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Flight Of The Teachers: Why Are Educators Leaving Russia?

Students attend a Knowledge Day ceremony marking the beginning of the new school year at a school in the Siberian village of Verkh-Chita on September 1, 2022.
Students attend a Knowledge Day ceremony marking the beginning of the new school year at a school in the Siberian village of Verkh-Chita on September 1, 2022.

Not long after Russia launched its assault on Ukraine, Yelena Baibekova, a math teacher at Elementary School No. 59 in the southern Russian city of Astrakhan, was fired.

The stated reason? She didn't show up in the classroom, even though there was an authorized school holiday and no students were in class.

The real reason, she believes, is that she had joined an anti-war demonstration in the city center on February 22, 2022, two days before the full-scale invasion was launched. About three months later, after being detained once by the police, she and her 17-year-old son fled the country, ending up in Germany, where they applied for asylum.

"All my life I taught children in Russia, and my place is there," she told RFE/RL's Idel.Realities by phone. "Most likely, I will return, but I don't know what Russia will be like at that moment."

Baibekova is one of an unknown number of teachers who have fled Russia since the beginning of the invasion. No official figures of the tally are publicly available, though the number is estimated to be in the scores, if not hundreds.

In all, more than 500,000 people are believed to have left Russia since February 24, 2022, with some estimates putting the number closer to 1 million. Among the most prominent sectors to have experienced high outflows of workers is the IT sector, where upwards of 300,000 workers have left for Kazakhstan, Georgia, Armenia, and other countries.

But teachers have also fled.

"We realized that we cannot stay in a country whose president has decided to destroy a neighboring state," said Alyona Podlesnykh, a teacher in the journalism department at a university in the Ural Mountains city of Perm.

She left Russia in September.

'We Understood That It Was Dangerous To Stay In Russia'

Podlesnykh, who moved to Serbia with her husband and two children in late September, says that they had started making plans to leave Russia shortly after the beginning of the invasion.

Initially, the family planned to move at the end of October. After Putin in late September announced a call-up of tens of thousands of military reserve personnel and other Russians, she says her family moved up the departure date. "We understood that it was dangerous to stay in Russia," she said, "and not only because of mobilization."

Alyona Podlesnykh and her family in Serbia
Alyona Podlesnykh and her family in Serbia

Her husband left for Kazakhstan. Podlesnykh stayed behind to sell their apartment in Perm and exchange rubles for foreign currency. She says they arrived in Kazakhstan a few days after her husband.

Before moving, Podlesnykh says she was open in her opposition to the war, trying to "open the eyes of those who do not yet see the truth. At first it seemed to me that this would not be dangerous."

In June, she complained to local authorities after a giant banner with the letter "Z" appeared on a cultural center. Pro-war politicians and civic groups have adopted the letter "Z" as a symbol for the Russian invasion.

The banner stayed up, she says, but then she started receiving threats, calling her an "enemy of the people" -- a Stalin-era epithet. Her family members also received veiled threats and insults from distant relatives.

"Obviously, it became very dangerous for us to stay in Russia. There was, of course, a way out: to be silent, but I do not want to be silent," she said. "Therefore, my husband and I made the right decision to leave Russia. In general, this decision was more his. But it saved me."

After a month in Kazakhstan, Podlesnykh says the family traveled to Serbia, which she says was better suited for them and more affordable. They bought a house near the Hungarian border; her two children have started learning Serbian.

Podlesnykh says she continues to work as a teacher helping Ukrainian and Russian refugees and looking for a full-time job. She says she continues to pay taxes in Russia. Her husband is unemployed for now.

"I hope the light of day will come soon" in Russia, Podlesnykh said.

'The Children Write To Me'

Baibekova and her 17-year-old son initially ended up in a refugee camp in the German city of Sigmaringen, she says, waiting for their asylum application to be processed. Many of the others in the camp are Ukrainian, and she says she befriended them.

Yelena Baibekova in Germany
Yelena Baibekova in Germany

Later, they were moved to a small town in central Baden-Wuerttemberg state, where she is learning German and her son is attending a local high school.

She says her former students regularly call and e-mail her; sometimes they send propaganda videos and lectures that they are forced to listen to. "The children write to me," she said. "They say, 'Do you have any idea what they're filling our heads with?'"

"They need support, and I try to give it to them as much as I can. I say that all this will end, that the most important thing is to save the human being within yourself," she said.

For Olga Lizunkova, a teacher of English and German in a small village in the central Nizhny Novgorod region, the decision to leave and move to Kyrgyzstan was prompted in part by her own students. She says they reported her to school administrators in September after she spoke critically in her classroom about the war.

She was fined 30,000 rubles ($500 at the time) for "discrediting" the military, issued a warning, and suspended from work. The next day, she resigned.

"There were fears that it would not end there" with the fine and the warning, she said.

Why? "Because I can't be silent," she said. "And if I were in Russia now, I would still continue to express my position against the war."

Olga Lizunkova in Kyrgyzstan
Olga Lizunkova in Kyrgyzstan

She says she and her husband sold their apartment for cash and hired a car and driver to take them across the border. She says they encountered little hassle from Russian border guards, despite her husband's background, which made him potentially a priority candidate for the military call-up.

A month later, they moved to Kyrgyzstan.

She says she is now studying to get certified as an registered teacher of English as a foreign language; her husband adding a new IT qualification to his work skills.

Sometimes, she's wistful, she says, missing her house where she also grew up as a child. She also has a message for those remaining Russia who might also be considering fleeing.

"If you want to leave, but you do not have the financial means or you are too attached to something or someone, don't be upset, don't beat yourself up," she said. "Forced emigration is difficult, both financially and morally.

"If you don't want to leave, that's your right, you shouldn't leave just because of the government," she said. "I heard this expression somewhere: Why should I leave my apartment just because -- pardon the expression -- they're crapping in it?"

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