ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- The principal of a prestigious school near St. Petersburg summoned 16-year-old Leonid Shaidurov and 14-year-old Maxim Dautov in for a chat. Then he threatened them with expulsion, a criminal probe and being blacklisted from all Russian universities.
Their crime? Setting up an independent union for students.
But Shaidurov and Dautov, children of the social media era, did not take the threats lying down. Instead, they went public about their dispute with the principal last month. The student union's ranks swelled, and education authorities in St. Petersburg, Russia's second-largest city, came out in support of the teenagers, not the principal.
Many other young Russians have had their first taste of political activism in street protests against corruption and the banning of rap music, protesting the authoritarian status quo.
Shaidurov and Dautov came up with the idea for a student union after reading about Vladimir Lenin, Karl Marx and the U.S. trade union movement. They realized that their own problems -- strict and unnecessary testing, dress code restrictions -- had resonated elsewhere and would make a rallying cause for a student union.
"At first, everyone was laughing at Leonid and me, because it was just the two of us," said Dautov, who wears multiple rings and a "Revolutionary Workers Party" badge on his scarf.
Two separate groups of the new student union held their first meetings in mid-November at a soccer field near the sprawling concrete school.
Shaidurov, who led both meetings, was summoned to the principal and told he had organized an "unsanctioned rally" that would be investigated by prosecutors. His and Dautov's parents were later reprimanded.
Later on, police officers visited the school to conduct "a preventive discussion" to warn the students about the dangers of staging unsanctioned rallies and extremism, a widely defined term that Russian authorities have used to go after dissenters of all stripes.
At the next parent-teacher meeting, parents were told that their children had joined an "extremist organization" and would be blacklisted from entering college, according to Shaidurov's mother, Yelena, who teaches history at the school.
To the boys, this was only "pouring the oil onto the flame," Dautov said.
They spread the word on social media about the pressure, and their case was taken up by the press. The number of student union members swelled from 70 to 200. Soon the city's Department for Education said students had the right to set up a union "as long as it doesn't impede the educational process."
Students elsewhere in Russia are standing up, too.
A high school student in the Urals city of Perm was turned away from class in December because she dyed her hair pink, and was told not to return until she changed it back. She mounted a social media campaign. Prosecutors went to check the school and found that the girl's rights were violated. Later, the Perm education department banned schools from strict dress code rules.
In Komsomolsk-on-Amur in Russia's Far East, a teacher has been suspended after a video of her pushing a teenager onto the ground and spanking him was posted online. Investigators have opened a criminal case.
The system that Shaidurov and Dautov have been fighting against replicates the Russian government power structure in miniature.
The principal is answerable only to superiors in the education ministry, and the students do not have much say in decision-making at school. Shaidurov and Dautov's school has its own student government, but it works hand in hand with the administration and lacks any powers.
"We even have a newspaper and a YouTube channel -- allegedly for students -- which is dead and no one watches it," Dautov said, scoffing at the fact that instead of discussing real issues that students face, from high workloads to image pressures, the existing student government debates "what kind of Christmas tree to put up."
Dautov was originally skeptical of his parents' willingness to speak to reporters about the case.
But Dautov's father Marat voiced support for his son, saying that he and his friends "want to improve our lives. We all want this, too, but it's just that they are not afraid."
"Maybe it will work out for them and things will get better in our country," he said.
A Section on 12/29/2018
Print Headline: Russian teens making stands on social media