Being a teacher under Russian occupation
„So that’s what you’re like,“ said a Russian officer as he began a conversation with my client, a Ukrainian language and literature teacher residing in an area temporarily occupied by Russia. „You appear normal, yet don’t you feel any shame in transforming children into Nazis?“ The officer and two others had barged into the apartment and aimed their guns at three women and a teenager.
Teaching children about Ukrainian culture, including its famous writers such as Lesya Ukrainka, Olha Kobylyanska, and Ivan Franko, reading the works of Mykola Khvylovy and Iryna Vilde, discussing the poems and the fate of Vasyl Stus, visiting the „Slovo“ building in Kharkiv, studying the works of Ulas Samchuk–all of this is deemed as „turning children into Nazis“ by the Russian occupiers.
I want French teachers in France and Belgium, English teachers in Great Britain, Polish teachers in Poland, German teachers in Germany, and Turkish teachers in Turkey to consider this situation. Just by instilling cultural knowledge in children, promoting history, enriching their lives, and simply educating them, someone can wrongly accuse you of turning children into Nazis. But no, why someone? Russians are doing this.
The teacher I work with faced a harrowing experience of search, interrogation, and an extended stay in the torture chamber. The occupiers tried to persuade her to cooperate, but after a temporary return home, she faced another search and was brought back to the torture chamber. She was accused of being a Nazi and faced threats to her relatives, rape, and destruction of her books. However, she eventually escaped to Ukrainian-controlled territory. After all that she endured, she learned to make even her breathing invisible to the enemy.
The following day, she reached out to me with the help of volunteers. She knew the name and military rank of the person who had subjected her to rape, mockery, threats, and intimidation. She lived in fear for her family, who still lived in the occupied territory, and was aware that they were being monitored and threatened. She knew that there were those who had betrayed her and others by providing the enemy with lists of teachers, soldiers, and socially vulnerable individuals. Although the lists were outdated, her name and address were still on them, as well as those of the school administration and language and history teachers, who were marked separately. Now she lives in another European country, starting and ending each day with an ear to the ground for news of the Ukrainian army’s progress, waiting for the liberation of her hometown. The mere sound of the Russian language still sends shivers down her spine, but she holds onto the hope that the day will come when she can return home and publicly name her rapist and would-be executioner without fear for herself or her loved ones.
The Russian occupiers view teachers and professors as individuals of crucial influence. They aim to win them over, break them, and force them to help break others, as well as „reprogram“ children. Whenever they invade, they come for the families of teachers. They are usually women, as most Ukrainian teachers are women who typically care for elderly and infirm relatives and are responsible for children. This isn’t based solely on my client’s story. Following the liberation of occupied territories in Kharkiv region, many similar accounts can be found in the media or online. This process typically involves a search, a preliminary conversation, and checking of phones, followed by detention, imprisonment, and torture. The threat of rape, transfer to the front lines, abuse of loved ones, and kidnapping of children and elderly relatives are used to coerce cooperation. Many ended up trapped in inhumane prison conditions.
The only things the Russians bring to the occupied territories are torture chambers and death camps where teachers are subjected to horrific treatment. How can we not look back at history for similarities, like the sad fate of Janusz Korchak, the Polish-Jewish educator and children’s book author who perished in the Treblinka death camp? It’s almost unimaginable that this kind of abuse could still occur in twenty-first century Europe, but the Russian occupiers brought the atrocities of the Second World War to an independent European nation.
Many Ukrainian teachers face difficulties in the occupied territories. Some are able to escape, while others remain in torture chambers and do not know if they will live to see the next day. There are also cases of teachers being killed or deported.
Meanwhile, Russian teachers are among the first to be brought into the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine. Their mission is to erase children’s national and cultural identity by telling them that they are actually Russians and that the criminal Ukrainian authorities are wrong and have made everything up about them being Ukrainians. According to the occupiers, Ukrainians do not exist, and the children are just misguided Russians who have been distorted and manipulated. The children will now be “freed” from their supposed “Nazism” and made “normal.”
The Russian propaganda machine is designed to destroy Ukrainian identity by denying the existence of the Ukrainian nation, language, and culture. In the 1940s, lawyer Rafal Lemkin demonstrated that the “triumph” of genocide lies in the devaluation and destruction of culture and education, which are integral to a person’s identity. This is exemplified by the official propaganda of journalists like Anton Krasovsky, who advocates for the drowning and burning of Ukrainian children, and by the intercepted phone conversation of an occupier’s wife (a doctor!), who is willing to turn Ukrainian children, taken illegally to Russia, into drug addicts if they refuse to paint Saint George ribbons and participate in the Russian-sanctioned celebration of Victory Day.
Education is crucial, as are teachers.Those who have survived, persevered, and not surrendered deserve our protection, support, and care. But we must also show understanding towards those who have been broken, because it is incredibly difficult to remain strong when they threaten to kill your husband, rape your daughter or son, beat your old mother or evict you from your house, facing threats of murder, rape, and violence against loved ones.
It is crucial to provide protection and hide teachers where the Russian enemy is present and in areas at risk of falling under temporary occupation. I never imagined that I would live to witness such times. However, I hope it will serve as a reminder, both during the ongoing war and in peaceful times after Victory, to treat education and culture with more reverence, understanding, and appreciation. This is what sustains us, strengthens us, and keeps us united on temporarily occupied territories, in places of refuge abroad, in captivity, in torture camps, and in the army, not allowing us to forget that we are Ukrainian men and women, the heart and backbone of our unconquered land.
Translated by Yulia Lyubka and Kate Tsurkan