Decision To Name School After Russian Soldier Killed In Ukraine Sparks Controversy In Ulyanovsk

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Russia's invasion of Ukraine

In early November, the administration of the Volga River city of Ulyanovsk, some 700 kilometers southeast of Moscow, announced that local middle school No. 52 had been named in honor of Major Aleksandr Shishkov, a 34-year-old graduate of the school who died on May 21, 2022, of injuries suffered in the war in Ukraine.

According to the report from the mayor’s office, Shishkov’s mother, after laying flowers at a memorial plaque honoring her son by the entrance to the school at a ceremony on October 22, said the soldiers under her son’s command “unanimously” considered him “a commander from God.” He was posthumously decorated as a Hero of Russia by presidential decree.

It was one of thousands of similar government initiatives aimed at boosting support for authoritarian President Vladimir Putin and his unprovoked, massive invasion of neighboring Ukraine at the grassroots level. But the Ulyanovsk decision dismayed many of the school’s former teachers and students, who had long associated school No. 52 with educator Radi Sharkayev, who served as its director for more than five decades.

“We graduates of school No. 52 — I was from the first graduating group — always called the school ‘Sharkayev’s school,’” wrote local Lyudmila Serzina in a social-media post. “I think that all educators, not only from our school, and all graduates who knew [Sharkayev] will agree with me…. We can’t offend the memory of this honorable man. We need to restore justice. Otherwise, we will be quite ashamed that we did nothing to preserve the memory of a TEACHER.”

“He essentially created the school, transforming it…into one of the best in the city,” wrote the local newspaper Simbirsky Kuryer in a January article bearing the headline “Honored In Life, Betrayed In Death.”

Ulyanovsk Education Department head Svetlana Kulikova (file photo)
Ulyanovsk Education Department head Svetlana Kulikova (file photo)

Sharkayev died on October 1, 2022, at the age of 86, one day after the head of the Ulyanovsk Education Department, Svetlana Kulikova, signed off on the decree to name the school after Shishkov. Days later, Kulikova would deliver a glowing eulogy at Sharkayev’s funeral, which was attended by more than 300 people, mostly former students of school No. 52.

The Ulyanovsk Education Department did not respond to RFE/RL’s request for comment on the controversy.

‘A School That Is Beloved’

In a commentary for Sibirsky Kuryer in November, school graduate Tatyana Zakharycheva wrote how she attended a 2014 ceremony to mark the 50th anniversary of the school’s founding. Although the ceremony was held in the summer, when the school was closed, the hall was filled with a standing-room-only crowd.

At one point, Zakharycheva recalled, Sharkayev reproached the speakers for talking too much about him and not enough about the school.

“But the graduates couldn’t restrain themselves,” she wrote. “And when someone in the audience shouted that we should petition to have the school named for Sharkayev, the crowd burst into cheers. [Sharkayev] raised his hands and, with difficulty, got the crowd to settle down. Then he ended the discussion by saying, ‘I think it is too early to speak of this…while I’m still alive.”

“Even then,” Zakharycheva concluded, “it was obviously Sharkayev’s school.”

She added that in his own speech at the event, Sharkayev said: “I think that we together over these 50 years achieved the most important goal — we created a school that is beloved. Here, everything is based on kindness, on respect for children and on good interrelations among the teaching staff, between the teachers and the students, and between the teachers and the parents.”

‘All My Children’

Earlier this month, Sharkayev’s son, Timur Sharkayev, published an open letter on a local Telegram site calling the controversy “an unpleasant situation,” noting that his father’s school had produced “academics and scientists, doctor, teachers, athletes, officers, and the educators of all the colleges in the region…hundreds of people honored in the city, the region, and the country.”

Within days, however, the letter had been removed.

“At first they removed the text, leaving only the photograph and the biography of my father,” Timur Sharkayev told RFE/RL’s Idel.Realities. “They posted a note saying the text had been removed because of censorship. Later they removed that note as well.”

“I corresponded with the editor of the channel and was told that ‘the security organs were pressing,’” he added.

Although the letter was removed, Sharkayev said he has been told that locals are organizing a petition about the matter.

“There is such a drive,” he said. “The signatures have not yet been sent because they haven’t appointed a mayor of Ulyanovsk yet.”

Timur Sharkayev said he thinks it is possible that the fact his father was an ethnic Tatar might also be a factor in the controversy. Although he was professionally known as Radi Nikolayevich Sharkayev, his birth name was Ramzi Nuretdinovich Sharkayev.

“Maybe this situation is partially connected with that,” he said. “Maybe the officials think the school is supposed to bear a more Russian name. We can’t rule that out — I have to admit. But that is just supposition.”

A group of the school’s teachers and graduates recently went to the Ulyanovsk Education Department and requested to see the documents relating to the renaming of the school. Their request was denied.

According to participants at the meeting who asked not to be identified for fear of repercussions for speaking out, officials insinuated that their questions reflected “a hostile attitude toward the Russian Army.”

In recent months across Russia, citizens have faced criminal charges and in some cases been given long prison terms for supposedly violating the law against “discrediting the armed forces of the Russian Federation.”

In her November commentary, school graduate Zakharycheva wrote: “When I congratulated him on his birthday the last time, I wrote: ‘We grew up and left school, but we all knew that we would always remain in the circle of your attention and support.’ And he responded, ‘Thank you very much to all my children — the graduates of No. 52. I am proud of you.’”

Written by RFE/RL Feature Writer Robert Coalson based on reporting by Idel.Realities

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