How Ukraine and Russia Compete for School Leavers from Donbas
1 November, 2019
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.

Along with millions of people, the war in Ukraine’s east has displaced more than a dozen universities from the region. The institutions that have remained in occupied Donbas are largely unrecognized, both internationally and in Ukraine. But for years now, universities from both occupied and government-controlled parts of the country, as well as Russia, have been fighting for school graduates from the Donbas. Spektr looked at why some students chose universities in Ukrainian government-controlled territory, while others went to Russia, and others still chose to stay at home and study at educational institutions whose diplomas will only be recognized in the self-proclaimed republics.


“When I was in Donetsk, I had a classmate called Slavik, we danced hip-hop together ...” says Dasha Pyatova, daughter of Ukrainian football goalkeeper for FC Shakhtar Donetsk Andriy Pyatov. Dasha walks with her father through the streets of Kyiv, dances against the backdrop of recognizable city landscapes and says that she and Slavik once dreamed of opening a modern dance school. Dasha calls on her former classmate and other children who remained in the occupied territories to enter Ukrainian universities through a simplified system. “Slavik, don’t be dumb, do it!” says Dasha.

This all forms part of a promotional video for a simplified admission procedure to Ukrainian universities or colleges for graduates from temporarily occupied territories. It was shot by Ukraine’s Ministry of Temporarily Occupied Territories and Internally Displaced Persons and posted to Youtube in August, in the lead up to the university admission deadline (in late September) for applicants from occupied Crimea and Donbas.

Children from the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics” have been given new opportunities – higher education has become much more accessible here than before the war – now almost everyone goes to university. However, along with new opportunities, there are also new problems. Among them are crossing checkpoints to get to institutions in government-controlled parts of the country and the legitimacy of diplomas from institutions in the occupied Donbas. But people who have remained in occupied territories give a lot of leeway to the concept of “legitimacy” and often their choices are determined by the political position and financial capabilities of their parents, as well as the conditions that their future universities offer. Often low or lack of competition, cheap education, schooling close to home and a small “state” scholarship influence the choices of less well off families in favor of Donetsk and Luhansk-based universities. 

University Bifurcation

The war has torn almost every higher educational institution in Donbas to pieces. All universities in uncontrolled parts of Donbas, along with rectors and a portion of teaching staff, were evacuated in 2014 to government-controlled territory and continue to work and accept students from uncontrolled territories with varying degrees of success.

However, “DPR” and “LPR” universities have also remained. They are financed in rubles and, with varying degrees of success, pass official Russian accreditation, which allows their diplomas to be recognized in the Russian Federation. There are 18 institutes and academies in the “DPR” – about the same number that was there before the war.  

“Pay attention to the Donbas National Academy of Civil Engineering and Architecture website – they are very progressive, they have an excellent campus in Kramatorsk, they have a good charter, they work well, but there are gaps on the site where the leadership and departments are listed -- people travel back home to Donetsk and Makiivka, some still have families living there, and they constantly travel between Donetsk and Kramatorsk. Understandably, they want to stay under the radar,” one of the teachers in such a position tells Spektr.

Most of the evacuated universities from Donbas are located close to their home cities – it’s convenient for teachers and students who can come in and join at a later stage. The Donbas National Academy of Civil Engineering and Architecture is one of the few Donetsk universities that had its rector and most of the administration remain in occupied Makiyivka. 

READ MORE: Behind the Battle for Students of Occupied Donbas

Donetsk National University has a unique story. At the beginning of the war in 2014, it was evacuated to Vinnytsia, where the staff made an addition to the institution’s name – they named it after Vasyl Stus. This was something university graduates campaigned for long before the war. They created a public organization Poshtovkh (‘Impetus’ in Ukrainian), for this. Its leader, Yuriy Matushchak, organized a whole movement to demand that the university be named after the famous Ukrainian dissident and poet Vasyl Stus, who graduated from the philological faculty of the university, but Matushchak’s campaign hadn’t been successful then – the staff voted down his proposal (or never took a vote on his proposal). It was only in Vinnytsia that they voted for it and installed a memorial plaque in the building in honor of the Dnipro-1 battalion fighter Matushchak, who died in the Battle of Ilovaisk in August 2014.

Now, Stus’s name helps set it apart from the Donetsk National University, which the self-proclaimed “DPR” authorities opened in 2014 in the same buildings with professors, teachers and students who didn’t leave. 

