Moscow has told Ukrainian teachers in occupied territories to sign a document within weeks certifying their willingness to switch to teaching the Russian school curriculum.
The move puts many of them in a difficult position. If they do not sign, they will lose their jobs and be at risk of retaliation from Russian forces. If they sign, there is the risk of charges from Ukrainian authorities, which view teaching the Russian curriculum as a form of collaboration with the enemy.
The Guardian spoke with teachers in Russian-occupied parts of south-east Ukraine whose identities, for safety reasons, cannot be revealed. They said that around mid-June newly appointed local authorities told them they had until 21 July either to sign a document certifying their readiness to follow the Russian school curriculum or resign, with many of them being threatened with eviction from their homes.
The Russian education minister, Sergey Kravtsov, announced in June that when the new school year began in September all schools in Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine were to work according to Russian standards.
“We will do our best to open schools on 1 September so that they are as ready as possible to function according to Russian standards,” Kravtsov said. “Integration will take place. We are already taking some steps in this direction: teacher training and the supply of textbooks.”
One teacher living in a village in the occupied area of Kharkiv said: “At the moment, only history, geography, language and primary school teachers were asked to sign the document.”
“Math, physics, biology and chemistry curriculum in Russia don’t carry propaganda, so they are left alone, at least for now,” he added.
In the teaching of literature, works by most of the Ukrainian writers are likely to disappear while the Russian history curriculum has become more politicised in recent years, especially on the Russian narrative of the Soviet victory in the second world war, and without much space for critical thinking about repression during the Soviet period or Russia’s imperial past.
The teachers who do sign risk prosecution for abetting the enemy if the occupied territories come back under Ukrainian control.
The Ukrainian ministry of education and science (MES) views teaching according to Russian standards as a type of collaboration and the Ukraine criminal codewas recently amended with a paragraph establishing a punishment of up to three years in in jail for “propaganda in education institutions with the goal of assisting the Russian army”.
But many feel prosecutors should be lenient in some cases.
“We must make a very clear distinction whether the person was forced to work under pressure or even life threat, or did they voluntarily collaborate, or was it even their initiative to collaborate,” Sergii Gorbachov, the education ombudsman of Ukraine, told the Guardian. “Because when a person’s life is under threat and they must keep working, we have to remember the priority and value of human’s life. For instance if a person quits their job because their unwillingness to collaborate there shouldn’t be a record in their labour book.”
Teachers who refuse to sign may also become targets for Russian retaliation in addition to losing their jobs.
“We have a large amount of appeals from teachers in the occupied territories,” said Gorbachov. “They are threatened to be evicted from their homes, they are threatened with arrest and persecution. For instance, today I learned the Russians are collecting data on people whether they do or do not collaborate with the occupiers, if not they could loose their accommodation, and could be forced to leave.”
Cedos – an independent Ukrainian thinktank that has been monitoring education in the occupied territories based on personal contacts, official sources and social media – has said that “educators in the occupied territories are under significant pressure and threat due to their professional activities”. It cited the case of a school in the Zaporizhzhia region where the head of the education department agreed to collaborate with the occupiers and forced teachers to resume teaching according to the Russian curriculum.
“Some of the educators resigned to avoid working with the occupiers,” said the Cedos report. “But the head of the education department blackmails and threatens them, saying that if they do not agree on their own, they will be taken to the commandant’s office which may threaten their lives.”