This week 140 schoolchildren in St. Petersburg, Russia, became the latest victims of the chill in U.S.-Russian relations, when they were forced out of their school in a matter of days.
On Thursday the Anglo-American School in St. Petersburg, founded during the Cold War, posted a statement on its website, saying, “It is with great disappointment that we have to say good-bye.” Just a week earlier, city authorities had informed the school that their building was to be vacated by midnight Wednesday.
One parent described the school as “an entire universe” and “the heart of the expat community,” but parents would not speak on the record, saying that it could scuttle their negotiation efforts to reopen the school.
The U.S. and British consulates in St. Petersburg were closed earlier this year in a diplomatic spat that escalated following the poisoning of an ex-Russian spy in England, which Western countries blamed on Russia. Canada closed its consulate in the city in 2007.
With those consulates gone, the Anglo-American School began to look for a new sponsoring organization to take over its lease and other legal obligations. Teachers and parents believed the school had until June 2019.
But on Sept. 20, the city of St. Petersburg’s diplomatic properties agency informed the school it had to close within less than a week. The next day, a Friday, administrators emailed parents that their children would have to collect their belongings the following Monday — and that school was out for good.
The St. Petersburg school was an offshoot of the Anglo-American School of Moscow and founded by the U.S., Britain and Canada in 1975, when Russia’s old imperial capital was called Leningrad.
The school originally catered largely to the children of diplomats from those three English-speaking countries. But the school later attracted a diverse student body from two dozen countries, whose parents worked for other diplomatic missions and foreign companies. The largest contingent of pupils came from South Korea, followed by Russia. It taught pre-K to 12th grade.
“It is a regrettable decision by the Russian authorities which will damage the education of the children at the school and make St. Petersburg less attractive as a place to do business,” Britain’s Foreign Office said in an email to NPR.
The Russian authorities insist they had no alternative but to close the school, which, because it was located in a building outside the premises of the U.S. Consulate, required special permission from the Russian Foreign Ministry.
“Over the course of many years, we suggested that the American side resolve the status of the school in accordance with Russian legislation,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement to NPR. That demand was clearly stated in a diplomatic note sent on Sept. 8, 2017, the ministry said.
A week earlier, on Aug. 31, 2017, the U.S. had ordered the Russian Consulate in San Francisco closed amid a diplomatic tit-for-tat between the two countries. When the Trump administration then also shut down the Russian Consulate in Seattle in March, the Kremlin responded by ending the U.S. diplomatic presence in St. Petersburg.
The school can have no claim to “some kind of special, quasi-diplomatic status” now that the U.S. Consulate is gone, said the Foreign Ministry, blaming its “American partners” for not settling the school’s status before its lease expired.
The State Department did not respond to a request for comment.
Over the summer, the Russian Foreign Ministry required about half of the Anglo-American School’s 30 teachers to leave the city, as they held U.S. diplomatic passports. The school scrambled to stay open, partially by promoting local teaching assistants. Brookes Education Group, which runs a network of international schools, was identified as a possible new parent organization.
While local authorities in St. Petersburg gave school administrators the impression they could remain in the leased building until a deal with Brookes was finalized, the Foreign Ministry continued to insist on its closure, especially after the State Department announced new economic sanctions against Russia in August.
For now, although classes are no longer in session, furniture and equipment remain in the building as parents seek to reopen it.
The American Chamber of Commerce in Russia, a U.S. business lobbying group, has criticized the Foreign Ministry’s decision to close the school.
The business group says it’s working with authorities in St. Petersburg to allow students to resume their studies.