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Ukraine's Lightning Counteroffensive Has Russian Teachers Rethinking Plans To Work In Occupied Areas


A school in Ukraine's Mykolayiv region damaged by Russian shelling
A school in Ukraine's Mykolayiv region damaged by Russian shelling

During the summer, the Kremlin hatched a plan to fill hundreds of vacancies in schools in the occupied territories of Ukraine by luring Russian teachers there with sky-high salaries and other incentives.

According to the independent trade union Alliance of Teachers, educators were offered between 7,000 and 9,000 rubles ($117 to $151) per day to go to Ukraine. In many Russian regions, teacher salaries hover as low as 20,000 or 30,000 rubles ($336-$500) a month, with educators making ends meet by taking on extra work or tutoring.

It was part of a Russian drive to "reeducate" -- or "Russify" -- Ukrainians to pave the way for the expected annexation of parts of southern and eastern Ukraine and to quash Ukrainian patriotism there.

The incentivized Russian teachers were to be pedagogical foot soldiers in this phase of the war.

But in the wake of Ukraine's successful counteroffensive earlier this month, many Russian teachers who had packed their bags are having second thoughts.

Vladimir Muntyan, a lecturer at the Rostov College of Industrial Technologies, told RFE/RL that he is no longer interested in teaching in Ukraine.

"I applied, but now it's no longer relevant," he said. "Circumstances have changed -- my personal ones -- so I changed my mind."

'You Saw What Happened…'

By early July, more than 200 teachers from across Russia had expressed a willingness to work in the occupied territories, as officials assured them the regions were secure and relatively safe. State media in Russia ignored frequent reports of attacks against collaborators and Russia-installed officials in those regions.

But just as the teachers began arriving, Ukraine launched a surprise counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region in early September, barreling through collapsing Russian defenses and liberating cities and smaller settlements.

Ukrainian forces also allegedly captured and arrested some Russian teachers. That report -- which Kyiv later denied, despite speculation that Ukraine may have started the rumor itself to demoralize the Russian side -- sent shivers down the spines of some Russian teachers who had agreed to work in Ukraine.

A school in the city of Druzhkivka, in Ukraine's Donetsk region, destroyed by a Russian missile attack on August 30.
A school in the city of Druzhkivka, in Ukraine's Donetsk region, destroyed by a Russian missile attack on August 30.

Olga Vedenina, a teacher of Russian language and literature who was ready to go to Ukraine, told RFE/RL this week that her husband talked her out of the idea.

"All the events that are happening now -- the seizure of teachers -- he was probably right," said Vedenina, who lives in the northern region of Karelia. "I could have been caught up in this, too."

Yelena Patrakeyeva, a mathematics teacher from the northern region of Arkhangelsk, said she still "really wants to" work in Ukraine, but that her family is trying to talk her out of it.

"You saw what happened. They say teachers were detained," Patrakeyeva said. "So I haven't made a final decision. As soon as I receive the [work] contract, I will see what my situation is and the situation in the country in general."

Up To 12 Years In Prison

After Russia launched its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on February 24 and captured swaths of land in the east and south, the Kremlin announced it would impose the Russian curriculum in local schools.

Russia's revamped curriculum, infused with patriotic messaging, promotes false Kremlin narratives about Ukrainian and Russian culture and history, as well as about the causes of the current war. It does not include Ukrainian language, literature, or history.

Kyiv for months has been warning teachers -- both Ukrainians and Russians -- against collaborating with occupying forces, warning they would face criminal charges. But with Russia inching forward with its invasion and moving ahead with plans for referendums on annexation, that danger did not seem realistic.

That all changed this month.

Ukrainian media, citing unidentified sources, first reported on September 10 that some Russian teachers in Kupyansk, in the Kharkiv region, had been arrested after the city was liberated by Ukrainian forces.

Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk on September 12 said Russian teachers caught working in the occupied territories would be prosecuted and could face up to 12 years in prison.

She added that any detained Russian teachers will not be included in prisoner-exchange lists, as they are not combatants.

Russian teachers "will surely face justice if they do not leave our territory immediately," she said.

However, neither the initial media reports nor Vereshchuk gave any details about the teachers -- such as their names or the schools where they allegedly worked -- raising questions about the veracity of the report.

Russian Education Minister Sergei Kravtsov, who oversees the recruitment of teachers for the occupied territories, called the news "fake."

Aleksandr Bastrykin, the head of Russia's Investigative Committee, ordered an investigation into the reports.

Children in a school bus are evacuated from the Russian-occupied town of Kupyansk on the outskirts of Kharkiv on May 30.
Children in a school bus are evacuated from the Russian-occupied town of Kupyansk on the outskirts of Kharkiv on May 30.

However, on September 14, Ukraine's Prosecutor-General's Office denied the reports.

Nonetheless, the stories made headlines in Russia, sparking concern among some teachers who had volunteered to work in the occupied regions but had not yet left.

'So Far, There Is Silence'

However, Russia's efforts to recruit teachers appear to have been off track even before the September offensive.

RFE/RL spoke this week with more than 20 teachers who had volunteered to teach in Ukraine; none had left yet, even though the new school year started at the beginning of the month.

"I planned on going," said Yelena Ushkova, a physical education teacher at a school in Karelia, "but haven't left because there has been no information. No one has contacted me."

Ushkova said she contacted the deputy education minister at the beginning of August, who she said admitted that "even she doesn't have any information."

Yevgeny Sokolov, a director and physical education teacher from Mari El, said he has not yet heard when he is supposed to leave for Ukraine.

"So far, there is silence," he said.

The causes of the delays are unclear, although Russia was still repairing many schools damaged during its invasion and had been struggling to supply them with new textbooks in Russian.

Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk: Russian teachers "will surely face justice if they do not leave our territory immediately," she said.
Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk: Russian teachers "will surely face justice if they do not leave our territory immediately," she said.

But Ukraine also began turning up the heat on Russian forces in the late summer, especially in the Kherson region, as it deployed new, longer-range weapons supplied by the West, possibly forcing Moscow to proceed cautiously with the deployment of teachers.

Daniil Ken, the head of the Alliance of Teachers, dismissed the whole recruitment project as a Kremlin public-relations campaign to demonstrate to the Russian public that civilian professionals were taking part in the so-called "defense and rebuilding of normal life" in the occupied regions.

Nothing To Fear?

Sokolov said the reports of alleged detentions haven't deterred him from wanting to teach in Ukraine, adding that he is driven by patriotic motives and not the lucrative salary.

Aleksei Savvakov, the deputy director of security at a middle school in Yaroslav in central Russia and a former police officer, also said he still plans to go if he is called.

"What could be that bad there?" he asked. "The people there are the same -- two hands, two feet. The Russian language, probably, is understood," said Savvakov, who admitted he does not follow the news or browse the Internet much.

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