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Student speaks out about teacher abuse at elite Russian school

DW's Moscow Correspondent Emma Burrows speaks to a woman who says she was abused by a teacher at one of Russia's most prestigious schools. The scandal has provoked a fierce debate in the country.

"I wish with all my heart that this had turned out to be a bad dream. I was 16 to 17 years old when this was happening. It happened many times. I told a couple of my friends, they were all my age so they didn't know how to react. I also made them promise to keep it secret."

Maria (not her real name) told DW via social media how she was repeatedly abused by her teacher at School 57, saying he kissed her, inappropriately touched her and had sex with her. She wrote online that he told her if she spoke about it, the school would close. "It was a kind of blackmail," she said.

"By the end of 11th grade (the last year in the Russian school system) I had panic attacks three to four times a day so I was barely living," she said. "I still experience panic attacks and I frequently sit in the library at university and suddenly realize I can't breathe. I also can't have a relationship because it causes me to have flashbacks," she said.

Elite school

School 57 is one of the most prestigious educational institutions in Russia. Founded in the 19th century, it is near the Kremlin and pupils include the children of Russian businessmen and government officials.

Allegations about the school became public when a former pupil and journalist, Ekaterina Kronhaus, wrote on her Facebook page about a teacher who groomed students for sex over a 16-year period. Kronhaus said she had tried previously to write about the accusations in two Russian magazines but was asked to keep silent by people who had children at the school and who were worried about its reputation.

According to Maria, now aged 18, the school "definitely knew," that her teacher was having sex with students.

"Maybe they didn't understand the scale but they knew this happened from time to time. I know six people in person [who were abused] and I've heard about 15," she said, adding a woman she met in Israel who had long ago left Russia asked if that was the school where the teacher has sex with "everybody?"

On Facebook, one parent says she informed the school administration of concerns she had in 2005 but that they were dismissed as "rumor and blackmail." The Moscow Department for Education, acting on behalf of the school, said it would not comment on the allegations, or on missed opportunities to stop the abuse, while an official investigation is ongoing.

Head teacher: Allegations 'a fantasy'

During a placement at a center for refugee children, Maria said she turned to another volunteer, and former pupil, Olga Nikolaenko, for help.

Over a period of several months Nikolaenko told DW she gathered the testimonies of previous pupils. In July she went to the school administration with statements from more than 10 women, some dating back 16 years. Certain cases allegedly involved the teacher having sex with girls who were under the age of 16 - an offense punishable in Russia with prison time.

Nikolaenko said the school's director, Sergey Mendelevich, told her the teacher was his best friend and that the testimonies were "fantasy." Nonetheless, he asked the teacher to leave the school voluntarily. The teacher resigned and is currently in Israel. He did not reply to requests for comment.

Turning a blind eye

Shortly after the meeting with Nikolaenko, and after the allegations became public on Facebook, Mendelevich resigned. In a statement posted on the school's Facebook page he admitted law enforcement agencies should have investigated the accusations "from the very beginning."

He continued by saying, "there is no doubt that the main victims were children, involved in unacceptable relationships - they have been deeply and irrevocably damaged. I am crushed by a sense of guilt before the victims of this immoral behavior."

Russian law enforcement agencies are currently investigating the accusations and a new head teacher has promised to bring a "new level of transparency" to the school.

Watershed moment

The allegations surrounding School 57 have been widely discussed on social media in Russia - a country where issues relating to sexual abuse or domestic violence are not generally aired in public.

"This level of publicity and transparency is really new to Russia," said Ekaterina Schulmann, a political scientist. "What people are talking about now is - should it have been made public? Will it harm the school? Is it more important to speak up or to protect the image of the school which is supposed to be one of the best?"

The discussion on social media of School 57 follows an online outpouring of accounts of women suffering sexual violence.

In July, the Ukrainian journalist Anastasia Melnichenko used the hashtag "#IamNotAfraidToSay" to post about her experience of sexual abuse. The hashtag rapidly spread across the Russian and Ukrainian internet, with thousands of people using it to share their own experience of abuse. This, according to Schulmann, encouraged the exposure of what happened at School 57.

"This hashtag broke the very old rules which used to hold society together, that some things are normally not spoken about, that the victims are silenced by fear or the stigma of shame,” she said.

Russian Orthodox Church: chastity an important virtue

Despite changing attitudes, there has been a backlash against the public discussion of sexual abuse in Russian society. Following the appearance of #IamNotAfraidToSay, a Russian Orthodox Church bishop said, "I don't know how useful it is to talk about this out loud. The more we talk about bad things the more these bad things spread and become the norm for people."

Moskau Orthodoxe Weihnachten 7.1.2015

A Russian Orthodox bishop warned against publicly discussing sexual abuse

The bishop continued by saying it is important for children to be taught that chastity is a very important virtue. Without chastity, he said, "all this violence and ugliness can take place."

While some representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church would prefer abuse not to be discussed publicly, Nikolaenko countered that "although it's traumatic, it's probably for society's benefit."

Maria now has left School 57 and is studying at university. She said she spoke out because she no longer wants to see "the suffering of others."

"This whole scandal shows how our society is rotten," she said. "The only thing I can say now is that I will get better and that I am glad other people will never have to go through this."