By Zhanna Bezpiatchuk and Sofia Bettiza

October 1, 2022

BBC News

In the past two weeks, Ukrainian forces say they have taken back 6,000 sq km (2,317 sq miles) of territory, liberating communities that have been under Russian control for more than six months. School teachers in these areas have told the BBC there has been a systematic attempt to eliminate the Ukrainian curriculum and replace it with a Russian agenda. Travelling east of Kharkiv, to the recently liberated cities of Balakliya and Vovchansk, the BBC spoke to local teachers and staff who all described a similar pattern of forced assimilation. First the destruction of property: school textbooks, Ukrainian flags, children’s work – including wall displays on famous Ukrainian writers or cultural icons. But then, a siege upon the teachers themselves. Standing proudly amongst a sea of Ukrainian textbooks is head teacher Liliya Sirous. She says she was given a list of more than 2,200 books and told to destroy them all. But instead, she hid them. Replaced with a new curriculum of Russian history, literature, and language, for six months Liliya’s secret library remained untouched.

But now, gazing back upon her treasure trove of thousands of books, neatly stacked and tied up with ribbons, she starts to cry. “My neighbour said: ‘Why are you going to all this trouble? Russia has seized this land forever.'” But Liliya says she never lost hope. “At the beginning of the school term, we were told we would have to teach our students that Ukraine was a territory of Russia, namely Malorussia [‘Little Russia’],” says Inna Mandryka, deputy director at Balakliya Five school. Inna was one of the teachers who refused to cooperate. After being removed from her post, she carried on working every night from her basement by candlelight. As the shelling continued overhead, she created a syllabus of online lessons. When she had access to the Internet, she would distribute her work to teachers scattered all over Ukraine and Europe. Together, Inna’s network of allies has managed to support close to 100 students in the past six months from all over occupied Ukraine.

In another school, just over 100km (62 miles) north of Balakliya, in the village of Ivanivka, head teacher Lidiya Tina – a professional educator with more than 40 years’ experience – says she was detained for 19 days after refusing to set up a Russian school.  “As I was trying to flee Kharkiv, I was detained. A car pulled up and three masked men with assault rifles got out. They put a gun to my throat and ripped up my teaching diploma in front of my face,” says Lidiya, 60. She says a bag was put over her head and then she was placed in solitary confinement for five days. “My soul ached,” says Lidiya. “I thought: ‘No-one knows where I am.'” She says she was beaten and forced to kneel, and made to believe she would be executed. “They tried to force me to learn the lyrics of the Russian anthem, but I refused.”  The Russian authorities did not respond to the BBC’s request to comment on Lidiya’s claims.

There was pressure not just on teachers, but parents too. “Parents were threatened that if they didn’t send their children back to school, their kids would be taken to an orphanage,” says Svitlana Shvid, head of education in the Balakliya region, with oversight of its 19 schools.

In the Vovchansk region, teachers told the BBC how Russian guards were stationed in classrooms while students tried to study. The BBC asked the Russian authorities to comment on alleged threats to parents, but they did not respond. Students in Balakliya city are keen to return to school soon. It has been two weeks since the liberation of their city, and young people are finally able to go outside again and hang out with friends.

On the basketball court, 14-year-old Daria is playing with her friends. She asked her mother not to send her to the Russia-run school during the occupation. Now, since its liberation, she is looking forward to going back. “I’ve spent months in our basement after Russian soldiers shelled our house and threw a grenade in our backyard.” Enjoying their rekindled freedom, 13-year-old Milena agrees. “Right now, our aim is just to survive,” she says. “I’m not dreaming about anything else.”