MOSCOW -- Friends, colleagues and civil society activists are demanding the reinstatement of a maverick school director in Russia who they say was fired because she refused to give authorities the names of students and staff who joined anti-government protests.
Supporters of Yelena Moiseyeva say her dismissal was the latest salvo in a state campaign to stamp out dissent nationwide ahead of parliamentary elections in September.
Moiseyeva, who had worked for 15 years as head of School No. 24 in Nizhny Novgorod, said she had been informed of her dismissal in a letter that cited a clause in Russia's Labor Code allowing authorities to fire staff at state institutions without an explanation.
"Things like this happen in life," she wrote in a Facebook post revealing her firing. "We'll get through it!"
A relative of Moiseyeva's told local media that she had been purged because she had angered the authorities by declining to provide them with a list of students and teachers who had taken part in January rallies in support of jailed opposition leader Aleksei Navalny.
The relative, whose name was not published, told NN.ru, a local news site in Nizhny Novgorod, that officials sought to oust Moiseyeva even before the protests that followed the arrest of Navalny, who survived a nerve-agent poisoning last August that he blames on President Vladimir Putin.
"Every time there was an election [coming up] they demanded things from her, but never got what they asked for," the relative was quoted as saying on June 22.
Russians will vote in elections for local and regional posts and the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, on September 17-19. The elections come amid a continuing slide in the popularity of the Kremlin-backed ruling party United Russia, which is hoping to maintain its absolute majority in the Duma.
Moiseyeva declined a request from RFE/RL for an interview, saying only: "I don't want to be made into an idol."
But in a conversation with NN.ru, she appeared to confirm that she had been asked to implicate students in protest activity.
"I myself was shocked…that we must reveal who goes to protests," she said in the interview. "And I said, 'Sorry, I can scold [them] myself, but I won't snitch on the children.'"
Aleksandr Pichugin, a Nizhny Novgorod journalist who knows Moiseyeva, told RFE/RL that the educator was afraid of consequences if she spoke out about the alleged political motivations of her firing.
"The authorities want the September elections to pass smoothly," he said in written comments. "And people like Moiseyeva get in the way."
Government critics and election monitors say that school employees and other people working for state-run institutions face pressure to vote for United Russia or other Kremlin-backed candidates in elections.
Pichugin asserted that in Nizhny Novgorod, every school had been instructed to ensure that staff vote for United Russia, but Moiseyeva opposed the order. "That's why they fired her and kept silent," he said.
'School Of Dialogue'
Staff members at School No. 24 have published an online petition calling for her reinstatement. They praised what they said was her history of championing progressive and sometimes unorthodox teaching methods and a respectful attitude toward students' views that gave her educational establishment the nickname School of Dialogue.
"She built a signature school founded on the principles of democratization, political and religious neutrality, the subjectivity of every student and teacher," they wrote. "A school that has its own stance and is ready to defend it."
Government critics denounced the move as a sign that Russia was descending into a Stalinist climate of 'stukachestvo' -- a word that denotes the act of informing on people to the authorities.
"It's the era of lowlifes," Vladimir Kara-Murza, an opposition activist who has suffered two sudden illnesses he suspects were poisoning attacks prompted by his advocacy for U.S. sanctions against Moscow, wrote of the Russian authorities. "Backstabbing and stukachestvo are their main 'virtues.'"
The nationwide protests in January, and two smaller protest waves in early February and April, provoked a sweeping state crackdown on opposition in Russia, precipitating dozens of court cases against participants and a separate legal proceedings that led to the outlawing of Navalny's political network and prompted many supporters to flee the country.
The false notion that the rallies were attended overwhelmingly by youth encouraged and often misled by the opposition movement was peddled by Russian state media and actively promoted by officials of all stripes. In the weeks that followed the rallies, several Navalny aides were charged with "inciting minors to protest," a crime in Russia.
In the weeks that followed the January rallies, students accused of participating in the demonstrations were dismissed. One such incident prompted national coverage after the students sued their university for what they said was their unlawful expulsion. "We need to prove this is illegal and unjust," Yaroslav Pavlyukov, the lawyer representing the students, said at the time.
Moiseyeva publicly opposed this campaign and criticized the government's program of "patriotic education," a curriculum aimed at inculcating concepts like "love for the Motherland", aversion to Western culture, and what many historians call a whitewashed version of Russia's past.
In her interview with NN.ru, Moiseyeva said she plans to go to court to protest her dismissal. She said she was proud of changes she brought to School No. 24 during her 15-year tenure as director, and the legacy of open discussion she had left behind.
"What does this prove?" she said of her firing. "That people studied in a tolerant school, that they were listened to, and that they learned how to stand by their convictions. I understand that all that was not in vain."