She fled to Britain but is still teaching children history in Russia-occupied regions via Zoom


Constance Kampfner

April 22, 2024

The Times


For more than 25 years, Anna had worked as a history teacher in the Ukrainian village where her parents grew up and where she had hoped to grow old. But when the Russians invaded in February 2022 she was forced to flee, leaving behind the classrooms in which she had spent her working life.

Teachers from Russia were brought in to replace Anna and her colleagues. They burnt the well-thumbed textbooks she had used to educate generations of students about their heritage and told them instead about how the Kremlin had heroically stepped in to save Ukraine from fascism. “The children now have very different books from Russia,” said Anna, speaking to The Times in the UK, where she currently lives. “Recent events are portrayed as the liberation of Ukraine and Russia getting its territories back.”

There are two wars being waged over Ukraine: a military war and a cultural war aimed at eradicating the country’s identity — its traditions, language, and history. When Anna, 60, first saw tanks rolling into her village in eastern Ukraine and heard missiles whistling overhead during those early sleepless nights, she knew there was little she could do to halt the former.

Yet even from her place of safety in Britain, she is still trying to fight the latter, making sure that her students in the occupied village don’t lose their sense of what it means to be Ukrainian. After they finish their lessons at the new Russian government schools, they log on to their second, alternative place of learning — a Zoom call where Anna and her colleagues try to provide an antidote. “Children don’t have stable opinions on things, it’s very easy to push propaganda on them,” she said, explaining that her aim was to provide a more “objective” view of past events.

In September Moscow released new textbooks defending Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, described repeatedly as a “Nazi state”, as part of its programme to tighten control over the historical narrative being taught in schools. “Our students are currently studying in a very stressful environment. But they feel even more Ukrainian,” Anna said. Although many of the children she used to teach have either moved abroad or evacuated to government-controlled areas of Ukraine, a significant number remain living under Russian occupation. Those children who participate in the classes have to do so surreptitiously. “Russian authorities follow all Ukrainians and they check everything,” Anna said. “It’s very dangerous to even mention Ukrainian schools. They do it very discreetly — they can’t communicate with other people in the village about it.”

Anna does not ask the students much about their lives under occupation or what the consequences might be for them if they are caught, for fear of placing them in any more danger — though she knows the repercussions could be serious.

Her lessons, often blighted by poor internet, focus especially on the “outstanding political figures who fought for the rights and freedoms of Ukrainians” during the 20th century, with a common theme of the circularity of history and how events from the past resonate with what is happening in the country today.

Anna said: “Everything that the Russian government is doing in Ukraine now is the same as the Soviet government led by Lenin almost a hundred years ago. Students study historical events even more carefully. They learn about the struggle of Ukrainians, when the authorities hushed up facts and did not allow historians to investigate.”

One day Anna hopes to return to her village but in the meantime she has started to learn English through the UK government-funded Step Ukraine programme organised by the charity World Jewish Relief. During the daytime she works as a cleaner while she tries to get herself a teaching assistant job.

Whatever happens she is determined to continue trying to equip her former pupils with the tools they need to fight Russian propaganda. “As one of my students once put it, learning history is learning about life,” Anna said.  “It teaches us how to behave in different situations.”

Changing curriculum

After the start of the full-scale invasion, both Russia and Ukraine urgently changed their curriculums, though to remarkably different effects.


Mentions of Ukraine as “an artificial state” were nearly all removed, with even “Kyivan Rus” — the name of a medieval Eastern European state with its capital in Kyiv — replaced with “Rus” or “Old Rus.” References to Putin and his achievements increased.

Russian soldiers are described as “saving peace” during the annexing of Crimea in 2014 after “radical nationalists” came to power in Kyiv “with the support of the West”.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is called a “special military operation” and is presented to children as part of Moscow’s historical mission. If Ukraine had joined Nato, it could have led to “possibily the end of civilisation” which Russia had no choice but to prevent.


Kyiv established a working group to combat Russian propaganda and began including terms such as “Putinism” and “collaboration” in its textbooks.

The “Soviet Union” became the “Soviet Empire”.

Ukrainian schoolbooks now describe the war with Russia as having begun in 2014, having previously used more enigmatic language to describe its counteroffensive in the east.

Children learn that Moscow launched a “full-scale invasion” in 2022, and the term “genocide” is employed to describe the crimes being committed by Russian soldiers in Ukraine.