To explain totalitarianism, this teacher told students to denounce their neighbors

Students play next to a portrait of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.
Students play next to a portrait of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.
Image: Reuters/Carlos Barria
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Alexander Fokin is 32 years old and teaches history in Chelyabinsk, Russia. Recently, he asked a group of 10th and 11th graders to write denunciations against their neighbors—in any form they wished—in a lesson about the Stalinist repressions in the 1930s.

Only one student refused, and Fokin later joked on Twitter about his unusual experiment. Within a day, Fokin’s post attracted more than a thousand retweets, transforming him into a star of the Russian internet. Some people celebrated Fokin’s daring experiment, while others condemned him for humiliating his own students. In an interview with Meduza’s special correspondent Andrey Kozenko, Fokin told his version of the story.

Alexander, what can you tell me about this classroom exercise? How old were the students, and why did you ask them to write these denunciations?

Actually, I work at Chelyabinsk State University. So this wasn’t in an ordinary high school—it was an extracurricular class for students looking to learn a bit more about history and prepare a little better than what you get in the school curriculum. Naturally, we cover various different topics. And so of course we deal with the 1930s, talking primarily about [Stalinist] repressions.

In my lecture, I explained that there are two basic approaches to studying this history: one blames the entire Soviet system, claiming that society was a victim of the regime, while others argue that the population was itself involved in the process of writing denunciations, using them to further their own material aims, and so on.

I printed out for the class some real examples of these denunciations, we analyzed them, and tried to understand the language the authors used. We looked at what kinds of arguments these people used, and studied how they formulated their grievances. Through this exercise, we were able to see firsthand how ordinary people were willing participants in this phenomenon.

Then I asked the students to try writing their own denunciations in the spirit of that era, to see if they’d find it interesting, and to learn how it might turn out.

How old are the students we’re talking about? What grade are they in?

These were 10th and 11th graders.

How exactly did you phrase the assignment?

I just asked them to write a denunciation in whatever form they wanted.

Actually, I’ve spent a lot of time wondering if it was the right thing to do. It would have been better to restructure the assignment and ask the students to write a denunciation against themselves—so they could feel the retroactive force of this phenomenon, to know what it’s like not to deliver a blow, but to receive one.

Instead, it worked out so that they wrote denunciations against the people with whom they regularly interact.

Did the students have the option to refuse the assignment and write nothing?

This wasn’t a formal school assignment, and refusing to take part in the exercise didn’t carry any consequences—no bad grades or detention. I told them it was strictly voluntary.

Did the students show any particular interest in the assignment?

Generally speaking, yes, though some students just took the path of least resistance. It was only later that I remembered that there is a whole website called Stalin Would Have Dealt With You, where you just enter the name of whomever you want to denounce and it spits out a stereotypical denunciation in the language of the era. Some of the students with smartphones and tablets just went to this site and copied onto paper whatever they found there.

But a few students got creative and wrote it on their own.

Who did they denounce?

Mainly it was their friends and they people they see on a daily basis. They used a series of reasons: “This person I know has books in German and is probably a spy,” for instance.

Incidentally, the denunciation written against me was the best formulated of all of them. The author did an excellent job mimicking the language of the Soviet era. It mentioned that I tell anti-Soviet jokes and discredit the students’ social reality in various other ways. It turned out to be a very good test—very realistic.

Only 1 of 16 students refused to do it, and one of the reports submitted was against me.

On Twitter, you’ve encountered a lot of criticism for this class exercise. Do you think it’s well founded?

Tweet translation: “Covering Stalinism, I gave my students an assignment to turn in someone to the police. Only 1 of 16 students refused to do it, and one of the reports submitted was against me.”

Partly. And I’ve already discussed this both with colleagues and online. I agree that I should have formulated the assignment differently, adopting a more neutral approach. Regarding the tweet that started all this public discussion, there are two things people need to understand.

First, there’s only so much you can say with 140 characters.

Second, I do stand-up comedy, and I participate on comedy TV projects. I test my jokes on Twitter to see if they’re funny or not. This tweet [about the classroom exercise] was also conceived as a future joke. People who know me understood this, and they retweeted it as a way of saying they liked the joke. And then from there…

Very nice. Well, the joke was a success. That much should be acknowledged.

So other than the people on Twitter who know me, I see people responding to me and Alexey Navalny [an opposition politician with more than 1 million followers, who retweeted Fokin’s post]. Then there’s a whole flood of insanity, like on a biblical scale. The joke became its own antithesis.

And here’s the thing: I know the joke is a bit radical, but you have to view it all in the context of the times. If instead my students had written a petition to Ivan the Terrible, a lot fewer people would have reacted to this story. But such a reaction to an exercise involving Stalin—it’s a sign of our times.

The state of our society today is again approaching something like a civil war. Except before we fought these wars with sabers and revolvers, and now we do it with retweets and memes.

And what conclusions do you yourself draw from this whole story?

In the future, when you joke, you have to write in parentheses the word “joke.” So everyone understands perfectly. But, seriously, I need to be more careful with such experiments.

Also, people should be more mature, more responsible, and more thoughtful about their reactions. On Twitter, I had people writing me to say they had reported me to the FSB [the post-Soviet successor to the KGB]. It will be interesting to see how all this ends. Will it come to nothing, or might I get called in for a chat with the police?

This whole story will tell us how much our society has changed since the 1930s, and show us how far we’ve come.