The administrators of the “Stus” university didn’t support staff who traveled from occupied to government-controlled territory, demanding they either work and live in Vinnytsia or quit. As a result, the university has been gradually losing its Donetsk flavor and turning into “the best university in Vinnytsia”. On its website, it is sometimes just referred to as Stus University. On August 30, it took in 1,373 freshmen in Vinnytsia. It is difficult to determine how many of them came from the Donbas. 

Spektr visited its counterpart, Donetsk National University, at the end of its admissions campaign. On the corner of the main building, they also hung a new plaque – in memory of Vsevolod Petrovskyi, who fought as part of the “communist battalion” of the Prizrak brigade with the call sign “Kovyl” and died at Debaltseve.

Picture lists cities in Ukraine and Russia graduates go to. Illustration by Ilya Kutoboy / Russian Language News Exchange

Before the university split into two, Matushchak and Petrovskyi were friends and together took part in the Orange Revolution in 2004. But then their views diverged radically, and the fact that their memorial plaques hang on two buildings of what used to be one university is symbolic.

At the time of Spektr’s visit, the admissions committee was still working, information stands for applicants still sat in the courtyard alongside the ancient Polovtsian stone maidens, and a student from the foreign languages ​​faculty shared the tuition costs for training on a contractual basis.

“No, we do have paid diplomas, but they are Donetsk diplomas. We don’t have Russian accreditation,” says Yulia, a senior student who works for the committee part-time. “Where am I going with my English and German? I don’t know yet, but I’m planning to join the ‘DPR’ police force, some position will come up!” 

Yulia is only partly right. The state educational institution Donetsk National University received Russian accreditation on July 17, 2019. But the faculties of foreign languages and history – the university’s pride – are not on the list of specialties covered by this accreditation. Russian-style diplomas will be issued by the state educational institution to only six specialties: mathematics and mechanics, chemistry, earth sciences, biological sciences, computer science and education, and pedagogical sciences.

The sign "Donetsk National University" continues to hang on the main building of the institution, its name has not been changed to "Republican". This absence of change in names is seen across all Donetsk and Luhansk universities – issues like succession and ratings are very important in science.

Until last year, Vasyl Stus Donetsk National University in Vinnytsia was solidly ranked among the thousand best universities in the world according to The QS World University Rankings.

Meanwhile, its counterpart in Donetsk is considered to be working illegally by the international community, and is only recognized as an “educational institution” by Russia.

There are three Donetsk universities with a respected name. In addition to the Vasyl Stus Donetsk National University, these are also the Donetsk National Technical University and the Maxim Gorky Donetsk National Medical University. The Donbas National Academy of Civil Engineering and Architecture in Makiyivka and the Institute of Foreign Languages in Horlivka, on the territory of the self-proclaimed “DPR”, have also always had serious authority. 

All these universities also evacuated and now teach students in their legitimate versions on the government-controlled territory of the Donetsk region – in Pokrovsk, Mariupol, Bakhmut, and Kramatorsk.

The displaced Donetsk National Medical University has branches in Kropyvnytskyi, Kramatorsk, Lyman, and Mariupol, which is increasingly becoming its main city. Not only has an entire building been allocated for its restoration there, but a new regional clinical hospital is starting to work with it – a necessary condition for the development of clinical faculties.

A memorial plaque will soon be hung on the main building of Donetsk Medical University in Mariupol in honor of a dental student and one of the youngest ultras of Shakhtar Donetsk who died in battle, Vladyslav Pysarenko. He fought in the Azov regiment with the call sign “Rastishka”, together with his teacher, the head of the surgical dentistry department, professor Ihor Matros-Taranets. 

When Azov was withdrawn from the fighting in Shyrokyne, both dentists left the regiment. Matros-Taranets went to work at a military hospital in Dnipro, while Pysarenko continued to fight in the "Donbas-Ukraine" army battalion. 

When he died in March 2017, his parents, who remained in the occupied territory refused to send a photograph of their son for a monument. The soldier does not have a grave – his ashes were scattered over the Dnipro river.  The university had to search for a graphic artist to create a portrait of Pysarenko for the memorial from amateur photos. 

The elite university has lost a lot of teachers, but all the buildings, facilities, vivaria and clinics remained in Donetsk. A portion of the students (including all foreign ones), teachers and professors left.

Behind the glass in the morphological building hung a familiar list of names of students who were accepted into the school at the end of August. In the “DPR” they are divided into three categories: children with local registration who are entitled to free state-financed education, and “foreigners” or applicants from the “LPR” and Russia, who enter under a special quota and also have their education costs covered by the state. 

There is also a separate small quota for the “humanitarian program for the reunification of the Donbas people.” It has been funded for a couple of years and its main goal is to attract people from government-controlled territories to occupied regions for study, medical treatment, and social benefits for the so-called "veterans" of the "DPR" (those who fought on the side of the self-proclaimed "republic").

