Learning To Get By: Russian Teachers Bemoan Low, Unpredictable Wages

Kremlin and River

(Article text ©2021 RFE/RL, Inc., Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty – rferl.org – Svetlana Prokopyeva, Robert Coalson – Dec. 19, 2021 – article text also appeared at rferl.org/a/russia-teachers-low-wages-extremism/31616182.html)

Russian President Vladimir Putin raised eyebrows recently by claiming that during the period of economic instability following the collapse of the Soviet Union, he occasionally used his car as a taxi to earn extra money.

“Sometimes I had to earn extra money,” Putin said in a film aired on state television on December 12. “I mean, earn extra money by car, as a private driver. It is unpleasant to talk about, to be honest, but unfortunately that was the case.”

It was one of many comments in which Putin, who has been president or prime minister since 1999, has portrayed the 1990s as a dark and desperate time. The Kremlin and state media have cast him as Russia’s savior, pointing to the oil-fueled growth of the 2000s and the relative prosperity it produced.

But Maksim Mikhailov, a 23-year-old history teacher at High School No. 4 in the northwestern city of Pskov, finds himself in a similar position today. Mikhailov told RFE/RL he earns about 18,000 rubles ($245) a month for 37 working hours per week. Because he is single and does not have to pay rent, he is able to get by.

“But to be honest,” he told RFE/RL, “I am thinking about becoming a taxi driver. Almost any work pays better than being a teacher.”

In 2012, upon his return to the Kremlin for a third presidential term after a stint as prime minister, Putin signed the so-called May Decrees, under which he ordered that teacher salaries be raised until they equal the average salary in their region by 2018. However, education-union activists say, that decree has not been implemented in any of Russia’s more than 80 regions. Moreover, the increases that have been seen have not come to teachers via raises in base pay, but by adding supplemental payments for added teaching hours, leading after-school programs, merit bonuses, and other add-ons.

“Officially in Russia there are about 60 regions where the base pay of a teacher is less than the legal minimum wage (MROT),” said Daniil Ken, chairman of the independent Alliance of Teachers union. “You can find figures of 5,500 to 6,500 rubles ($75 to $88).”

At the same time, inflation is on the rise across Russia, with costs for basic consumer goods and services rising more rapidly than the government had predicted. In October, inflation was 8.1 percent, according to government figures, more than double the forecast. The Rosstat state statistics agency reported that fruit and vegetable prices rose nearly 20 percent over the last year.

A Potato Pancake And 15 Grams Of Bread

Aleksandr Mamkin, an instructor with a graduate degree at an agricultural vocational college in the Kursk region, decided to draw attention to this problem by conducting an experiment after he received his pay for the month of October. He wanted to see if it was possible to survive for an entire month on just 14,643 rubles ($199).

Mamkin lives in a private home in the settlement of Sudzha. He has a small plot of land with a garden on which he keeps two goats. As far as basic food goes, he told RFE/RL, he is self-sufficient.

“Vegetables, potatoes, fruit, cucumbers, and tomatoes,” he said, listing the things he produces in his spare time. “Some things I have to buy. Every month, I try to eat 300 or 400 grams of walnuts and dried fruit because those things have a lot of energy and give me the strength to keep working. In the store, as a rule, I buy things that are on sale, that are about to expire…. I bake my own bread at home.”

But Mamkin was interested in how teachers who live in cities can make ends meet on typical salaries like his. He announced his experiment on his page on the social network VK on November 23. On November 25, he was notified that local police were investigating him on suspicion of “extremism.”

The probe stemmed from an anti-fascist social media post illustrated by a photo of a grave that had been desecrated with a swastika — a banned extremist symbol — but Mamkin believes it was an attempt by local officials to intimidate him into ending his salary experiment.

The case was dropped on December 9, after the story of Mamkin’s experiment made national headlines and attracted the attention of State Duma deputies.

The experiment itself was equally short-lived.

