At the beginning of summer, several months after the Russians had taken over a large chunk of southern Ukraine in the first days of the war, the headteacher of a school in an occupied town gathered his teaching collective for a meeting.
The school would cooperate with the Russian occupation authorities, he told them, and reopen for the new school year in September, teaching the Russian curriculum.
“Ukraine has abandoned us and isn’t coming back, and now the Russians are making us offers. If we don’t accept, they’ll send new people from Russia to run the school who won’t have any attachment to it. It’s better that we stay here and try to take care of it,” he told the assembled staff, as recalled by Halyna, the school’s longstanding deputy headteacher.
She said: “About one-third of the teachers agreed, but for me, I knew there was no way I could work for the Russians.” She told the headteacher she was quitting.
When she went back to the school a few days later, the headteacher told her that all the school’s Ukrainian textbooks would be destroyed in the coming days, so if she wanted anything, she should take it home with her.
Halyna visited her classroom and filled a plastic bag with poems in Ukrainian that her students had written, which had been pinned to the walls. She also took her favourite pot plant. As she left the building, she could see workers removing posters of Ukrainian national heroes from the corridors.
“Imagine, I worked in that school for more than 25 years. I walked out of there, alone, carrying a pot plant and a bag of poems, tears streaming down my face,” she said, her voice breaking as she described the moment.
A few days later, Halyna was denounced as a “traitor” at a parents’ meeting, for abandoning the school. She was warned by former colleagues that others had labelled her a pro-Ukrainian agitator and she was now on a watchlist of the Russian FSB spy agency.
“I said, ‘I have not agitated anywhere’, but they told me there are already witnesses, already denunciations,” she said. She fled to Ukrainian-controlled territory.
Halyna is not the teacher’s real name; the Guardian is not revealing her identity or that of the town in which her school is located, because she fears reprisals against family members still living under occupation.
But the basics of her work history and background were corroborated by other sources, and hers is one of many stories emerging from the occupied territories that show education policy is one of the most important pillars of Russia’s attempt to take over chunks of Ukraine.
The Kremlin hopes that by introducing the Russian curriculum into the areas it controls, it can shape a new generation of loyal subjects who will accept a Russia-centric view of Ukrainian history.
The Ukrainian curriculum “was aimed at turning you into an idiot”, said Kyrylo Stremousov, a former anti-vaccine blogger made deputy governor of the occupied Kherson region by the Russians. “The curriculum will change, and children will no longer undergo degradation and will actually start to learn,” he said in a telephone interview.
Many teachers have been reluctant to work for the Russians and Ukrainian officials say there is a pattern of pressure and threats towards those teachers who stayed behind, to make the switch.
“We have received hundreds of messages from the occupied territories,” said Sergii Gorbachov, Ukraine’s education ombudsman.
“They are forcing teachers to use the Russian curriculum, they’re bringing in Russian textbooks with the concept that Ukrainians and Russians are one people, full of Russian imperialism, it’s the full package,” he said.
Halyna said some people in her town were enthusiastically pro-Russian and always had been, but others agreed to collaborate out of pragmatism, echoing the headteacher’s belief that the Russians were there to stay and it was necessary to find a way to adapt.
Gorbachov said it was not fair to cast judgment on teachers who were put in an impossible position.
“We have neither a moral nor legal right to demand heroism from people living under occupation. Their main goals should be to save lives and not voluntarily collaborate. If they are forced to collaborate, they should collect evidence that they are being forced to,” he said.
Others are less inclined to sympathise. Many Ukrainian officials are demanding long prison sentences for anyone who agrees to cooperate with the Russian education system, citing the role of teachers in spreading the historical revisionism that is partly fuelling Russia’s invasion.
The recent surprise success of the Ukrainian counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region, as well as a strike on administrative buildings in the centre of occupied Kherson with long-range Himars missiles on Friday, may lead to sleepless nights for teachers who agreed to work for the Russians.
In recent days, Ukrainian authorities claim to have detained a group of teachers sent from Russia to the occupied Kharkiv region and left behind when the Russian army retreated. The deputy prime minister, Iryna Vereshchuk, said the teachers will be tried by Ukrainian courts and could face up to 12 years in jail.
While it was not immediately possible to verify these reports, there is no doubt that Moscow has made plans to send Russian teachers into the occupied areas. Stremousov said Kherson authorities did not plan to ship in teachers from Russia, but claimed that some Russian teachers “want to come over and help us out”. Occupation authorities in the neighbouring Zaporizhzhia region said in late August that they expected 500 teachers to arrive from Russia.
Part of their job is to “help” local teachers make the transition to the Russian curriculum, particularly for subjects such as history, where the Russian school programme will differ enormously from the Ukrainian one.
In July, the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta spoke to Yuri Baranov, a history teacher from the Perm region in the Urals, who had applied for a transfer to Zaporizhzhia.
“I have a personal dislike for Ukraine. Not for the people but for the state, which has brainwashed its citizens for the past 30 years and taught them to hate Russians … We cannot destroy all Ukrainian Nazis, it’s unrealistic, so we will have to solve the problem with other methods,” he said.
He added that he hoped he and his wife would be given a house with a nice garden when they arrived.
Halyna said no Russian teachers had yet arrived in her town, but there were persistent rumours they may be coming soon. She had already received a phone call from a local official who told her that, because she had left, her home would be requisitioned and used for teachers or other Russian professionals expected to arrive in the coming days.
The school opened for the new year on 1 September, with around one-third of the previous number of teachers and students, and armed Russian soldiers standing guard outside.
In an attempt to improve school attendance, the occupation authorities have threatened parents that their children could be sent to orphanages if they do not sign up for the newly Russified school.
There are also incentives. In the occupied Kherson region, authorities announced a cash payment of 10,000 roubles (£143) for every child who registered for the school year.
Meanwhile, Halyna, together with teaching colleagues who did not want to work for the Russians, has set up an online version of the school that continues to teach the Ukrainian curriculum, using experience gained during the pandemic. Students and teachers who have fled their home town log on from other parts of Ukraine and abroad.
A few parents still living in the town have contacted Halyna and arranged for their children to join the online school in the afternoon, after they have finished lessons at the Russian school.
“But they’re very worried, the teachers have told the children that police will come and check on their computers and tablets to make sure they’re not secretly continuing with Ukrainian school,” she said.
The Russians appear so concerned about the online school continuing to spread Ukrainian influence that the FSB seized a relative of one of the teachers involved in the school and questioned him about the project. Russian forces have also raided the empty homes of teachers involved, looking for “evidence” about the school, neighbours reported.
Halyna said that with every passing week, the divisions between those who are resisting and those who are collaborating are likely to deepen. “I’m just waiting every day for our army to liberate the town. I hope it happens and I hope it happens soon,” she said.