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'Miserly' pay strike breaks records

One-third of the country's 1.5 million teachers took part in a one-day strike last week in protest over miserly and irregularly-paid wages.

According to the the Union of Science and Education Workers - teachers from 11,000 schools across 74 regions joined in the biggest teachers' strike in Russia so far. They have threatened further disruption if their demands are not met.

Support for the strike was strongest in the far eastern regions but its effects were felt across the country, including St Petersburg, with only Moscow schools working normally.

"The situation has never been worse - not just for the teachers but for the education system as a whole," said union spokeswoman Nina Mirkulova.

The average salary of 250,000 roubles a month (about Pounds 55) puts teachers' wages well below the 321,000-rouble poverty level, forcing most to moonlight to make ends meet.

"I spend four days a week teaching and three queuing up in state shops and then reselling basic foodstuffs in the market," says one typical teacher. "I used to be embarrassed when I saw my students or their parents, but now I don't care. I just tell them to step right up and I'll give them a good price. "

Moscow teachers are marginally better off than their country colleagues with a take-home pay of 350,000 roubles a month. More importantly, they can supplement their official wages by acting as translators and offering private lessons to foreigners and Russia's new rich.

Although the prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, granted teachers a 50 per cent increase in August, in many cash-strapped regions this remains nothing more than a paper decree. "The problem is that schools are now funded through regional governments, and if the region has no money the increase will remain on paper only," says Nina Mirkulova.

Although there has been considerable isolated action over the past few years, the last widespread teachers' strike was in 1992. "After that there were immediate results, but then things went from bad to worse," Nina Mirkulova said.

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