I first went to Russia in December 1999 to visit a friend of mine who’d just taken a teaching job there. Little did I know then what a central part in my life the country would come to play over the next twenty-plus years. Since the turn of the century, I’ve visited Russia more times than I’ve been to any other country on earth. I’ve travelled the length and breadth of the place, from Vladivostok in the Far East to Kaliningrad in the west, and I’ve been to more cities than many of my friends there, including Norilsk right up in the Arctic Circle.
As the INNOVATIONS and then the OUTCOMES series of coursebooks I’ve co-authored started to take off, I also got to visit Ukraine, a country I first went to in 2008, and have been back to several times since. More recently, I’ve been lucky enough to visit Minsk in Belarus a few times. In all three countries, I’ve made friends with the most remarkable, kind, clever, funny, caring people, I’ve been struck by the incredible professionalism and expertise of the teachers I’ve worked with, and I’ve always felt welcomed and at home among everyone I met on my travels. These twenty years have been both an incredible privilege and a real pleasure.
When Covid struck and we at Lexical Lab realised that we wouldn’t be able to run our London summer schools for the foreseeable future, that coursebook sales would drop as schools closed, and that there’d obviously be no overseas training gigs for quite some time, we did what the rest of the ELT world was also forced to do and went online. We realised very quickly that the best niche we could aim for was teaching teachers, helping already super-fluent teachers consolidate and develop their English. Unsurprisingly, given the countries we’d spent most time in, the vast bulk of the students we managed to attract came from the three aforementioned countries.
For almost two years, we ran weekly classes focused primarily on speaking and language development, covering a very wide array of different topics, and I was also struck by how much common ground there always was not only among the students from Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, but also our other students from Poland, Brazil, Belgium, Spain and beyond. The sense of common ground and common purpose was palpable and these classes were a joy to teach. Until, that is, ten days ago. Then everything changed. Forever.
The most obvious and immediate change was that our Ukrainian students stopped attending the online classes. We emailed and texted and messaged and tried to check up on how everyone was doing. Some students were holed up in bunkers as Russian missiles rained on Kharkiv, others were nervously staying out in Kyiv, wondering if and when the troops would start to roll in; students saw their husbands, sons and father sign up to fight with the defenders; students fled in fear for their lives, and there were examples of the heroic decency of everyday people as Polish students went to the border to pick up and house Ukrainians they’d only ever met online. I was getting countless messages every day and seeing footage of cities I knew well being absolutely devastated.
Many of the students who did still come to class were based in Russia and Belarus and as the shock and creeping realisation of what was happening started to sink in, there were many tears in class and many difficult conversations. Overnight, students saw their worlds changing irreversibly and many said they suddenly felt as if they were on the Titanic, going down at an alarming rate yet unable to do anything to halt the slide into the deepest depths. Students were shocked to find that people they’d known for years, even people they were in relationships with, weren’t the people they thought they were. The downside of living in a society where political discussions are often avoided for the sake of maintaining civility became glaringly apparent and unbridgeable schisms started opening up all around.
Some students had been on demos and seen extreme police brutality; others were shaking with fear and anger about the sudden and immediate loss of the way they’d imagined the future panning out. There were grim jokes about the fact that nobody expected to feel nostalgia for the Covid years quite so quickly.
The normal beginning-of-lesson ritual of simply asking how students were when they appeared on Zoom soon became redundant. It felt like we needed new questions for a new era. I soon found myself asking how people were coping, how they were bearing up instead. Students treated each other with exceptional kindness and understanding, and even where there were disagreements, they were handled tactfully and with care. After all, these were people who’d been meeting up regularly and who’d got to know and like each other as a result of these interactions.
I started fretting about what I wanted to say where. Whilst using my personal Facebook page to post regularly – some might say obsessively – about the war and what I felt had led to it, I also decided to ensure the Facebook group I run, ENGLISH QUESTIONS ANSWERED, be kept free of any mention of the war. This sometimes meant deleting comments and posts I had huge sympathy with, but I felt it was important for everyone on all sides to have a space where we could meet and do what we’d always done: nerd out about language. Over on Instagram, I posted one photo of the anti-war demo I went on last weekend and got sucked into a heated discussion of over 300 comments which saw me accused of hating Russia, taking sides and so on. When I pointed out that I’d hardly spend twenty years visiting a country I hated, that loving a country and supporting the government were two entirely different things, and that in every single war, the side I’d always take is that of the people being invaded, and that this is the same whether we’re talking about Iraq, Palestine or Ukraine, I was told I’d been after folks’ money and saw over 300 people unfollow me.
I was also very unsure about how best to manage in class: to what degree was it wise to just try and carry on as normal, to have the lessons be a space apart from the rest of the stress of life, and to what degree it was important to let anyone who wanted to talk, talk. The first few days of last week saw me fumbling towards some kind of principled approach. Some classes ran more or less as usual, though there might be ten minutes at the beginning or end where I just checked up on how everyone was doing. One class involved a couple of students talking at great length – through the tears – about what they were going through, until this was interrupted by another student who said for her own sanity’s sake, she just needed to at least go through the motions of simply being a student.
