Behind the Battle for Students of Occupied Donbas
28 September, 2019
Banners read "5 years of 'DPR'," "I was born in the 'DPR'," and "Happy Victory Day!" Illustration by Ilya Kutoboy / Russian Language News Exchange

Editor's Note: This a Spektr project, with the support of the Russian Language News Exchange. This project has been adapted by Hromadske International. 

Around 200,000 children started the school year in the occupied parts of the Donbas in September. Their first lesson was on patriotism. In occupied Donetsk, that lesson was "Five years of the Donetsk People’s Republic - growing together with the republic." In occupied Luhansk, all schools held the lesson "The people’s feat to live for centuries".

A friend from Donetsk, whose daughter was three years old in 2014, recently told me a story about the effectiveness of local patriotic education in schools.

“I remember she finished the first grade and sometime in May came up to me and asked: Dad, was there really a time when Donetsk was not the capital?” he recalled. 

Over the years, the two unrecognized republics have developed their own education systems, built on Russian practices. They use Russian textbooks and a different grading system from Ukraine. There are no Ukrainian classes. Instead, there are lessons on Donbas citizenship and “History of the motherland” as well as preparation for military training. 

Banner reads "5 years of 'DPR.' We're growing up together with the 'republic'." Textbooks read 'Russian language.' Illustration by Ilya Kutoboy / Russian Language News Exchange

The best graduates from local schools have the opportunity to travel to the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don to pass the Unified State Exam together with Russian applicants and apply to Russian universities as part of a special quota for the Donbas.

In order to enter Ukrainian universities, local children have to make special efforts. They need to take courses from Ukrainian schools remotely, learn the Ukrainian language and study Ukrainian history with tutors. When they reach high school, they have to go through checkpoints to the government-controlled territory to pass entrance exams and enter Ukrainian universities. 

How It Started 

The Ukrainian language is regarded as a second state language in occupied Donbas but it’s not used in schools, offices or on official documents. All Ukrainian schools and classes have switched to Russian over the years. 

Former Donetsk elementary school teacher Tetiana Pavlivna, who taught in Ukrainian, said the school program largely continued in 2014 and 2015.  

“The only subjects that were removed were 'Environmental Studies' and 'Ukraine and I', they said to replace Ukraine with Donbas in the journals. It became complete nonsense!”  she said. 

“The textbooks were the same but the word 'Ukraine' was missing from the lesson plans and journals... We were told that if it was impossible to replace a topic about Ukraine with Donetsk or Donbas, then we needed to change it to another topic about the native land. In September 2015, they started to import Russian textbooks. That was after I left.” 

Pavlivna, which isn’t her real name, taught until her class graduated and then quit her job at the school and left home. She still regularly visits her native Donetsk and asked Spektr to change her name for the interview. All working teachers in Donetsk spoke to Spektr on the condition of anonymity for security reasons.

In September 2015, 1,500 tons of Russian textbooks were brought to Donetsk by two white humanitarian convoys, a source in the 'education ministry' of the occupied Donetsk region told Spektr at the time. A different education system was introduced then. During the following academic year, Ukrainian classes and schools remained in the self-proclaimed republic. But in the summer of 2016, the so-called 'education minister' of the occupied Donetsk region, Elena Polyakova, announced that no students in the republic wanted to study the Ukrainian language and all these classes were closed.

The transition period was over and classes had since been structured according to Russian education standards with some local characteristics.

While Ukrainian language remained in the program, it was only taught once a week. In elementary school classes, these Ukrainian-language lessons were divided in two parts: the first 20 minutes would be dedicated to language itself and the second half of the lesson would be spent on reading Ukrainian literature.

One of the teachers told Spektr everything now reminds her of the year 1984, when she first came to work at her school. She says in middle school there is now the same amount of Russian as there was in the Soviet Union – 6-7 hours of language and literature every week.

Some Ukrainian language and literature teachers were made redundant and retired, but most of the younger teachers were retrained at the Donetsk Republican Institute of Additional Pedagogical Education. “Everyone was invited to retrain to the Russian language, both physicists and lyricists,” one source told Spektr.

Russian teacher Olena Petrivna, a philologist from one of the schools in the Kyiv district of Donetsk, said that the current situation is inconvenient for teachers of the Russian language.

“A lot of young people retrained into Russian, but older teachers who still have the Russian language as their second major on their Soviet diplomas, after the Ukrainian language, also remained and a situation unfolded where there are not enough teaching hours for everyone,” she said. “And we don’t stand a chance in Ukraine. There are no hours for Russian-language teachers there at all!” 

This isn’t quite right, however. Some 60 kilometers from Donetsk, in the government-controlled city of Volnovakha, Russian is taught in schools – although only 1 hour per week in the younger classes and 2 hours in older classes. Russian literature is taught as part of the Foreign Literature course. Students can choose to study the works of Russian poet Alexander Pushkin in the original language or translated into Ukrainian. A number of Russian philologists had also been retrained.


Olena Volodymyrivna, a primary school teacher in Donetsk, said 2015 was the turning point. 

“I was finishing teaching the fourth grade, and parents were being asked about who would be switching to Russian. We were told to ask everyone to switch to Russian,” she said. “We finished the 2015 school year in Ukrainian, and then there was simply no choice, we were simply notified: “Everyone is studying in Russian!”. And that same year, Russian textbooks came. We are now working off the “School of Russia” program. The only thing that was amended was the lesson on Russian flora and fauna. Instead, we now have a course on Donbas flora and fauna. We have Ukrainian language once a week, and Russian language every day – five times a week.”

Volodymyrivna said a new weekly lesson on “citizenship and spirituality in the Donbas” was introduced to promote patriotism. 

