This is how Moscow tries to ‘Russify’ the occupied territories

In fact, not a day goes by that Lyudmila Kurkoerina is not worried. Not so much about her own situation, but about that of her colleagues and students. The 56-year-old Ukrainian lives in what she considers a relatively safe area: not far from the Dnieper. She accepts that the east-central city is regularly attacked by Russian missiles. After all, she can hear the airstrikes, in contrast to the intangible danger that looms over her home region of Zaporizhia province in southern Ukraine.

There, in the vicinity of the city of Melitopol, the danger of the Russian occupiers arises. Like the sword of Damocles, disaster constantly hangs over the heads of the inhabitants. It is impossible to say when and on whom it will fall. Kurkoerina knows everything. From Dnipro, she digitally manages a school in a village outside Melitopol that refuses to conform to Russian occupation.

Although the school building is closed, teachers continue to secretly teach according to the Ukrainian educational system to a total of 115 students, of which 82 still live in occupied territory. These lessons typically take place online, but teachers teaching younger students physically meet with them. “It is difficult for young children to study online. That’s why their colleagues visit them to guide them,” says Koerkoerina.

And that is not without risks. Teachers who stick to the Ukrainian education system risk persecution. The occupying power can arrest them for collaboration and imprison or deport them. “That is why teachers who physically meet with students always go to them covertly. They pose as family guests, meet at a playground, or come over for coffee as neighbors. “It is incredibly brave what these people are doing.”

The fact that teachers persist in their profession has a lot to do with the reality of the education system in the occupied Ukrainian territories. Since Moscow seized power in the east and south of the country, it has done everything possible to destroy Ukrainian identity and Russify the occupied territories. One way to achieve this is through education. Children must attend Russian schools where they are taught according to the Russian educational system.


Koerkoerina knows that daily practice in these schools amounts to indoctrination. “Russian is the main language. Ukrainian is prohibited. Each school week begins with the singing of the Russian national anthem and the raising of the flag, and portraits of Putin hang in classrooms. Imagine what children must feel; that you will raise the tricolor of the country that you are destroying and occupying at home, under the watchful eye of the man who caused it all.”

Additionally, Russian schools use teaching materials that tell the Kremlin’s version of history. The new textbooks deny the existence of the Ukrainian nation and tell stories about neo-Nazis in kyiv and the Russian liberation of Ukraine as if it were a 21st century version of World War II. Likewise, children from nine years old learn how to assemble and disassemble a rifle during so-called “military preparation lessons.”

However, Ukrainian students have no choice but to meekly continue their education in Russian schools. “Like many other families living under occupation, we had no choice,” writes a fifteen-year-old Kurkoerina student. ‘After several phone calls from the occupation authorities, my parents had to send my documents to the Russian school. The war destroyed all my dreams and plans. Now I understand how a person in captivity feels. How much pain and suffering there is. I am so sad that I can’t go to my own school, hear the bell ring, hear my friends’ voices, walk into the classroom, or sit at my desk. I want to go back to my life before the war.

Kurkoerina is heartbroken. “And to think that these students are forced from time to time to send letters to the Russian soldiers at the front thanking them for the ‘liberation.’ While the same soldiers stand guard at the entrance to the schools.”

It is a traumatizing reality, Koerkoerina continues. “I have been teaching history for 33 years. Recently, during an online lesson, I was talking to my students about World War II and the German occupation. Then one student commented that he didn’t have to tell them about it. “We are in exactly the same situation as then,” she said. ‘We know very well what an occupation is like. It is painful to discuss this issue with us now.” “That comment says everything about the lives of these children and how imprisoned they are.”

No choice

Because although the parents of Kurkurina students do not want to send their children to Russian schools, they have no other option. Those who do not report will be on the radar of the occupation authorities. “The Russian school is located twenty kilometers from the town where our school is located. A bus picks up students at seven in the morning. Sometimes parents say that their children have fallen asleep, but it is difficult for them to say it every day. “Then there will be retaliation.”

