To many in the West, Vladimir Putin is a man determined to rule Russia with an iron fist, brooking little or no dissent. There are others, nonetheless, who view him as a subtler operator keen to consolidate and add to his already substantial support: an opportunist, you might say.
Two weeks before he was controversially elected as Russian president for a third term in early March, Putin wrote a lengthy article in the daily Komsomolskaya Pravda, entitled "Building Justice: a social policy for Russia", which included a good deal of reference to his plans for education. The proposals made for pleasant reading for teachers.
First, he said he wanted to double their salaries by 2018. One of the reasons for this, he said, was to erode the practice common among Russian teachers of moonlighting to top up their pay. Giving pupils private lessons to improve their exam performance can be very lucrative, particularly in Moscow, where up to 2,000 rubles (around #163;43) for a one-and-a-half-hour session is often charged. This leads to inequities in pupils' performances, as parents with the ability to fork out for extra tuition will see their children gain higher marks than those from poorer families. This was something Putin said he wanted all but eradicated in the next six years.
An abridged version of the Komsomolskaya Pravda piece was published in The Independent and was met with predictable cynicism by many commentators, who saw it as a way of pacifying the thousands who had taken to the streets in Russia in protest at the prospect of another Putin presidency.
However, in the original article Putin had touched upon a key problem in the education system: children gaining advantage over their peers by various inducements their parents make to their teachers.
"Some problems that have their roots in the Soviet era, such as bribery for good results, have by all accounts become far worse over the past 20 years," Elena Denezhkina, research fellow at the University of Birmingham's Centre for Russian and East European Studies, told TES. "This is partly explained by parents wanting their sons to qualify for higher education and thereby avoid the hazards of Russian military service."
Given Russia's recent engagement in conflicts in Georgia and Chechnya, the parents' concerns are understandable, but so is growing weariness that giving "gifts" to a teacher is regarded as standard behaviour. This can be seen as one cause among many of the ongoing demonstrations. Call Putin's proposals on education what you will, they will have struck a chord throughout his land.