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Letters From Donbas, Part 5: 'Students Want Guarantees They'll Get Russian Diplomas'

Student life has changed immeasurably over the past year in the rebel-held territories of eastern Ukraine. (file photo)

Student life has changed immeasurably over the past year in the rebel-held territories of eastern Ukraine. (file photo)

Thousands of people have fled eastern Ukraine since the conflict erupted in April 2014. Some have since returned. Others never left. From teachers to pensioners to families with children, residents of rebel-held towns are struggling to get on with their lives amid the chaos and uncertainty.

RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service continues to publish their testimonies. The names of the authors of the letters have been changed for security reasons.

Oleksandra Samoylova, Student, Luhansk

State universities in the occupied territories of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions have come under separatist control. For students, that means changes in everything from class size to curriculum.

Here in the Luhansk People's Republic (LNR), the first lesson on Mondays usually begins with the question, "How are you?" The teachers aren't asking about course work or whether we're prepared for class; they're asking about our domestic life. Is everything OK with our homes and families? Did everything go well on our trips back home?

There are so few students going to lectures these days that teachers have time to pay attention to each individual student. It turns out they're not only capable of reading out loud from a book; they can actually communicate and express human emotions. Only now have I begun to see the human side of my teachers.

The small groups are very interesting. Every student gets maximum attention; everything is explained to them, and all their questions are answered.

At the same time, while communicating with their students, lecturers often slip up and inadvertently talk about politics. Topics can include: dissatisfaction with the Education Ministry, problems with salaries, and working overtime because rising debt has forced them to cut back personnel.

Compared to previous years, studying has gotten easier for me. Now we can spend more time on interesting core subjects, and less on general topics like religious studies. A lot of students elsewhere probably lose interest in their studies because of a lack of financial incentive or scholarships. That seems sort of funny to us now.

Student Life Outside the Classroom

At the start of winter, the university had organized a lot of concerts and events and assigned us to volunteer duties. They did this to create the illusion of a flurry of activity.

The various tasks associated with bringing an Orthodox element to higher education were especially absurd. Talks about the friendship between science and religion were full of cliches. The female heads of various student committees, all blonde atheists tired of the long, boring conversations we were subjected to, lied depressingly about "broad support for useful student initiatives."

But students these days embrace the Orthodox Church about as much as wolves do vegetarianism. At the bus stop near our "temple of science" it's not uncommon to hear conversations like this:

-- How did you celebrate Easter?

-- With three beers!

-- Oh, and I drank wine.

Students are used as "extras" at rallies. This has always been true. But while once there was only a limited range of gatherings, now they call us out for any number of reasons. Once I saw a coordinator of a so-called "initiative group" get into an argument with his teacher. The point is that students are being dragged away from their classes to attend events that even their lecturers haven't been told about.

Incidentally, all the different departments have been forced into new formations due to the low number of teachers. The concepts behind these new "associations" are pretty unique. Translators, for example, are now part of the Philosophy Faculty.

'Liquid' Teachers

In our department there's just one teacher left from the old staff. She's the one person with whom I feel free to openly discuss my views. True, I can see with a kind of horror that if she hadn't persuaded me to enroll, I'd now be considered "on the continent," as they say -- pro-Kyiv, in other words.

Many other teachers flow in and out of the university like water. You don't have time to get your grades or finish a project for one before you have to get used to the personality and questions of another.

The first reason for that is the salary. They get paid only twice in six months. Other reasons include the incredible amount of paperwork (the transition to Russian standards, translating documentation), problems with co-workers, or dim prospects for certain subjects -- particularly for those specializing in Ukrainian history or Ukrainian language and literature.

The Price Of A Russian Diploma

Almost every day students ask their teachers for guarantees that they'll receive Russian diplomas. No one is talking about "local" diplomas from the Luhansk People's Republic.

But we worry that's what they're going to give us, although they're of no use to anyone. Even the rare ardent fans of the "blue, blue, and red" -- as the separatist flag is known -- say they're "out of here" if there aren't going to be any Russian diplomas.

They've apparently already received Russian diplomas in some universities around here. I haven't seen photographic proof. There are different ways of getting them -- you can defend your degree there in Russia, or from here by Skype. Some people get sent elsewhere to take their exams.

The teachers say that everyone will get their degrees. But how much value will these diplomas have, if.... students are studying unsystematically: gunfire and explosions can prevent them from going to class. A majority of those enrolled this year can't call themselves university students without embarrassment. Many of the upperclassmen have come up with their own individual schedule for finishing their course work and are located in different countries. Studies are the last thing they're thinking about.

It's a complicated question: for what accomplishments, and according to what criteria, is our generation of students going to receive its diplomas?

I hope that the labor market will dump us in the service-industry niche of Slavic fast food -- or whatever they're planning to build instead of McDonald's -- and that no catastrophes will ensue.

Translated by Daisy Sindelar