Although Russia repeatedly claims that Russian speakers were under threat in Crimea and Donbas, it is the Ukrainian language that has come under attack as soon as Russia took actual or effective control. That is the case also with Ukrainian history and culture. In the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” (DPR and LPR), there are no Ukrainian classes anymore, with the Ukrainian language taught as a subject for one hour a week. This is very clearly a Russification program, with the textbooks for schools being brought into occupied Donbas by the so-called “humanitarian” convoys from Russia.
The official line taken in both occupied Crimea and the Donbas is identical: supply has not been terminated, it’s just that the number of those demanding Ukrainian has radically decreased. During the preliminary hearings into Ukraine’s case against Russia at the U.N.’s International Court of Justice in March 2017, Russia tried to counter Ukraine’s accusation of discrimination against ethnic Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars by, among other things, citing the fact that Russian, Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar are all officially state languages. The court was unconvinced, and ordered Russia to ensure availability of education in the Ukrainian language. This is just one of the orders Russia has flouted to the present day.
In an important study published on September 2, Dmitry Durnev explains that the self-proclaimed Donbas “republics” have also stated in their so-called constitutions that Ukrainian is the second “state language” after Russian. In fact, however, no official proceedings are carried out in Ukrainian, and all Ukrainian schools and classes are now in the Russian language, after a transitional phase from 2014 to 2016.
Mr. Durnev spoke with several teachers, including some who are currently teaching in Donbas schools. All agreed to speak with him only on strict condition that their names were concealed, and voices on recordings distorted. Judging by cases of persecution that human rights groups are aware of, it seems quite likely that objecting to the lack of Ukrainian in schools could easily result in a person being arrested and incarcerated on charges of “collaborating with the Ukrainian SBU” or some similar trumped-up charge. There are very likely many people who are unhappy about the situation, but worried about being denounced to the militants’ so-called “ministry of state security” if they speak out.
Tatyana is now a former teacher of junior classes who has left Donetsk, but she still insisted on total anonymity and voice distortion, as she does visit the occupied territory. She says that pupils were able to finish the fourth grade still in Ukrainian, however after that, there was no choice, they simply had to go over to Russian. Older teachers of Ukrainian language and literature in senior classes simply lost their jobs. Other teachers of all subjects were given the option of retraining to teach in Russian. In 2015, they received textbooks with the syllabus now according to the School of Russia. The only exception is nature studies, where instead of learning about nature in Russia, they study the nature of the Donbas. The one hour a week the children have of Ukrainian is divided in half between language and reading literature.
Tatyana notes that there are five hours of Russian language, but this, of course, is in addition to all the classes taking place in Russian. An additional compulsory subject, titled “civic awareness and spirituality of the Donbas” has been introduced. She adds that “patriotism” is also given a huge amount of attention, with the first lesson of the school year titled “Five years of DPR – we grow together with the republic.”
“We were told that if it’s impossible to replace some topic about Ukraine by Donetsk or the Donbas, then we should change it to any other about our own area,” she explains.
Mr. Durnev says that in both unrecognized “republics,” a system of education has been created since 2014 that is based on the Russian grading system and on the Russian textbooks that Russia transported to the occupied Donbas in its “humanitarian convoys.” These convoys are illegal, and there are grounds, including boasts from the militants themselves, for believing that they have often carried weapons. Given the acute need for all kinds of basic items, it is also noteworthy that they should have instead brought books aimed at strengthening Russia’s grasp and influence over the Donbas.
Students can later travel to Rostov-on-Don (across the uncontrolled border into Russia) and take Russian matriculation exams. There are special quotas for students from the Donbas to enter Russian universities. What is significantly harder is for these young Ukrainians to pass the Ukrainian school exit exams and compete for a place in Ukrainian universities. There are concessions for young students from the Donbas, but they will need to have separately studied Ukrainian to an adequate level, getting additional instruction in both the Ukrainian language and Ukrainian history.
Another teacher, one still working in Donetsk, told Mr. Durnev that the situation now reminds her of 1984, when she first began teaching. In the Russian-controlled “republic,” there is the same amount of Russian in secondary schools as during Soviet times (six to seven hours a week of Russian language and literature).
Mr. Durnev says that, while there is very little commercial advertising in Donetsk, you can find political agitation about the “republic” everywhere. A recent study also found much disinformation about Ukraine in the “republics,” with most of the favorites for fake news the same as in the Russian state-controlled media. If in 2017, 11 percent of content constituted disinformation, while in April of this year 21 percent of news about Ukraine was of dubious accuracy or outright fakes or disinformation.
Such a high level of disinformation is of major concern, given that the vast majority of people in these areas have no access to Ukrainian media. One of the first things that happened as soon as the Russian and pro-Russian militants seized control of an area in 2014 was that Ukrainian television channels were taken off the air, with Russian or militant channels using their frequencies. A large number of Ukrainian Internet sites, especially ones like News of the Donbas that report honestly on events in the “republics” are blocked. This means that the population in the occupied Donbas is receiving information from channels that are overtly propagandist and anti-Ukrainian, while children are growing up using the aggressor state’s textbooks and learning dangerous fiction about essentially fake republics.