“There is no talk of ‘we are Russia, and Putin is our president’. The main emphasis is on the Donetsk Republic and its capital. As for the “DPR” anthem, we were told that everyone from grade one onwards should know it by heart,” she said, adding that In each class there are posters featuring the coat of arms, the anthem and the so-called “DPR” flag. 

“Outside the classroom, each student knows how to cover their head with their hands in case of shelling, where to hide and where to go.” 

One parent, whose son attended high school in Donetsk, said one teacher threatened to lower her son’s grade for failing to attend an extracurricular meeting on civil defense. 

“He studies hard, defends the honor of the school and does not shy away from attending meetings,” mother of one of the schoolboys, Yulia, told Spektr.  “You don’t have to attend the meetings if parents write a statement saying they don’t agree to their attendance and we wanted to write it – crowds during war pose potential danger. But ours went, showed solidarity with the class. On the day of the Republic on May 11, we have large mass events, rehearsals, all this involving students and senior schoolchildren.” 

Illustration by Ilya Kutoboy / Russian Language News Exchange

Mass events, holidays, Russian pop star concerts and political advertisements are seen at every corner of the "DPR". There is very little commercial advertising. Most advertising sites have been busy with patriotic campaigning for a long time. Victory Day posters sit next to faded proclamations from the former “head of the republic” Aleksandr Zakharchenko, who died a year ago. Campaigns are run by separate ministries and now everything is covered with portraits of five-year-old children who "were born with the DPR.” 

Organizations like “young Zakharyata”  (followers of Zakharchenko, reminiscent of Soviet tradition of pioneers -ed.)” were never created – Zakharchenko himself rejected these ideas during his lifetime – but two years ago, at an Ilovaisk school, Spektr saw elementary school groups such as “Good Fellows”, “Know-it-alls”, “Suns” and only one called “Young Patriots”.

In August 2019, the main public movement registered in the DPR – “Donetsk Republic”– held a “Young Guard” rally for its young reserves. In the absence of summer news, the rally caused a scandal. One of the teams rented equipment from a sex shop and presented a scene with girls dressed mostly in leather outfits and boys with large inscriptions reading “slave” on their chests. Donetsk's youth immediately posted photos on social networks, causing a media storm in Ukraine.


“Choose a school from the list, register and you’ll only need to come once a year for exams!” Our car radio catches a Ukrainian commercial near Volnovakha, aimed at students from occupied territories.

The commercial is short and simple – any student from Donetsk or Luhansk can choose a school for distance learning on the website of the Ministry of Education of Ukraine. 

The current advertising campaign is part of one prolonged battle for the children of Donbas. It spikes during the enrollment period. In May, high school students were traveling with their parents from Donetsk and Luhansk to take Ukrainian state tests and would sometimes be detained and not allowed to cross at "DPR" checkpoints.

On May 23, the then deputy head of the Donetsk regional civil-military administration, Ihor Stokoz, complained that children who were supposed to take a Ukrainian language exam in the government-controlled city of Mariupol were being detained at "DPR" checkpoints of Olenivka and Hnutove. Allegedly, the “DPR” special services were able to get a list of graduates who registered to take the External Independent Assessment (exams for entry to higher education in Ukraine) and prevented them from getting to the key exam.

According to Stokoz, there were 678 people registered to take Ukrainian language exam and 430 for the math exam. A total of 834 people came to take the External Independent Assessment (EIA) in government-controlled parts in the Donetsk region. About 900 people studied remotely in the 2018-19 academic year in the Donetsk region alone.  The EIA exams were conducted by the Luhansk civil military administration and other authorized regions of Ukraine.

According to the “DPR’s” Ministry of Education, in 2019, 8,120 students graduated from schools in the self-proclaimed republic.

Ukraine, on the other hand, is awaiting about 2,000 applicants from Crimea and Donbas to enter their universities. 

Specially created educational centers "Crimea-Ukraine" and "Donbas-Ukraine" will work until September 27. Through these centers, residents of non-government controlled territories can apply for a special subsidized program – generally without EIA exam, a Ukrainian passport, or a high school diploma. This is a subsidized program for certain children and universities – most of which are displaced educational institutions from Donetsk, Luhansk and Crimea, working in Kyiv. Years of following a Russian-based curriculum in Donetsk and Luhansk means not all graduates from non-government controlled territories are ready to sit serious exams in Ukrainian. To enter Ukrainian universities, they have to work independently.

Illustration by Ilya Kutoboy / Russian Language News Exchange

“Today the percentage of children from our city who go to Ukraine after grade 11 has decreased,” says Oksana, a mother of a Kyiv-Mohyla Academy student from a small mining town in the uncontrolled part of the Luhansk region. 

“Only one or two people have gone from two classes of graduates from our school that’s 40 people. But in schools where parents tend to be richer and more intelligent this number grows to 5-6 people. You can now get into a reputable university if your parents pay tutors for two years …  Furthermore, you need to understand, that to go and study in Ukraine, you need to cross the checkpoints at the age of 14 and get a Ukrainian passport. That’s not accessible for everybody.” 

In the hottest months of 2014, many families left for Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. Back then, in schools in relatively prosperous areas of central Donetsk, around 12 children remained in each class. In the graduating class of 2015 only one or two students were present for the final bell. Over time, the situation improved. Now in Donetsk, class will only run if there are 15 children – but no more than 26 – a norm set by the "DPR" Ministry of Education.

Most of those who could have left have already done so. Today, dozens of families are trickling out of the self-proclaimed republics. They are not fleeing from the conflict as more than a million others have done before them. But they are moving with the intention of creating a different future for themselves and their children.