Although these students are few, they do exist. Donetsk still attracts children to study from small towns of its vast area. Spektr even knows one student who came to study medicine in Donetsk from the Russian city of Surgut. Low competition for popular specialties and local grandparents played a part.

Donetsk Medical University was the first of the higher educational institutions in Donbas to receive Russian accreditation in March of 2019. It had a rather influential lobbyist – Russia’s Chief State Sanitary Doctor Gennady Onishchenko, who was a graduate of the university’s sanitary-hygienic faculty. Now, as the first deputy chairman of the State Duma Committee on Education and Science, he comes on official visits to the “DPR” and promotes accrediting local universities as Russian.

Benefits for Applicants

Between two and three million people have fled occupied Donbas for Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, according to various estimates. This means there are many fewer children in occupied parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Meanwhile, the number of universities has doubled because of their evacuation to government-controlled parts of the country. 

Both the displaced universities and those that remained in occupied Donbas are trying to maintain a pre-war flow of students. That’s why the battle for prospective students has escalated. 

To enter a "DPR" university, you need to have a secondary school diploma, pass a local version of independent testing and two exams: the obligatory "Russian language" exam and one on the subject relevant to your study.

Since children from the self-proclaimed republics have less chance to enter Ukrainian universities due to a lack of education in the Ukrainian language, the country systematically helps all applicants from uncontrolled territories. Special educational centers “Donbas-Ukraine” and “Crimea-Ukraine” were created to help them. 

They offer special subsidized programs without external independent testing, a passport, legal documents from a secondary educational institution and a guaranteed scholarship, free textbooks, Internet and student housing.

Spektr found a family in Kyiv helping their niece from Donetsk settle down and study in the capital at the Vernadsky Taurida National University. She’s starting her second year at the displaced university from Crimea and receives both an “academic” scholarship and a “social” allowance. Furthermore, she pays 2,000 hryvnias (around $80) for a dormitory every six months.

Meanwhile, in Russia, there is a group of universities that offer special subsidized programs for applicants from occupied territories. These applicants also have access to a state program that allows children of former Soviet Union citizens to enter Russian universities at the expense of the state budget. In these cases, secondary education certificates from the “DPR” and “LPR” are recognized in Russia. 

Iryna is the mother of a successful Ukrainian student from a mining city in the occupied part of the Luhansk region. Iryna told Spektr that all graduates from her city go to some university, whether it’s in Luhansk, Donetsk, government-controlled Ukraine or Russia.

She said they tend to go to universities in neighboring Russia’s Rostov-on-Don, Luhansk and Donetsk. But a couple of students from each class tend to enter Ukrainian universities on the government-controlled territory. These students usually make this decision years in advance and undertake additional studies as preparation, she added. 

“They get tutoring on subjects of Ukrainian history, English and Ukrainian languages,” Iryna tells Spektr. “Programs to help students pass the state exam in Russia are very different to those in Ukraine. You need to work with an English teacher who prepares you for Ukraine’s external independent evaluation. They try to hide the preparations, but everyone knows – children, unlike parents, can’t conceal things. It’s such a difficult question, they try not to talk about it.” 

Iryna believes children largely choose what university to attend based on what their parents tell them.

“The disposition of the parents likely plays an important role,” she says. “The level of intelligence plays an important role, the education of the parents themselves – the higher it is, the more they think about their children’s prospects, reject universities in Luhansk and Donetsk and instead opt for those in Russia or Ukraine. There are no prospects here, there is a shortage of work. You just get a superfluous piece of paper – they will not find work in Luhansk and Donetsk. What do they need an international economics specialist for here, for example?” 

Diplomas and Students 

Diplomas remain a difficult subject here. “People say that they used to take students to Russian universities, where they would defend their diplomas and then received a Russian-style diploma. But a friend last year, through the student scientific society, received a Russian-style diploma but from (Georgia’s breakaway region) Abkhazia. I have two more years to study, I’ll see what diploma I will get,” says Andriy, a student at the Medical Faculty of Donetsk Medical University. 

In 2014, Andriy decided to remain with his family in Donetsk and in 2015 he graduated from high school and received an “illegitimate” secondary school certificate, which is recognized only in Russia. Now, he studies medicine at a university without accreditation. 

Andriy understands crisis can also bring opportunity. With so many doctors and schoolchildren leaving, he got into a formerly high profile medical university without problems and competition and is studying diligently. He wants to become a surgeon, replace someone who had left. If that fails, he will be able to work in Russia, which is a big country. 

