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Another Awkward Moment: Russia's Medvedev Mocked Over Remarks To Struggling Teachers


Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev seemingly facetious comments have sparked a backlash on social media.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev seemingly facetious comments have sparked a backlash on social media.

President Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials often seem to sugarcoat the country's economic troubles, reassuring citizens that better times are just around the corner or cherry-picking statistics to paint a prettier picture.

Dmitry Medvedev, not so much. The prime minister has repeatedly opened himself up for anger and mockery with his stark comments about the economy -- and a style of delivery that can come across as uncaring or even offensive to pensioners, teachers, and other Russians struggling to get by.

In less than three months, Medvedev has told Crimeans "there's just no money" to raise pensions, said Russia could be headed into an economic "tailspin," and suggested that schoolteachers ought to pick another profession -- or find a source of cash on the side -- if they want to make a decent living.

Medvedev's most recent gaffe came on August 3 at a public forum in the North Caucasus republic of Daghestan, one of Russia's poorest regions.

Asked why young teachers there earn about five times less than police, Medvedev essentially told educators to boost their incomes by moonlighting -- or get out of the profession altogether.

"I am often asked this question about schoolteachers and professors. [Teaching] is a calling. And if you want to earn money, there are lots of lovely ways to do this faster and more efficiently -- like business, for example. But you didn’t go into business, now did you?" Medvedev told the crowd.

The take-it-or-leave-it remark seemed to contradict Medvedev's more encouraging comments in an article he published in 2009, when he was president, entitled Russia, Forward.

"Inventors, innovators, researchers, teachers, [and] entrepreneurs who introduce new technologies will become the most respected people in society. In turn, society will give them everything they need to be productive," he wrote at the time.

Social Media Storm

The social media storm came fast and furious following the more impolitic -- if perhaps more realistic -- new remarks. Internet users had a field day mocking Medvedev's less than sympathetic advice.

On Twitter, an account mocking the Russian president with the handle @KermlinRussia posted a photo of Walter White, the drug-cooking, chemistry-teacher character from the U.S. series Breaking Bad, surrounded by stacks of dollars in a warehouse.

"Dmitry Medvedev recommended teachers pick more financially rewarding professions. … Medvedev said an energetic teacher can find a way to make money," it reads.

The website included that post along with vignettes suggesting that real-life teachers in Russia have turned to prostitution, striptease, "erotic modeling," male go-go dancing, robbery, and even terrorism to make more money.

A petition calling for Medvedev's dismissal had been supported by almost 100,000 people on the website by the evening of August 4. It said that 'the fish rots from the head' and that a prime minister who would make such remarks about teachers is not fit for the job.

Medvedev dispensed his advice to teachers just a day after he alarmed a youthful audience at a summer education forum in the Vladimir region, northeast of Moscow, when he drew a stark contrast between economic models and economic reality.

"In models, we can describe everything quite well: what reforms to implement and how," he said. "But when we face a question of what we should do about salaries and pensions, economic models fade into the background and we are forced to make decisions simply to prevent the economy from going into a tailspin."

Pensions were also the painful issue that prompted Medvedev to put his foot in his mouth back in May, when he was bombarded Medvedev with complaints low retirement pay and rising prices during a visit to Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula that Russia seized in 2014.

One woman confronted him face-to-face, demanding to know when pensions would be raised.

"There's just no money right now," Medvedev said, before beating a hasty retreat as he fired off a string of comments that few could have found reassuring: "You hang in there. Best wishes! Cheers! Take care!"

WATCH: Medvedev On Pensions

Medvedev On Pensions: 'We Don't Have The Money'
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That awkward exchange quickly unleashed a torrent of ridicule on social media. It turned the phrase "You hang in there" into a lasting symbol of perceived government indifference to the troubles of the populace on an economy hit by low world oil prices and Western sanctions over Russia’s interference in Ukraine.

In one angry meme, he is shown making a rude gesture over the caption: "Dear Crimeans. There is no money and there isn’t going to be any soon. But you hang in there. Take care!"

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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