Ukrainian soldier stands in front of a trailer tank near Kytsivka, Kharkiv region, on September 21.
Photo: AFP – YASUYOSHI CHIBA
For Mandryka, it was an easy choice. “I refused,” he replied. “Teaching the Russian curriculum is a crime.” The school, with its classrooms adorned with colorful images of giraffes and bears, remained closed.
Iryna Overedna, a second grade teacher in the city of Izium, made a different decision. “The teacher in me thought, ‘Kids should be in school,’” Overedna said. Furthermore, she explained that she needed a salary to feed her family. She traveled to Kursk, in the southwest of Russiato find out about the new curriculum.
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When Ukrainian troops forced the Russian army into a chaotic retreat in northeast Ukraine this month, they recaptured towns and villages that had been under occupation for more than five months. In doing so, they inherited a legal and ethical dilemma involving some tricky issues: Who had collaborated with the Russians when they were in control of the towns?
In many places, the Russians abandoned tanks and their own war dead, but they also left behind evidence of possible war crimes with mass graves and torture rooms. For thousands of Ukrainians, the occupation became a shadowy episode of wartime collaboration, an action punishable under Ukrainian law.
But the status of many activities is not necessarily clear, because they are intertwined with everyday life. Ukrainian authorities, for example, do not view doctors, firefighters, and utility company employees as traitors, because their jobs are considered essential to the running of a city. But policemen, municipal and regional government employees, and some teachers who agreed to work under the Russian educational curriculum are classified as collaborators.
Teachers pose a special dilemma.
Ukrainian officials have been highly critical of teachers willing to follow Russian guidance. They say that in a war aimed at nullifying the Ukrainian identity and language, agreeing to educate children with a curriculum that denies the existence of Ukraine as a state is a serious crime.
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There is great anger within the Ukrainian government against the teachers who worked with the Russian authorities. Serhiy Horbachev, an education system official, said the teachers who collaborated should lose their credentials, at a minimum. “These people cannot be allowed to work with Ukrainian children,” he said in an interview. “It will be a very difficult and painful story.”
Some 1,200 schools remain in the occupied territories. In its counteroffensive, the Ukrainian army took control of an area that included some 65 campuses. About half opened on September 1 to teach the Russian curriculum, with about 200 teachers, Ukrainian prosecutors say, but closed the facilities within days when the army recaptured those areas.
Not all of them will be arrested, Volodymyr Lymar, deputy prosecutor for the Kharkov region, said in an interview. Teachers will be evaluated based on the active role they played in preparing or promoting Russian propaganda for children, he said, and punished accordingly. “For teachers it’s a difficult subject,” he said.
Izium, a town of elegant 19th-century brick buildings perched on cliffs overlooking the Siversky Donets River, is now almost in ruins. When Ukrainian soldiers retrieved it, residents greeted them with homemade dumplings and hugs. Even days later, many were so relieved at the end of the occupation that they cried describing the liberation of the city.
But they were angry at how they are now being judged for the concessions they made to survive the occupation, and even for small acts of cooperation with the Russian military. His plight is indicative of a broader problem for Ukrainians as they liberate territory: division and mistrust stemming from accusations of collaboration.
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Some civilians in northern Ukraine have already fled across the border to the Russian city of Belgorod, saying they fear reprisals from Ukrainian authorities for working in city administrations. Others say aggressive social media campaigns have made them targets of their fellow citizens.
According to residents of Izium, just weeks after the Russian invasion in February, their sleepy provincial town had been transformed into a world of horror: Bodies lay uncollected on sidewalks, buildings were in ruins, and Russian soldiers patrolled the streets. . People confined themselves to basements to protect themselves from the bombing.
Soon, the residents were forced to make uncomfortable decisions.
“Each person chose their destiny,” said Oksana Hrizodub, a Russian literature teacher who refused to teach for Russians but said she does not judge those who do. “For the people who were trapped here, it’s a personal matter,” she said.
Most of the teachers fled the territory before the occupation or refused to teach the Russian curriculum, staying home without a salary and surviving on canned vegetables from their gardens or with the help of neighbors.
“They were pressuring some but not all” to teach us, said Svitlana Sydorova, a biology, geography and chemistry teacher in the city of Balakliya who refused to accept the Russian program. “Some agreed to collaborate of their own free will. The police should solve it by investigating each case individually.”
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Others went into hiding to escape threats and pressure from the Russians. Iryna Shapovalova, an English teacher, said that during the occupation she mostly stayed at home and avoided attracting attention. “I was lucky,” she said. “I hid together with my children.”
Overedna, the second-grade teacher who agreed to return to work, described what she characterized as baby steps toward cooperation with the Russians. Moral compromises were minor at first, she said.
First, it participated in a Russian-backed project in June to clear rubble from a community center, called the House of Culture, so high school students could use it for a prom.
She and others received a “work ration,” a gift of food, in return, but said they didn’t do it so much for the ration as to give the teens a small sense of normalcy and celebration.
In the summer, the Russian occupation authority contacted the teachers who had cleaned the House of Culture to ask them to open schools in the fall. Before they would have to travel to Kursk to study the curriculum. He decided to go and resume teaching.
“What if the occupation lasts for years?” Overedna said of his justification. “Shouldn’t children go to school?”
She said she did not see the Russian curriculum for second grade as particularly politicized. Yes, she was in Russian instead of Ukrainian and she was instructed to teach two Russian poets, Kornei Chukovsky and Mikhail Prishvin. Otherwise, “it was just a teachers’ conference,” like many others she’s attended over the years.
“My goal was to survive,” he said. “To survive the winter I had to eat. In order to eat, he had to work. And, to work, I had to go to the conference.”
It was not only the teachers who committed themselves to the Russian army by carrying out actions large and small. Serhiy Saltivskyi received a “work ration” that included extra packets of pasta and cans of beef for transporting the bodies in his cargo van.
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At first, residents buried those killed by bombing or shooting by Russian soldiers in shallow graves in courtyards and parks. But when warm weather arrived, the Russians asked that the bodies be moved to a pine forest on the outskirts of the city, a site that now has more than 400 graves and is being investigated for war crimes.
Saltivskyi defended his role in those burials, saying he had done nothing wrong. “You can’t turn the town into a graveyard,” he said. “There were women and children, and it was difficult, but who else was going to do it?”
The “work ration” helped him survive, but it came at a cost after release. It is a sign of how the Russian pullout has divided communities seeking to determine who collaborated and who did not.
“Now, people see me on the street and point their fingers at me saying, ‘This is it!'” Saltivskyi said.
Yelena Yevmenova, superintendent of an apartment block in Izium, gave a list of all the residents of the building to the Russians in exchange for humanitarian aid. She said she has no regrets, people needed to survive, she said. “Let us now be accused of eating Russian canned meat,” she said.
Overedna said that he did not actually instruct Ukrainian children in the Russian curriculum; the Ukrainian offensive began before she opened her school.
And he doesn’t consider his willingness to teach to be a crime. “Teaching is my calling,” she said in an interview in her apartment, a dark, cluttered space littered with boxes of canned goods. There is no electricity and to prepare meals she cooks over a fire in the patio. Despite the difficulties, she says she looks forward to getting back to a normal school year. “I can’t imagine myself not being in a classroom.”
He also said that “people are talking about who was a collaborator, who worked for the enemy.” And he added: “Now everyone says: ‘You are an enemy of the people’”.
*Evelina Riabenko contributed to this report.
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