Book cover reads "Higher professional education". Illustration by Ilya Kutoboy / Russian Language News Exchange

His mother is an official working within the “DPR” government (which means there are travel restrictions for her) so Andriy naturally remained in Donetsk to study. Back in 2015, when he was entering university, nobody was seriously looking five years ahead. People expected the war would end in a year or two. 

Some, like Olena (not her real name), a student from Donetsk, have been lucky. Olena received a state-funded place in the journalism department of Lomonosov Moscow State University. It’s the best university in Russia, according to a 2017 QS World University Rankings assessment. 

“While I was studying, the program changed dramatically at school,” Olena tells Spektr. “Gradually, a Russian educational system was brought in. Within two years, Russia was providing almost all the textbooks for the “DPR” -- 50% of them were written by professors at Moscow State University.”

Olena said she studied at the best and oldest Donetsk lyceum. She added that to her knowledge, from 2014 to 2016 all their graduates were admitted to numerous Russian universities – with the exception of the top ones – practically without exams. 

“Most of the children were taken to Rostov, to Voronezh, to Ryazan,” she said. “After 2016, the ‘compatriot’ program was also put in force for us, which, in addition to (Russia’s) Unified State Examination, allows you to take any exams for any university in Russia.”

Olena also took the Unified State Examination in Russia’s Rostov-on-Don. She says it was difficult to get a state-funded place at the Lomonosov Moscow State University but she had good results, and considers herself lucky. 

She says she was getting ready for admission with a ton of additional literature she found online. Her lyceum’s program almost coincided with Russia’s, but her knowledge left much to be desired. “When I passed the exam, I talked with Russian applicants and saw the difference in knowledge,” she admitted. 

Back in 2015, Spektr met Oksana, a student from a small town in occupied Donbas, in a 12-hour line at the Volnovakha checkpoint. She was doing distance learning and was returning from an exam in Mariupol. Now, she is a student of one of the best humanitarian universities in Ukraine – the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. She studied philosophy there and now wants to be a journalist. Her mother still lives in the occupied Donbas.

“Since secondary school, my classmates would joke that our year was unlucky,” she says. “The program was constantly changing, new things were introduced into the examination process. But no one could imagine that our graduation class would have to make a vital choice – the choice of the homeland. I can’t say that our class was divided into two. We were not yet conscious enough to critically look at the stream of news, where propaganda about the ‘Russian world’ loudly prevailed.” 

According to Oksana, it was largely the parents that influenced the children.

“In 2015, decisions were made quickly, because human life was at stake. Whose side to take? Who to believe? For a long time, we could not give an answer, and we had other things to worry about. When the Donbas was on fire, the only thing we all knew for sure was to run! By the end of grade 11, priorities were set (for the most part by parents),” she said. “Of the 20 graduates from my school, half remained in Donetsk and Luhansk, the other went to Rostov-on-Don, which, as you know, became a refuge for many in those years. And only two, me and my friend, chose the most difficult way – to go to a Ukrainian university.” 

Ukrainian certificates were no longer issued in the occupied territories then. Oksana and her friend had to travel to government-controlled parts of the country several times a month to pass exams in 15 school subjects and as a result receive a Ukrainian diploma. 

They had to leave three more times to pass the entrance exams and only then were they able to "escape completely" at the end of summer, "away from the complete lawlessness and ignorance that reigned at home."

“It sounds simple – you leave, take the exam, get the diploma and get into university. But there was one difficulty that forever impeded the implementation of this seemingly easy task – the war continued,” Oksana said. 

Bus reads "Children". Checkpoint has "DPR" written. Illustration by Ilya Kutoboy / Russian Language News Exchange

During those months, front-line towns, through which she had to travel, were especially affected and checkpoints began to appear. 

“Gradually, we became involuntary witnesses of how the situation in the anti-terrorist operation zone changed – checkpoints were strengthened, a throughput system was introduced, and queues at the entrances and exits grew. But the thing that I paid attention to most was people’s reactions and their attitude to what was happening,” said Oksana.

The most remarkable thing for me was one scene that could be regarded as a very vivid metaphor. At the end of May, when we were again leaving the occupied territories, the driver plastered the flag of the then existing ‘Novorossiya’ onto the windshield of the bus that was taking us from Donetsk to Mariupol. Passing the last ‘DPR’ checkpoint, the driver stops abruptly, jumps out of the bus and quickly tears off the ‘local’ flag, replacing it with the Ukrainian one. ‘What?’ he says in surprise. ‘You need to roll with it somehow! To satisfy our lot and your lot!’