In the end, I told all my classes that I was adopting a two-pronged approach. I’d try as best as possible to do the hour class they’d paid for as usual, giving everyone respite from the horror of the outside world, allowing space for people to continue to connect with other aspects of life away from the war, to share stories and experiences and emotions and memories; then I’d stay online for another half hour and sometimes students would just go into breakout rooms and talk about how they were, sometimes we’d stay as a whole group and I’d talk, they’d ask questions, we’d discuss the importance of trying to find head space that allowed us to stay human. I won’t lie and pretend it was easy. More often than not, students would be on the verge of tears, I’d often break down crying too, and I’d then struggle to switch back to being a normal father to my kids and husband to my wife after class. Despite the fact I sometimes joked about wishing I could back to being a raw twenty-three-year-old teacher who simply waltzed into class and told students to open their books at page 43 so we could do some grammar for the hour, it was nevertheless both the most gruelling and demanding teaching I’d ever done, and yet also the most rewarding and real.
Hopefully, this approach will get us through the next four weeks of term, but beyond that, we’ve obviously had to think long and hard about how we move forward. Andrew and I will be spending the best part of the next year writing the third edition of the OUTCOMES series, a job that couldn’t have come at a better time as running an online school whose intake has thus far depended on students from what’s now effectively a mass war zone. However, our colleagues Luis and Margot will be continuing to teach Lexical Lab classes, and we want to return to online teaching next year. We also aim to hold regular free meet-ups on Zoom where anyone can anywhere can simply come along and be together and talk.
We also want to try and keep spaces of hope open for students on all sides to stay connected. We know that everyone is going to find themselves in incredibly polarising, binary situations where we’re encouraged to see the world in terms of us and them. Neither of us see this as a sustainable position, no matter how understandable it may be, and how tempting its allure.
To these ends, we’re now trying to establish some form of ground rules that allow for cross-border communication and the possibility of connections across the divide. We both feel it is important to maintain connections at this time. Our speaking club lessons potentially offer the chance to have a diversion from the traumas of everyday life as well as the opportunity to remember that we are all humans that share so much. In turn, we hope this will, in some small way, combat the inevitable othering that takes place during a war.
However, realistically, whatever topics of conversation we try to encourage students to have, the conflict is going to impinge on things in all manner of ways. Given this, we’ve decided to be clear to prospective students about what our own position is and what it means to take part in our classes if we are all going to maintain some unity and inclusivity.
The first and most important thing is that we all do our utmost to avoid suggesting individuals in class are responsible for the current situation. We should not use ‘othering’ forms of expression such as you people, you Ukrainians, you Russians, etc. We’d extend this to any expression of the belief that Ukraine and Ukrainians do not have a distinct identity, culture or history. The same is done to both Israelis and Palestinians. It is a form of xenophobia and racism and it is wrong.
We also believe we should not dismiss people’s individual experiences and feelings. We need to listen and accept those experiences as true and the feelings as genuine. However, it is equally important that we do not use individual experiences to start generalising about a whole group of people. This is a classic xenophobic / racist trope and will not be accepted.
We also feel we need ground rules about the way we describe what’s happening. The first thing to say is that when referring to the current situation, we need to call a spade a spade and use the terms war and invasion. Secondly, we also want to be clear that everyone at Lexical Lab is completely opposed to this invasion and believe that it is entirely unjustified. This does not mean that you may not hold views dislike the Ukrainian government or their policies – no doubt there were / are Ukrainian citizens who opposed / oppose the current government. However, we need to be clear that there really was no genocide happening or about to happen in any part of Ukraine, the Ukrainian government is neither ‘fascist’ nor ‘Nazi’, and there have been no threats by Ukraine, the EU, the US or NATO to invade Russian soil.
Nor should we see the invasion as any kind of ‘rescue’ or ‘protection’ of Russian speakers. Cities with large majorities of Russian mother-tongue speakers are right now being blockaded and bombed. People who the Kremlin claims are supposedly being rescued are being killed by the invading troops. A million Ukrainians have already been forced to flee the devastation.
This is not to blame individual Russians for believing such lies. In the UK, we have also had experience of how this works. Before the Iraq war, the UK and US governments fed lies to the media to justify an appalling and widely opposed invasion. We were told there were threats to our cities and the risk of impending genocides. These were proved to be lies and it has been shown beyond all reasonable doubt that the invasion was planned in advance. The current control that President Putin has on the Russian media is far stronger than either the UK or US government ever managed or attempted, but essentially exactly the same thing has happened to justify the invasion of Ukraine.
We were also told similar lies about the invasion of Iraq only using precision bombing or only targeting military personnel and objects. We very quickly saw this for the bullshit it was. In Iraq, hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed and cities were laid waste. The same is happening now in Ukraine. We understand that people may be angered by the hypocrisy of UK media in this regard, and we are both sympathetic to this. Let’s be clear, though. The hypocrisy does not lie in the coverage of Ukraine; it lies in the failure to sufficiently call out the lies told about Iraq.
It is important that any views about the war in class acknowledge these basic facts and we simply will not accept attempted justifications of the invasion or war. At the same time, though, we know that many of the Russian citizens who attend our classes are already aware of these issues and are fully opposed to the war. Some may have voiced their protests in whatever way they could, and some may not have. We very much understand the real dangers of protest in an authoritarian society and we also understand why people may feel that it’s pointless. Both Andrew and I attended mass protests against the war in Iraq and yet these protests did nothing to prevent the war. We understand the limits of what individuals can do and why some become fatalistic. We need to respect individual choices that might involve protecting home and family against defending nation or wider freedoms, whatever our own personal beliefs. These are very difficult choices to make, which we here in London don’t currently have to make. There’s obviously no one single correct choice here, and we would simply ask everyone involved – and invested – in what we do as a company to find some acceptance of this.
Perhaps we are being naïve in believing we can maintain some kind of shared spaces, but we also feel it’s crucial that we try.