On September 1st, after a long period of remote learning, Donetsk schoolchildren finally had the opportunity to choose in-person education. There were no solemn assemblies in the schoolyards for understandable reasons. However, celebrations did take place in the halls, where it was possible to accommodate several hundred students. With the headmasters’ encouraging words, patriotic poems, and the traditional ringing of the “first bell” - when a first-grader girl sits on the shoulder of a graduate boy and shakes the bell. For some, this evokes tears of affection, for others, a sad smile, and even sarcasm. But that's not the point right now.
Traditionally, the new school year began with the "first lesson". However, unlike previous years since 2014, teachers didn't talk about the "feats of the Donbas people" and new heroes this time. Instead, they taught children how to behave during shelling on the street and in school, reminded them not to touch explosive objects, and where to report if they find any.
For elementary school students, this information was presented in a playful manner. Older students were shown videos depicting various life situations. But what's most interesting is that teenagers were mostly informed about terrorism prevention rather than how to act in case of shelling.
Although local TV channels "reassured" in the evening:
"We have a plan for each class, on every door there are instructions on where the child should run in case of artillery shelling. Whether it's a corridor, a bomb shelter or underground passages. It's important and everyone should know where they should be and how to get there", - said Albina Afencheko, the headmaster of Gymnasium No. 6, to journalists.
But the highlight of the September 1st news was the opening of the Nevskaya school, which was built by military builders in Mariupol. It was called the school of the future and an advanced educational institution not only for the "republic" but for all of russia. They showed laboratories for physics, biology, chemistry, rooms for aviation modeling, e-sports, robotics, two large gyms, and an auditorium for 550 people from every possible angle. They mentioned that the school has workshops for boys and rooms for cooking and etiquette classes for girls. But for some unclear reason, they put a strong emphasis on the cafeteria. For quite some time, they showed the spacious room, new furniture, and modern equipment to the viewers. Everything shines and sparkles like in a restaurant, except the tables aren't covered with white tablecloths.
The icing on the cake in this story was that the school was opened by russian president vladimir putin. Of course, it was an online event. "This school year, the schools of Donbas, the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson oblasts have already been following Russian standards", - he said. "Preparations for this began back in April 2022 when programs were launched to improve the qualifications of teachers, provide schools with textbooks, and renovate school buildings. Here, I ask the Russian government to continue paying special attention to the task of integrating schools, colleges and universities in new regions into a unified education system of the country. This is one of the key issues of integration".
In reality, discussions about the process of integrating into the unified education system of russia on the occupied territories have been ongoing since 2015. This was explained on camera by "Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Donetsk People's Republic" Natalia Nikonova, who made a career leap in 2022 and became a member of the Federation Council of russia representing the "DNR".
"We understood that our vector was already defined, and we aimed to achieve Russian standards as much as possible", - Nikonova explained. "There is hope that we will complete the integration by 2026, but the process is not easy. While textbooks are provided thanks to the authorities, we will have to catch up on the technical equipment of our schools. Our teachers will need to improve their qualifications. It won't be a big blow to us", - she said.
But the blow has landed. In reality, it turned out that there's simply no one to improve their qualifications. This is because there is a catastrophic shortage of teachers in the "republic" in all fields. And the Nevskaya school is no exception. They tried to lure teachers here not only from Donetsk but also from russia. They promised salary increases and even provided apartments to relocate to. All in vain. So now the question arises: is the school of the future one where there are no teachers in well-equipped, state-of-the-art laboratories and modern computer classrooms? Or perhaps the entire learning process will take place in a super-modern school cafeteria? Where children, while munching on a pastry, will share the knowledge they've obtained from the internet?
Now, about the russian standards. According to teachers, all they've understood so far is a return to a five-point grading system and a lot of unnecessary paperwork. They say that instead of preparing for lessons, they have to endlessly write reports and plans. And those teachers who do not support the new "authorities" agree that the "unified curriculum", which they will have to follow starting from September, intensifies uniformity and ideological pressure on students.
I think it's not a coincidence that in one of the Donetsk schools, there's a large banner on the wall that reads: "Russia can do without each of us, but none of us can do without Russia". This is, so to speak, vivid propaganda in action. Children are being brainwashed and their individuality is suppressed. In other words, "integration into a unified system" of russia is nothing else but preparing children to sacrifice themselves "for the sake of the homeland".