Mamkin started things off by paying all his essential bills for the month — gas and electricity, Internet, and telephone, plus the gasoline necessary to commute to work. His fund for the rest of the month then stood at 3,440 rubles ($47). He spent about half of the remainder on groceries.

But then disaster struck.

The heat pump in his house broke and he was forced to buy a new one for 3,300 rubles ($45). And he had to pay 500 rubles ($7) for antifreeze for his car.

“My experiment was a success,” he said, “because I managed to prove that it is impossible to live in Russia on such a salary. After I bought the absolute necessities, it only took one tiny, unexpected expense…to put me on the brink of starvation.”

On December 7, Mamkin posted a photograph of his dinner: a potato pancake and 15 grams of bread.

“It was very difficult conducting this experiment,” he told RFE/RL, “particularly considering the stress and psychological and mental burdens that naturally come with teaching.”

He ended the experiment because he said he feared that if he continued, “I could have faced irreversible physical harm.”

“It was impossible to preserve my health, reason, and life under such conditions,” he concluded. “Although I understand that there are people who are living — and dying — on this amount of money.”

Nikita Tushkanov was a social-studies teacher in the Komi region until he was fired recently for, he says, conducting a picket in support of imprisoned opposition leader Aleksei Navalny.

He says that he worked 1 1/2 basic shifts, or 29 hours, a week. He also taught chess after school. His take-home pay was about 43,000 rubles ($585) a month, he said. The average salary in Komi in 2020 was 55,972 rubles ($762).

“If you work just one shift, then your pay with all the usual supplements would be a maximum of 25,000 ($340),” he said. “A room in a communal apartment would cost 9,000 ($123). It would be hard to survive on that money.”

The Director’s Discretion

Mamkin has now received his November salary — 18,000 rubles this time. He said that the amount each teacher receives each month is ultimately up to the discretion of the school director.

“The money is allocated — as the director told me — to those in the greatest need,” Mamkin said. “When I asked the accountant, she said: ‘[The director] decides who gets how much, and we just count it out. If he says to give you 50,000, we count out 50,000. If he says 11,000, we pay 11,000.’”

Kremlin critics and experts on Russian politics say the authorities use the prospect of bonuses as part of a carrot-and-stick approach to get teachers, as well as other state workers whose low pay makes them vulnerable to pressure, to vote in elections.

Questioned by RFE/RL, Sudzhansky Agricultural-Technical Institute Director Yevgeny Kharlamov said Mamkin “received the salary that he earned.”

“I can’t say what salaries others are getting,” he added. “We have teachers who earn more than him and teachers who earn less.

“I can assure you that 60 percent of my teachers earn more than average, while 30 percent earn about average, and only a few earn less,” Kharlamov said.

Alliance of Teachers Chairman Ken noted that base pay for teachers — the guaranteed and predictable portion of their income — currently accounts for less than one-third of the entire sum paid to educators each month.

“It is a popular proposal among educators to turn that pyramid upside down,” he said, “so that the guaranteed portion was 70 to 80 percent of their income, while only 20 or 30 percent came in the form of prizes, overtime, and all the rest.”

Meeting The Deputy Governor

The same day that police dropped the extremism investigation, Kursk Oblast Deputy Governor Viktor Karamyshev visited Mamkin’s vocational college and spoke with him about the teacher salary issues. Mamkin said the meeting was “extremely positive, constructive, and friendly.” According to local media, Karamyshev asked Mamkin to draft proposals for improving the situation that would later be discussed by a roundtable of experts.

Mamkin said that going public with the matter was the key to achieving this success and that publicity likely saved him from criminal prosecution and a hefty fine.

“If it hadn’t been for the broad public response, if not for the help of the media and activists, I suspect that this information would never have reached Karamyshev,” he told RFE/RL. “I would have been slowly deprived of whatever they could take from me and likely would have been fined.

“It was the public reaction that forced them to think for a minute about how the situation looked from the outside and created an opportunity for possibly increasing take-home pay for teachers,” he added.