Soviet-themed tribute brings unexpected heartbreak to teacher, then students, at Senior Prank

MEMORIES: Above, students explore Soviet-themed decor in Ms. Malikov’s math classroom April 1. Guard towers and the Soviet flag were supposed to be a tribute, but brought back terrible memories for the teacher

By Zev Kent, Staff Writer

An otherwise harmless senior prank took a hurtful turn when 12th-graders paying tribute to Math teacher Mrs. Katia Malikov decorated her classroom with unexpectedly painful images of the Soviet Union where she grew up.

The rest of Senior Prank, which greeted students arriving on Wednesday morning, April 1, was deemed a successful April Fool’s joke. Most teachers and students laughed at the decorations, which the seniors had worked for hours during the night to put up in all the classrooms at the JCC. 

However, the fun was ruined for the seniors when Mrs. Malikov, whom they had particularly wanted to honor, walked into her room and saw what was inside.  Mrs. Malikov declined to be interviewed for this article.

“Mrs. Malikov was very excited when she saw the doorway,” said senior Josh Goldner. “But when she walked into the room she was offended, and rightfully so, by the labor camp and the parts that made fun of Russia’s darker history.”

The Soviet national anthem had been written out on the whiteboard in Russian and was being played in a loop over speakers. On one wall were pictures of famous Russian rulers and dictators, and intermixed with them were pictures of Mrs. Malikov. Additionally, there were posters preaching math. 

To top it off, there was a giant cutout of a fake gulag labor camp, highlighting the brutality of the Soviet Union and its leaders. In the room, seniors spoke in Russian accents about reason, logic, intellect and math while also threatening people with forced labor if they didn’t do their homework. 

While many people thought this was a genius idea and the best part of Senior Prank, Mrs. Malikov didn’t think so and told the seniors why.

“She compared it to making fun of Hitler and the Holocaust,” said senior Sigal Spitzer. “She was very offended by it. Obviously we never meant to hurt Mrs. Malikov and it was very upsetting to see her reaction to what was intended as a funny prank.”

Josh Goldner said the seniors didn’t know enough about Russian history to realize what they were doing.

“I think it comes down to ignorance on all of our parts,” said Josh. The fake labor camp, he said, “was not one of our original ideas. We didn’t have that much information about the Gulag and we just went along with it without really understanding what it was.”

Senior Rina Katzovitz, who was in charge of Prank, said five students had spent the whole night on just that room and were very excited by the results. She said they kept adding to it as the night went on, getting more and more excited.

 “The kids who were doing that room were so excited, because they honestly love and respect Ms. Malikov so much, and they were actually trying do create like a shrine to her, and I know that all of them were really crushed,” Rina said. 

The Soviet “gulag” was an array of forced labor camps and prisons that the government created and where it held everyone from political prisoners and petty criminals to those accused of telling, or even just hearing, anti-government statements. Prisoners were sentenced to long terms after meaningless trials.

The conditions in these camps were horrible. In the worst camps in Siberia, prisoners were forced to mine gold until the temperature reached minus 50 degrees Celsius.  

Soviet archives show that over a million people died in these camps between 1934 and 1953, but most estimates put the number at between 1.6 and 10 million people.

Even in later years, when Mrs. Malikov was growing up, all citizens lived with the knowledge that they could be sent there at any time, for no reason. A neighbor who didn’t like you could make an allegation against you to the authorities, and you would be sent away for decades. 

Despite this, some seniors say that Mrs. Malikov wasn’t really mad at them.

“She explicitly told us that she was not angry with us,” said senior Adina Weinreb. “She was sad about our ignorance of other cultures, and about the millions of people who died in the camps. She started crying as she apologized for spoiling our senior prank, but she felt she couldn’t ignore such a sensitive subject.”  

While every aspect of senior prank had to be approved by the administration and both Security Chief Manny Fernandez and Executive Director Robyn Lewis, the guard tower and fake labor camp were last-minute additions and probably not what the administration was expecting. 

Rina said administration had been told only that the room would be a tribute to Ms. Malikov and Russia.

“They approved a room of Russia centering on Ms. Malikov ruling Russia, with pictures of Soviet dictators,” Rina said. “The fake labor camp and the towers were only thought of in the last half-hour of prank.

“While we sort of understood the severity of the gulag, it hadn’t totally hit us until Malikov walked in and we saw her reaction,” she added. “She just got really upset.”

The rest of prank was pretty typical, except for time limitations set by the JCC. Some of the highlights were a TV playing “Kosher Korner” on a backwards loop with food therefore coming out of Rabbi Segal’s mouth, and a room filled with balloons. 

Seniors stayed late preparing the rooms for the following day, when all of the students and faculty would get to see how the seniors made fun of Shalhevet and it’s teachers and filled the JCC with their inside jokes. 

This year, instead of preparing all through the night, they had to leave at midnight and put the finishing touches on in the morning.

The first sign of prank in the morning was in the stairwell. On the walls were warning signs, with decorations and posters welcoming people to the new and improved Shalhevet building. At the top, however, there was a sign that read: “Psych! You’re still in the JCC!”

The office of school counselor Rachel Hecht was littered with condoms (unopened) and pregnancy tests. Room 310 was plastered with pictures of Dr. Yoss and Dr. Noel. 

Across the hall, Room 301 was set up like the senior citizens’ aerobics class held in the auditorium, with an exercise video playing on the TV. Another room featured an Israeli cafe and another hosted a dance party. 

Room 303 was dedicated to faculty that have left Shalhevet over the years. Most had their pictures up on the wall, but at the center of the room was a “coffin” for Mr. Chris Buckley, who resigned in October, and a shrine to him with a Hawaiian shirt on the floor beside it.

“I think they did very well for having to balance the prank while respecting the JCC facility,” said General Studies Principal Mr. Roy Danovitch, who was depicted as running an illegal drug dispensary.

Other highlights included a “kill list” belonging to Principal Noam Weissman, featuring students and teachers he supposedly dislikes, and a room that featured Yik Yak posts, making fun of the scandal from earlier this year. One room’s whiteboard had inside jokes with Mrs. Kong written all over it. Desks and chairs that had been taken out of the rooms were piled into the student support room. 

None of the other faculty members were upset about their rooms the way Mrs. Malikov was. The rest of the prank seemed to be enjoyed by the faculty and students.

“I didn’t think they would be able to do this much due to the JCC,” said sophomore Adam Taryle. “It was a very fun prank.”

This story won a 2015 National Award in News Writing from the Quill and Scroll International Honorary Journalism Society.