In conservative Russia, liberal teachers are shown the door
Biology teacher Olga Shchegoleva had not even finished her first six months at a prestigious school in Saint Petersburg when she came under pressure to quit over a sex education blog.
In Vladimir Putin's Russia, teachers are being increasingly caught up in the climate of social conservatism.
The 31-year-old Shchegoleva is one of hundreds of educators who recently have been fired or forced to quit over claims of misconduct, in a trend that reflects Russia's growing intolerance and conservatism.
Shchegoleva is the author of a sex education blog that addresses topics from sexual health and consent to birth control and toys.
Even though she writes for adults, several concerned parents complained to the school, which is part of the respected Rimsky-Korsakov conservatory in Russia's former imperial capital.
Shchegoleva said she liked her job -- and her students -- but felt she had no choice but to quit.
"There is this belief that teachers have no life or hobbies outside of work, and that there are some ethical standards -- not officially spelled out anywhere -- that teachers are expected to follow," she told AFP.
The education ministry did not respond to an AFP request to provide any figures, but the chairman of a Russian teachers' union, Yury Varlamov, said courts had delivered more than 2,000 rulings linked to immoral conduct in the last five years. Most cases involved educators, Varlamov estimated.
"The dismissal of teachers for immoral behaviour is increasingly being used by employers against unwelcome workers," he said.
The way the legislation is vaguely worded, experts say, leaves the door open for dismissal over a wide range of activities.
In one prominent case, a teacher from the Siberian city of Omsk -- who also worked as a plus-size model -- was pressured to quit in 2018 after pin-up-style pictures featuring her appeared online.
In 2021, a teacher from the largest Siberian city of Novosibirsk was pushed out after she posted online a racy video in which she was seen stripping down to lingerie and dancing.
The same year, a teacher from Sevastopol in Russia-annexed Crimea publicly complained about her low salary. She was interrogated by members of law enforcement and fired.
Activists say teachers have been fired for their sexual orientation and others removed for their support of the opposition.
- Conservative values -
Putin, who enjoys unwavering support from the Orthodox Church, has been promoting increasingly conservative values to rally support from his core constituency.
Amid raging tensions with the world's top democracies, he has sought to present Russia as the antithesis of Western liberal values.
In 2013, Russia passed a controversial law banning the promotion or displays of homosexuality to minors. Activists say the legislation has been used to crack down on gay men and women.
Nikita Tushkanov, a history and social studies teacher from the former Soviet-era gulag settlement of Mikun in northwestern Russia, has never shied away from criticising the authorities.
With a tattoo on his arm and a rebellious streak, the 27-year-old said he had long irritated fellow teachers, many of whom were near or past the pension age.
He made no secret of his disapproval of the aggressive promotion of Orthodox religious education at schools and militarisation of society.
He said some of his colleagues were sometimes racist and criticised how parents were being forced to make contributions for supplies that should be covered by the state.
"Our country is spending billions of rubles to purchase tasers but they cannot buy textbooks for children," Tushkanov told AFP.
- 'Keep silent or die' -
When opposition supporters took to the streets in support of jailed Kremlin foe Alexei Navalny last January, Tushkanov staged a one-man rally in Mikun.
"Keep silent or die," read a poster in his hands.
His protest over Navalny's arrest was "the last straw" for the school, he said. He was fired two months later and attempts to challenge his termination in court have been unsuccessful, while he has been unable to find a similar job elsewhere.
When he tried to get a job at one school, the principal received a phone call from prosecutors.
"She was told that if she hires me she will be in trouble," Tushkanov said the principal had told him.
Daniil Ken, head of a teachers' union with ties to Navalny, said pressure on teachers has been growing.
Legislation protects educators, and one of the few ways to get rid of a teacher is to dismiss him or her over immoral conduct, he said.
Ken, who himself lost a teaching job in Saint Petersburg in 2020, said authorities were afraid of outspoken teachers who call for change in society.
"This can threaten the well-being of the powers that be, from a minor bureaucrat to President Putin," Ken told AFP.
Shchegoleva, the biology teacher who now works at a non-government organisation, said the current climate has brought on a sense of stagnation in society.
"There is an impression that it is not possible to develop, move forward, be more modern, more loyal, more understanding and accepting," she said.