History teachers have it the worst. They have to re-read textbooks again. According to "russian standards" (to appease the russian authorities), they have meticulously rewritten the entire period from the 1970s to the present day. The late Soviet era is presented there as a prosperous and peaceful time, and a separate chapter is devoted to the "special military operation in Ukraine". It states that "the United States is determined to fight to the last Ukrainian" and claims that after the imposition of sanctions and the departure of foreign companies from russia, "fantastic career opportunities in business" have opened up for young people. The new textbooks even have a separate paragraph about the "state coup in Ukraine" in 2014. They didn't forget to add a map with "new" regions as well.
With the transition of educational institutions to russian standards, discussions about introducing school uniforms have begun. Currently, in many schools, uniforms are not mandatory. The people of Donetsk believe that this is not a priority concern for the "authorities" right now. So, for ceremonial events, students are allowed to wear a white top and dark bottom, but on other days, they can come to school in comfortable clothing.
But what about "patriotism" and "citizenship" in the "republican" education? Haven't the "rulers" forgotten about these important aspects of educating the younger generation? Of course not. The fact that on the first day of school, the "lesson of courage" was replaced with a safety lesson doesn't mean much. The extracurricular patriotic activities called "Conversations about Important Matters", introduced in all russian schools last year, haven't disappeared either. Also, starting from September 1st, the long-forgotten course of initial military training (IMT) has returned to schools. During these lessons, high school students will master assembling and disassembling a rifle, wear gas masks and march.
A reason to discuss "patriotism" did arise - the 80th anniversary of the liberation of Donbas from the German fascist invaders. On the eve of this date, school No. 71 in Donetsk held a lesson titled "Looking up to Courage and Valor". Please forgive me, WWII veterans, but the circus that has been taking place in schools in recent years with the invitation of "veterans" is truly outrageous. I think those who can count will agree with me. As we know, the liberation of Donbas occurred in 1943. That was 80 years ago. Even if a soldier who participated in the operation was 17 years old at the time, he would be 97 today. However, they bring fairly youthful "grandfathers" to school, adorned with medals, so that they can "recall" how certain events unfolded. In my opinion, this is a highest form of cynicism.
So, on September 7th, at school No. 71, following the established tradition, they brought a World War II veteran who shared his frontline past with the students, talked about the great feats of Soviet soldiers, and mentioned how he had worked as an IMT teacher in this school for a long time.
The old soldier didn't forget to assess the events that occurred in Donbas in 2014. The school's headmaster, Svetlana Popsuyko, quickly took the initiative and added, "By instilling love for our homeland, the history of our country, and the school, we want the students to always remember those who defended our republic". And, as you may have guessed, that marked the end of the discussion about the times of World War II and the liberation of Donbas. Instead, they focused on how proud Donetsk residents defended their freedom in 2014 and continue to bravely fight for "independence".
However, most schools these days conducted "lessons of courage" dedicated to the Day of Solidarity in the Fight Against Terrorism. This is surprising because the anniversary of the liberation of Donbas is a significant date, and such occasions are usually emphasized. But the "Ministry of Education and Science" found a more "relevant" theme, as stated in the ministry's press release: "The event is aimed at shaping students' understanding of the dangers posed by terrorism, fostering empathy for the victims of terrorist acts and nurturing patriotism".
It's hard not to be concerned about the abundance of information about terrorism, terrorists, and the fight against them. And then there's the photo from the school assembly with the readiness for self-sacrifice that just sticks in your mind. It's hard not to recall comparisons with the situation in the Middle East, where children are groomed to become suicide bombers. Palestinian preschoolers are taught to march in formation, given toy AK-47s and hand grenades instead of toys. Children's shows tell stories of brothers and sisters who died in the fight for their homeland and instill hatred for their killers. They proudly pose with weapons in front of journalists' cameras and sing warlike songs. It's no secret that in the Middle East, wearing a "suicide belt" is considered an honor. The ultimate dream of almost any Palestinian teenager is to ascend to the heavens with the despised Israelis.
Such analogies send shivers down the spine, and it's genuinely worrisome for the future generation of Donbas. I hope my fears are unfounded, but then why is the "Ministry of Education" paying so much attention to this issue, and why are they teaching children to "empathize with the victims of terrorism", talk about "fighting terrorism" and instill a willingness to sacrifice their lives for their homeland?
Liusia Molchanova, Donetsk, for OstroV