The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Russia sending teachers to Ukraine to control what students learn

The Kremlin is promising teachers big money to ‘prepare schools’ in Ukrainian regions its forces now occupy

A ceremony memorializes graduates of a school in Russia who died as “heroes” this spring while fighting in Ukraine. (Courtesy of the Alliance of Teachers)
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RIGA, Latvia — Russia has promised hundreds of teachers big money to go to occupied Ukraine and give students there a “corrected” education — with Russia’s take on Ukraine’s history — in the coming school year.

For some teachers in Chuvashia, a republic about 400 miles east of Moscow, the offer seemed tempting. The average monthly salary in the region is around $550, but the prospective salary posted by a school director on a Chuvashia teachers’ chat group was for more than $2,900 a month.

“Urgent,” his June 17 message said. “Teachers needed for [Zaporizhzhia] and Kherson regions for the summer period. 8600 rubles a day. The job is to prepare schools for the new school year. Transportation there and back — free. Accommodation and food — under discussion.”

An hour later, the director added: “Dear teachers, is there anyone else who wishes to help colleagues? It is safe in those regions. Please respond fast.” Both solicitations were shared with The Washington Post by the Alliance of Teachers, an independent group in Russia.

The pay is so lucrative that one of the group’s members briefly considered responding before his administrator warned him that he would be crazy to go.

“Everyone understands everything. These trips will not result in anything good,” said the teacher, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fears of retaliation.

Moscow is carrying out an intense Russification effort in occupied regions, one that appears designed to quash Ukrainians’ sense of history, nationhood and even their language. Targeting what children learn is a key strategy. Ukrainian education “must be corrected,” Russian Education Minister Sergei Kravtsov said at a June 28 meeting of President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party.

Yet the Kremlin’s effort extends far beyond the schools. It already has blocked Ukraine’s cellphone network and media in areas it controls, while broadcasting Russian state propaganda about its “denazification” of the country. It has torn down Ukrainian city signs and replaced them with Russian ones. And under a Putin decree, Moscow is trying to get Ukrainians throughout the country to sign up for Russian passports.

Referendums are planned for September on occupied areas “joining” Russia. The Kremlin also has foreshadowed possible votes on making Russian the official language of Ukraine.

Several weeks ago, Russia set up civil registry offices in Kherson and Melitopol, where Ukrainians can register newborn babies “in accordance with Russian law,” get Russian documents and apply for welfare payments.

Russia seeks to militarize schoolchildren and censor textbooks amid war

Nearly 250 teachers, including 57 from the republic of Dagestan in southern Russia, signed up to go to Ukraine, according to a list on the Dagestan Ministry of Education website that no longer is visible. Their destinations include the Moscow-backed separatist regions of Luhansk and Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson. The ministry advertised a massive pay boost — 8,000 rubles a day, about $137, on top of teachers’ existing teaching salaries.

In the city of Izhevsk, Georgy Grigoriyev signed up because of the salary. He is not concerned about the potential dangers and plans to go for at least a year. “Then probably I will stay there,” he said. “I’ll probably buy an apartment there. I have nothing to lose.” He teaches Russian language and literature as well as chemistry and biology.

“They promise very good salaries and accommodation,” Grigoriyev explained in a phone interview. “And I thought, ‘Why not?’ I’m divorced, my children are grown-ups, so I might as well work there, especially for such a good salary.”

Another teacher, who lives in the Astrakhan region and spoke on the condition of anonymity, said by phone that he had registered to teach in Ukraine “because I want to be useful there. I believe that the life in those regions is very hard, and I want to help people there.”

The Education Ministry’s offices in Moscow and Dagestan did not respond to questions from The Post, but in late June the ministry told the government newspaper Rossiskaya Gazeta that it was introducing “high-quality Russian standards so that schools can work properly.” Independent Russian media Caucasian Knot quoted a Dagestan ministry spokesman saying the order to recruit teachers came on the evening of July 6 and gave it just two days to get answers.

Kravtsov, one of the most enthusiastic supporters of Putin’s Russification project, flew in mid-June to Melitopol and stressed Moscow’s determination to teach Ukrainian children the Russian version of the nations’ histories.

“The key task is telling school students the whole truth, the truth about our fraternal peoples, about common achievements and victories,” he told Russian journalists in the occupied city. He said Russia would stay in the region “forever.”

Kravtsov was a Moscow math teacher in the 1990s before switching to academia and then government education agencies, where he moved swiftly up the ranks. He holds several degrees, though a lawmaker once accused him of plagiarism in earning one of those.

Several days after the head of Putin’s party announced this month that a “brigade” of student teachers had reached Ukraine, Kravtsov visited a city in the northeast and said the first batch of Russian textbooks, including language and history books, had arrived. Ukrainian children, he noted, must be educated in “traditions of friendship” with Russians. The result will be “our happy children.”

Ominous rhetoric gains ground in Russia as its forces founder in Ukraine

This push comes amid a major overhaul of Russia’s own education system, prompted largely by top security officials calling on schools to build a new “patriotic” generation. History textbooks are being revised to reflect Putin’s view that Ukraine was never a real state.

Starting in September, Russian teachers must hold new class sessions titled “Conversations About Important Things.” These must follow government guidelines on what children should learn about the war in Ukraine and current events — an approach reminiscent of the “politinformation” classes held in Soviet times. If the classes follow Putin’s lead, they will reflect his false claims that Ukraine committed “genocide” or that its government is made up of “Nazis” bent on attacking Russia.

Moscow’s Russification of areas it occupies in Ukraine bears disturbing echoes of the Soviet era under Joseph Stalin when millions of people from annexed or subjugated regions were deported to Siberia and Central Asia. Russian workers were sent in to settle and assimilate many areas. The Baltic states and Central Asian nations such as Kazakhstan still have significant numbers of ethnic Russians, often a source of tension amid Moscow’s frequent vows to “protect” all Russian speakers.

Kravtsov’s education project is getting a boost from another Kremlin scheme pairing Russian cities with occupied Ukrainian cities and towns. St. Petersburg’s governor, Alexander Beglov, flew in June to Mariupol, the Ukrainian port city heavily bombed by Russia, to sign a “twin city” agreement with Russia’s proxies there. He announced he would pair his schools with ones in Mariupol and vowed to send in teams of teachers and government officials.

One teacher in St. Petersburg named Larisa, who opposes the war, believes going to teach in Ukraine would be morally repugnant because of the millions of people there who have been killed or displaced by Russia’s attacks.

“Unfortunately, there will be teachers who will go to Ukraine to earn that cursed money,” said Larisa, whom The Post is identifying only by first name due to fears she could be arrested or jailed. “I don’t know how they will look into the mirror.”

Daniil Ken, head of the Alliance of Teachers, said some regional governments deleted the recruitment offers from school chat groups as soon as local media reported them. He suspects the governments were concerned that teachers might complain about the low salaries paid in Russia, particularly in understaffed rural areas.

“People might start asking, ‘Why are our teachers being sent there when we do not have enough teachers here?’ ” said Ken, who recently left Russia because of concerns over his safety.

Larisa expects history teachers to have the most difficult task: changing Ukrainian students’ views of their country’s past to fit Russian government demands.

“I don’t think that this will be successful,” she said. “Those who are dependent on you, under the threat of being killed or being punished, can pretend that they believe you. But in the bottom of their hearts, they won’t believe you, and they will be waiting for any opportunity for revenge.”

Natalia Abbakumova in Riga contributed to this report.