schools so that they can learn to speak the language well, the schools show little enthusiasm for teaching them, even if the parents are legally employed and paying taxes to the Russian state.

The Education Ministry maintains a hands-off policy and provides no state-funded preschool opportunities for immigrant children to learn Russian or to begin absorbing Russian culture. Even in this multiethnic and multidenominational country, schools are not obliged to offer tolerance and adaptation programs.

As a result, instead of making foreign culture lessons a regular practice (as eventually happened in Stepan’s case) or offering tuition assistance (instead of putting teenagers in classes with kids half their age), many Russian schools pursue a policy of narrow minds and closed doors.

This attitude will surely result in some immigrant children developing grudges and, in time, causing trouble or becoming delinquent. After experiencing so much rejection, some of them will certainly be tempted to hit back at a society that has spurned or belittled them.


Galina Stolyarova is a writer for the St. Petersburg Times, an English-language newspaper.

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