This is what the “Russification” of the Ukrainian education system looks like in the occupied areas
Troops held her husband and daughter at gunpoint, but the 48-year-old told CNN she knew it was for her they had come. As a school principal, she believes they saw her as the enemy.
“They were searching everywhere, even the drains and outhouses,” she said. “They found textbooks and tutorials for the Ukrainian language.”
Nina is not alone. Ukrainian officials said educators in areas of the country newly occupied by Russia have reported increased cases of intimidation, threats and pressure to adapt school curricula to align with pro-Russian rhetoric.
As war tears Ukraine apart, education has become a casualty of the conflict and a potential battleground in the struggle for control of the country.
After searching her house, Nina said the soldiers – who forced her to speak Russian – “gave me a minute to get dressed and took me to school”.
Once they arrived, she was ordered to hand over the history textbooks and be questioned about the school’s curriculum. “They came with requests but spoke very politely,” recalls the educator. “They took a laptop from the safe – it wasn’t even mine; it was an elementary school teacher’s laptop – and two history books for eighth grade.”
She said her captors put a black hood over her head before putting her in a vehicle and taking her to another location where her interrogation continued.
“They asked about my attitude towards the ‘military operation’, they accused me of being too patriotic, too nationalistic,” she said. “They asked why I use the Ukrainian language…why I go to the Ukrainian church.”
Nina said they wanted her to reopen the school and make sure the children came back, but she argued it was not safe for students or teachers.
“I don’t know how long they detained me, I didn’t feel the time, I was sitting in this black hood, they only took it off during the interrogation,” continued Nina, whose name family member CNN withheld for security reasons.
She was eventually released, but not before her captors “emphasized that they knew about my son and reminded me that I had a daughter,” she said, adding, “I considered that as a threat”.
A few days later, fearing that Russian troops would return, Nina and her family fled.
Nina’s experience is not an isolated incident. Reports of threats against educators in newly occupied areas grew steadily as the conflict escalated.
A teacher told CNN that Russian troops approached the principal of her school and “ordered him to hand over all Ukrainian language and history textbooks, but the principal refused. His stance was so strict that they did not exert any further pressure. … They left empty-handed.”
Some teachers have been able to resume lessons for students online, using virtual classrooms similar to those put in place during the coronavirus pandemic. But for others, classes have come to a halt as internet services are disrupted and schools close to the fighting have been forced to close.
At least 1,570 educational institutions have been destroyed or damaged by shelling since the start of the Russian invasion, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his May 2 evening address. The president’s claims have not been independently verified by CNN.
The country’s education ombudsman, Serhii Horbachov, told CNN the government has received more than 100 reports and pleas for help from teachers, parents and students in occupied areas since February.
“Employees of educational institutions who remained in the occupation risk their own lives and health, [and] are subject to coercion, violence and pressure,” Horbachev said.
“There are known cases of kidnapping of school principals and headmasters,” he added. “Teachers are forced to cooperate and work in schools under machine gun fire.”
“Russification” in the occupied areas
Other examples of Russian forces trying to eradicate Ukrainian identity in the newly occupied areas have been seen in the southern region of Kherson, according to Serhii Khlan, a representative of the regional council, who has repeatedly accused the troops of occupation to threaten educators in recent weeks.
Khlan said Thursday that Russian forces were attacking villages and launching intensive searches, as well as carrying out a census of those who remained in certain areas. He also claimed that the Russians have indicated “that they will import teachers from Crimea because our teachers do not agree to work on Russian programs. Those few teachers who agree to work, we know them personally, and they will be held criminally responsible.”
Khlan previously warned that Kakhovka city managers were under threat in late April.
His latest remarks came as a report emerged that a new principal had been installed by “occupiers” at a school in Kakhovka after the former principal was allegedly kidnapped on May 11, according to a local journalist.
Efforts to force Ukraine’s education system into line with Russian school curricula mirror similar Russification efforts in areas overrun by Russian forces and Russian-backed separatists in previous years. Russian President Vladimir Putin – whose baseless claims of widespread oppression of Russian-speaking Ukrainians provided a pretext for the February 24 Russian invasion – has made it clear in his own public statements that he does not view Ukraine as a legitimate nation.
Oleh Okhredko is a seasoned educator with over two decades of teaching experience and an analyst at the Almenda Center for Civic Education, an organization originally based in Crimea that monitors education in the occupied territories. He told CNN it was a strategy he witnessed after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.
“Crimea has become such an experimental field for Russia. Here they started the militarization of education in general,” he explained.
He said Russian propaganda reframing historical events had been inserted into Crimea’s school curriculum – which he said had a hugely detrimental effect on children there.
“Ukraine has been completely removed from school textbooks and everything becomes ‘Russian history’,” Okhredko explained. “Busy children are really very influenced by their upbringing in [a] system that constantly needs to have an enemy. Now the enemies are the United States and Ukraine. And that hostility begins to manifest itself in children in the form of aggression.”
He added: “Those children who studied in school six to eight years ago – when they were between 11 and 13 years old – are now fighting against Ukraine. Ukrainian citizens are unfortunately fighting against their country.”
For now, many educators in occupied areas of Ukraine are trying to resist Russian attempts to adjust their school curriculum, fearing the impact any changes could have on their students in the long run.
In the Luhansk region, Maria, a math teacher and member of the region’s school administration, told CNN her members were given an ultimatum to teach using a Russian curriculum. Maria was given a pseudonym to protect her identity.
“Of course we told them we wouldn’t. And they said, ‘We’ll see. We have a file for each of you.’ It’s scary,” said Maria, adding that they were then emailed Russian textbooks with the request that they “at least read and then decide, because the curriculum is really nice.”
“They tried to persuade us. But we told them, we don’t have internet here and we haven’t received anything,” she explained.
“They even asked ‘What’s the difference – Why is it important to study in Ukrainian or Russian? You teach math – it’s the same in all languages.’ I wanted some… and I told them, your education, your papers are not recognized anywhere, the children will not be able to go to university. And they answered: “Which universities? To do what ? We need workers and soldiers.”
As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues, Maria remains scared but hopeful.
“We are afraid that they will remove the material from the schools, we have a lot of new good things in our school,” she said. “We are desperately awaiting the arrival of our military, we believe it will happen soon.”
CNN’s Ivana Kottasova, Tim Lister and Julia Presniakova contributed to this report from Lviv, Ukraine. Journalists Olga Voitovych and Julia Kesa contributed from Kyiv, Ukraine.