Denis was Associate Professor at the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences of St Petersburg State University until recently. However, Denis was dismissed by the university on 20 October for “an immoral and incompatible act with educational functions”.
What was this “immoral act?” Participation at an “unsanctioned” rally
Denis participated in a demonstration against the Kremlin’s decision that Russians be drafted to fight in Ukraine on 21 Sept. An earlier day, President Vladimir Putin had announced “partial mobilization” throughout the country. Denis was taken into custody during the demonstration, and spent 10 days in prison.
Denis says that Russia’s freedom of expression is currently in crisis. “All freedoms are in crisis.”
“I continued working for three weeks after being released from detention. I received letters from the university asking me to excuse my absence. I answered that I was being held for protest participation and placed in detention. The Human Resources department called and informed me that I was fired.
Denis’s last day at work saw his students gather outside the university in a final farewell.
He spoke in an unplanned speech (the video has been posted online) to them:
“What constitutes an immoral act?” Acting against one’s conscience and following another’s instructions. I did what was right for me. I believe that you are responsible for the country’s future.
The students broke into cheers at the sacking of their teacher.
Denis said to me, “I love all my students very much.” “They are extremely smart and they know very well what’s happening in Russia. They [did not] approve of me personally. It was actually disapproval for what is going on in Russia.
“Many Russians are afraid to protest in Russia because they might be punished.” Many people would like to. Many people want to approve of protestors. This is one way to disagree with Russia’s actions.
Denis Skopin’s story reveals not only the pressures that Kremlin “special military operations” opponents are feeling. It raises questions about Russia’s future.
“In the detention centre, there were IT experts, scientists, doctors and teachers. They all sat with me. Many of them are now overseas. A young and talented mathematician, like my cell-mate.
“About 25% [of my immediate coworkers] have already left Russia. They all left Russia after the 24 February. Some left right away, others after mobilization was declared. Russia is losing the best people right now, I believe. The country is losing its most intelligent, energetic, and critically thinking citizens. Russia is heading in the wrong directions.
An uncertain future is more than just the result of the present. It is also a product Russia’s past.
A small group of St Petersburg residents are standing in the middle of the monument dedicated to the victims of Joseph Stalin’s Great Terror of the 1930s.
The monument is constructed from large rocks taken from Solovetsky Islands. This remote area was home to one of most notorious Gulag forced labor camps. Solovki camp was created to house political prisoners along with other convicts.
People queue up at the microphone. They each take it in turns and read names of people who were sentenced, executed or arrested in St Petersburg.
According to some reports, Stalin executed a million Soviet citizens. He created a machine of terror that drew up mass arrests, deportations, and forced labour. Millions more people were killed. Some of his descendants, such as Nikita Khrushchev (and Mikhail Gorbachev), did condemn Stalin’s crimes.
But, Stalin is now in a Russian regime headed by Vladimir Putin. While the Stalin years are often overlooked by the authorities, Stalin himself is often depicted as a strongman that defeated Nazi Germany and transformed the Soviet Union into an international superpower. Putin’s Kremlin looks for victories from the past.
“Unfortunately, the country didn’t finish this page. Stalin’s repressions didn’t get enough attention or were fully condemned. This is why war in Ukraine is occurring today,” states Ludmila, a retired woman who came to place flowers at Solovki Stone.
“Experience has taught us that staying silent can lead you to bad things.” We can’t forget about the bloody stains of this country’s historical past.
Denis Skopin is a former university lecturer who has now been fired. He studied the Stalin years. He sees parallels between then-and-now.
“I published a book in English recently about how Stalin’s Russia removed group photos of people who were declared ‘enemy’ of the people. All signs of the enemy were removed from photos by friends, family, and colleagues. They used ink and scissors to do it.
“The faculty in which I taught had a partnership agreement with Bard College, an American liberal-arts college. Bard College in Russia was last year declared an “undesirable institution”. Our faculty broke the partnership and Bard College was taken from the stands that were displayed in corridors of our faculty. We used black ink. Similar to Stalin’s Russia.
Denis claims his students “understand very clearly” what is happening in Russia, Ukraine. That raises a question: How will authorities convince young Russians to rally around the flag and support the president long-term if they don’t?
To achieve this, schools across Russia have introduced a new patriotic lesson: “Conversations on Important Things” While it’s not part of the curriculum, it’s the first lesson on Monday mornings. Children are encouraged to attend.
What are the “important things” that are discussed in this room? In September, President Putin, playing the role of teacher in Kaliningrad, told children that Russia’s intention in Ukraine was to “protect Russia”; he also called Ukraine an “anti-Russian colony.” See the “Conversation” to see which direction it goes.
This is forced education. “This is forced education.” Olga Milovidova from St Petersburg, who retired last month, says that it is just as dangerous today as it was when there were ‘political instruction’ lessons. “In those days, you had to read Pravda. I can still recall reading books by Brezhnev, the Soviet leader. It was important to only offer positive comments. There was no criticism.
Olga, a former deputy school director, said that “education and patriotism can’t be combined.” “There are many children who simply believe. They are open to believing in everything. This is dangerous.