I feel anxiety and anger because I know that there are two people in my class who support Putin. There is turmoil inside me, says Margot Lehtsalu, who is studying in the Tallinn Grammar School of Arts and wears a blue-yellow ribbon in Ukraine’s support.
Approximately 250 out of 850 pupils of the school come from Russian-speaking homes. The war in Ukraine has seriously tested the values of the school – openness and freedom of speech – and placed them into a different light.
«There are certainly one or two pupils in every class who support Putin’s regime. I would not deny it,» says Mari-Liis Sults, director of the school. «Some teachers carry a bottle of valerian with them to calm their nerves.»
Martin Kravchuk is one of the pupils who says that he does not support the war but understands why Putin had to start it.
«It is quite straightforward. We have to look at the history. Ukraine was waging war in Donbass for eight years. Putin just lost his nerve. He begged, he begged Ukraine to stop, not to do it, not to fight against its people, but they did not listen,» Kravchuk explains.
Marget Pae, the teacher of history and social sciences, comments that the pupils’ arguments in favor of the war come, word for word, from Putin’s speeches.
«All that «denazification», «special operation» – this terminology is familiar. There is no individual interpretation at all. They have definitely adopted the idea that the Russian state was in danger and something was done about it,» explains Pae, who started to discuss the events in Ukraine in her lessons immediately after the holidays had ended.
Recording of bomb attacks are considered forgery
One of the pupils, Evelin Alexa Sheresh, says that in hr family, her father support Putin while she and her mother oppose the war.
«Mother and I do not support anyone. But there is much propaganda everywhere now, including the social media, for example the Estonian-language Facebook group,» she says. «Some bloggers are posting videos about how everything is being bombed. But these videos may have been recorded elsewhere, for example in Donbass,» she speculates.
Martin Kravchuk says with conviction that the videos depicting brutal killing of Ukrainian residents and the bombing of their homes are fakes.
«I know that the Ukrainians are posting videos as if Russia is bombing their hoses or cars etc. But if you look at the truth then this is not the right video because these were recorded in Donbass eight years ago. What they are showing is not true, it is wrong,» Kravchuk explains his idea of the events.
He claims to be convinced that the Russian forces are not bombing civilians. But then who is doing the bombing?
«Well, they bomb only if they see that there is a sniper in some house, an enemy killing Russian soldiers. What they should do then? Just sit there and let themselves be killed? They shoot back,» he explains. «My relatives live in Ukraine and they say that the homes of ordinary people are not bombed.»
When asked to explain the razed city of Mariupol, Kravchuk answers that missiles cannot fly the way the videos show.
Margot Lehtsalu, who supports Ukraine, wants her pro-Putin classmates to see the truth but knows that it will not happen anytime soon.
«The brainwashing they have received for years… It is very difficult to explain them that things are different in reality,» she admits, and adds that she is not talking much about these matters with her pro-Putin classmates.
«I do not think that we could convince them even if we show them videos or news,” Lehtsalu says. “We have been recommended not to address them on our own but to leave it for the teachers of history,» she adds and, recognizing that the war has driven her apart from her classmates supporting Putin’s regime.
How is it possible, that 30 years after the restoring of Estonia’s independence there are still pupils, born here and speaking Estonians, fully subjected to the Russian propaganda?
«There were problems already ten years ago when we started with the language immersion classes, because the Russian parents did not accept the history we were teaching. We often invited the parents to the school and the main subject of the discussion was that we are living in the Republic of Estonia, that the position of the Republic of Estonia is like that and you are studying at an Estonian-language school. Now we are starting another round on the same subject,» Director Sults admits that little has changed over the years.
The director adds that for some pupils the school is the only place where they can hear Estonia’s and the Western countries’ views about the war in Ukraine, because their families listen to and believe other news.
Putin’s supporters walk out
The teachers of history and social sciences say that some pro-Putin pupils refuse to cooperate in the lessons which address the war in Ukraine.
«Since they are the loudest, this creates the impression that their views predominate in the classes. Actually, this is not so,» says Marget Pae. She says that some pupils have walked out of the classroom. «There have been such incidents because all issues concerning Ukraine are perceived by some people as part of Western propaganda,» she says.
Martin Kravchuk attends the history lessons but he does not like what the teachers are saying.
«Why are they talking only what Ukraine did right? If they are speaking about Russia, then the Russians are only some kind of enemies who kill,» he says.
Evelin Alexa Sheresh says that she often concentrate son her own thoughts during the social studies lessons.
«We do not talk much about these matters at home because this immediately means a conflict with my father. I feel that I do not want to hear anything about the war, I do not want to see it, I want to close my eyes and ears;» Sheresh says. She is convinced that nobody or anything could make her father adopt a different view of the war.
Director Sults says that they are already walking in thin ice attempting to present the positions of the Estonian state in a way which would not provoke conflicts between the pupils and their parents or make them run away from home, because that would cause more problems.
«Let the pupils know that we are talking about these matters this way at school. They will eventually make up their own mind,» Sults says.
Marget Pae, the history and social studies teacher, says that the Ministry of Education is also recommending them to discuss matters with the pupils.
«The role of the teacher is to see that the debate would not end up with a common admission that the situation can be viewed in both ways. Andres Puustusmaa, a film director who lived in Russia, has said that [the opinion of those influenced by the Russian propaganda] is like a concrete wall and it will take is months to deal with it,» the director says.
The teachers can handle it
The school is now making preparations to admit 60–70 Ukrainian refugees to the evening shift.
«I think that some conflict may happen,» says Lehtsalu when asked about how the pro-Putin pupils would receive the refugees.
Kravchuk says that he would not object if a refugee pupil in his class would say that his or her home was bombed by the Russian military.
«I do not mind, they have freedom of speech and I have freedom of speech. If he says that he was bombed, I have to check this information, whether he lies or not,» Kravchuk says.
«I am not against them, I am human, I can understand. But if they come here and make trouble, I shall turn against them,» says Evelin Alexa Sheresh, who claims to know of a case of a Ukrainian refugee attacking a Russian in Estonia.
The police have recently warned against false reports in the Russian-language social media about Ukrainians attacking Russians in Estonia.
«The media have a large influence on people to invite them show their opinion. False information is used for it as well. We have no information that people escaping from the war have attacked residents of Estonia,» says Kristel-Liis Kaunismaa, an official of the Police and Border Guard Board.
Director Sults says that the school which has emphasized openness and tolerance for more than ten years can handle the integration of the Ukrainian refugees.
«We are a school based on strung values. We should have confidence in the teachers and not be scared in advance. We are aware of all risks and will deal with them,» the director reassures us.