Narva Old Town State School music teacher Alina Vorontšihhina, who on May 9 wore a t-shirt with an offensive message aimed at Vladimir Putin and came under fire at her workplace, tells ERR in an interview that she would do it again.
Vorontšihhina talked about her act and its aftermath, but also about the views among Narva residents, on the Sunday morning show "Hommik Anuga.",
Why did you decide to wear that shirt, knowing how big of a provocation it would be?
I couldn't resist. I had to react. I simply couldn't keep quiet about these topics, and it bothers me that there is no dialogue between people in our society. Ours is a very polarized society, where one side supports one thing and the other something completely different.
We have also discussed what would have happened had I worn a t-shirt saying I was against the war or for peace. But no one supports the war anyway. Both sides think they are the ones promoting peace.
I wanted to make it clear that I was against Putin's aggression. Of course, everyone is against the war, but things depend on where you get your information.
Not everyone who attended the May 9 parade are pro-Putin. Some take a neutral stance to not get involved. Some were against. There were people with Ukrainian flags. The young man who was pushed down a flight of stairs for carrying a flag was not the only one. There were other young people with Ukrainian flags who do not support it [the parade] and just came out to see what was happening.
We know that over 90 percent of Narva residents are Russian-speakers, that they come out on May 9 to take flowers to where the [T-34] tank monument used to stand and a few other places in the city. That is not pro-Estonian sentiment in Narva.
I think that the most important thing is what we can learn from war. We should not forget about the veterans, people who fought against fascism. But no one is suggesting we do. However, it is not a celebration, it is a moment for reflection of how terrible violence and war really are and how it should never happen again.
But here we are. When the celebration was taking place, it was asked from the Russian side whether Russia was the greatest and nicest country and Estonians told to clap their hands. They asked people to applaud if they thought Russia was a mighty country from the stage on the other side of the border. And some did clap on this side of the river.
The relevant narrative for me is what we've learned. We are bringing flowers, while they are bombing Ukrainians. Also, how can we talk of a mighty power when it keeps repeating the same mistakes? What are we really celebrating?
You're Russian yourself.
I cannot really say that as I was born in Estonia. I don't like it when people are told they're still Russians. I understand it is a fact in the case of people born in the Soviet Union. That country fell apart, they stayed here and can call themselves Russians because that is where they were born.
But I was born in the Republic of Estonia, have studied Estonian and Estonian culture. I have been to Russia a few times but don't live there.
How many Narva residents feel like you do?
I would say enough of us. I want to start by thanking everyone who has written to me. I have received a lot of encouraging words, a lot of support. There are really a lot of people in Narva who are against what is happening in Ukraine right now.
But people are also afraid. Afraid of what those who already support Putin might do if you made your point of view known, of being punched in the face by someone not exactly stable.
Many people do not support the war, they are just afraid to take to the street and declare it. Everyone is on Facebook, in their own comments sections and information bubbles. I believe this situation brought people together and at least gave them the chance to exchange opinions.
What happened [in Narva] on May 9? What did you see and what happened to you?
As I wrote on Instagram, it was quite scary to go out to the promenade once I had put on the shirt. I received a lot of angry looks. I saw people taking pictures and recording video. I think that the young man who posted it (a video of the teacher wearing the scandalous t-short was posted on TikTok – ed.) said that I should be burned.
But there was still more positive feedback right there on TikTok. The lion's share of the comments were positive.
Parents of the Narva Old Town School asked the principal to have a conversation with you. Did they also demand the school fire you?
I do not know for a fact. I believe there was considerable pressure on our principal. I have not talked to those parents myself. But when I landed in the principal's office, she read me some of those letters and talked about the situation. In them they asked whether such a foulmouthed teacher was a good fit for the school, what I was teaching the kids etc. I believe it was a way for them to hide how they felt behind those obscene words.
I have explained to the children that words should match people's actions more or less. If a person starts a war in the 21st century, I believe it is an appropriate word for them. (Vorontšihhina's t-shirt read, "Putin kh**lo" ("Putin is a d*ck") – ed.) Which is not to say one should always be cursing and badmouthing others.
What did the principal do?
She proposed I leave of my own volition as there was immense pressure from parents. I understand she just couldn't take the pressure, and I do not think she is a Putin supporter. But the situation highlighted another problem. We do not have a public debate culture. No meeting was held where people could have expressed different opinions, no discussion with colleagues or other parents who were on my side.
The whole thing ended up in the media not because I complained, but after the other parents got mad. Who could have thought it would ever get as big. I sincerely feel bad for our principal as she was behind language immersion efforts when no one wanted to or was afraid to learn Estonian.
But I hope we will learn from this that such situations must be discussed and decisions should not be made alone.
Did you agree to leave the school following your initiative?
I said I could work until the end of the academic year as I was planning to go back to school anyway. But I believe she saw the teacher leaving a little early as a solution to calming down the parents who had complained. I rather did not feel support in that situation.
But what got to the principal to finally make her say that you could stay on and the whole thing should be forgotten?
I believe the other parents complained in turn. There was another thing. Our students, when they learned that I was asked to resign over expressing my political position, they organized a protest meeting in front of the school. The information got out on Instagram, and I was invited back before they were scheduled to meet and asked to retract my letter of resignation.
Did you feel supported by your students throughout the process, or were there some students who did not react favorably?
Of course there were. The first day I didn't understand what was happening. Everyone was whispering and pointing fingers. Some students stopped greeting me in school. Some shouted out that I was a legend. There were a lot of emotions. By today, I have answered students' questions of why I did what I did, why I chose to express myself that way etc.
Do you think they understand?
I believe most of them understand. Not that they all agree, but at least we concluded that these things need to be discussed.
Do I have it right that support for Putin, looking at the war from Russia's perspective is the predominant mood in Narva?
I don't think it is predominant. Most people backed me, while I dare not look at what is happening on Facebook. It has gone beyond Putin, it's just abuse as they are going after the way I look and how I teach. People are mean.
But I don't think Narva residents support Putin. There are those who do among us, but their numbers are dwindling. The younger generation is pro-Estonia, while their parents are not.
Thinking back to May 9 this year, would you do it all again?
Yes, I absolutely would. We could speculate as to whether I could handle the pressure etc. But it does not matter in the end. We only live once, and my conscience told me I needed to go and protest. I do not believe that following your conscience can be wrong.
What is next for you? Will you work out the year and then close the door of that school behind you for good, come to Tallinn to study and find work here?
I don't know. Maybe I will come back to school. I like teaching, I like children and communicating with them. They are fun little people. I'm not ruling out returning to school. Everyone is a teacher in our family. We have a joke that no one really had a choice. My great grandfather and great grandmother, grandmother, mother and myself – teachers one and all.
Editor: Marcus Turovski