Kurkoerina experienced it firsthand. She herself lived under occupation in her village near Melitopol until December 2022. After the Russian invasion, she tried to keep the Ukrainian school running, but the occupation forces soon came to search her house. “Then they deported me. They dropped me off at the last military checkpoint in the Zaporizhia region. From there I had to figure it out myself.”

It is illustrative of how education is a silent front line of the Kremlin in the battle against Ukrainian identity. It is an unequivocal part of the Russian occupation manual. A guideline that has been on the shelf in Red Square for years and that Moscow applied, among other things, after the annexation of Crimea in 2014. The illegal occupation of the Ukrainian peninsula has now become a model for the other occupied regions of Ukraine .

Forced metamorphosis

Natasja can talk about it. As a resident of Crimea, the forty-something has been watching for ten years as Moscow gives her birthplace a carefully orchestrated facelift. A forced metamorphosis that must Russify the peninsula and thus create the illusion that the area was always Russian.

“In addition to education, I also see this in the composition of the population,” he says by phone from Crimea. “Since 2014, many people from the Russian ‘mainland’ have settled here, while many Ukrainians have fled or been deported. I see and hear these new residents everywhere on the street. I was told more than once that I should be grateful that Russia liberated Crimea. Complete madness. By changing the demographics, they want you to believe that all those Russians have always been here.”

And that’s simply not true: a 2001 Ukrainian census showed that while sixty percent of Crimea’s population was ethnically Russian at the time, 24 percent were Ukrainian and ten percent Tatar. On the contrary, according to the human rights organization Ukrainian Human Rights Union of Helsinki, out of a population of approximately two million people (as of 2014), at least 800,000 Russians have moved to Crimea since the annexation, attracted by good jobs and cheap houses. At the same time, according to the NGO, at least 100,000 Ukrainians have left.

This demographic manipulation has now also become a tactic to Russify the more recently occupied regions in eastern and southern Ukraine. Since the February 2022 invasion, Moscow has been trying to attract Russians from near and far to the occupied territory. For example, since June 2023, the occupied regions are a “free economic zone” where companies receive numerous tax benefits and Russian employees receive relatively high salaries if they move voluntarily.

Along with the forced deportations of Ukrainians – a figure that, according to Ukrainian Human Rights Commissioner Dmytro Lubinets, already amounted to 2.8 million people in December 2022 – the Kremlin is doing everything it can to create a loyal population which, at first glance, is mostly Russian. . seems. “It is nothing more than ethnic cleansing aimed at eliminating everything that is Ukrainian,” Natasja continues. “I’ve seen it happen in Crimea and now it’s happening in other parts of Ukraine.”


It is certainly not the only way Moscow Russifies the occupied territories. Another proven recipe is the so-called “passportization”. Simply put, the occupation authorities force residents to obtain a Russian passport by attaching essential basic services to it. For example, those who do not have a Russian passport cannot claim free healthcare or pension. As a nurse, Natasja knows everything. “Anyone with a Russian passport can enter a hospital to receive free care. Without a Russian document there will be costs involved.”

She also has a Russian passport, she says. Not because she wants to, but because an offer you can’t refuse is. “I just have to make ends meet and without a Russian passport it is practically impossible to get a job. Furthermore, there are many examples of people who were denied Russian citizenship and subsequently deported. Or their property was confiscated.”

According to the United Nations, in Crimea alone in the last two years, 730 plots of land belonging to Ukrainians and Tatars have been confiscated and given to Russian soldiers and veterans who served in Putin’s war. “In short, they leave us no choice but to settle,” Natasja continues. “It is pure coercion. My mother also has a Russian passport for the same reason. Without that document she will not receive a pension.”

For the Kremlin, “passportization” also serves as a propaganda tool. The fact that thousands of residents in the occupied territories are forced to adopt a Russian passport in order to earn a living is reason in the parallel universe of the leaders in Red Square to proclaim that all these people feel liberated by Moscow and are happy to join Russia. want to hear.

Kurkoerina knows that this is no different in the recently occupied areas. “Russians hand out passports like they were candy. Without the document you can barely do anything: you can’t take out an Internet subscription, you can’t find a job, you can’t sign an electricity contract and you can’t send your children to school. You also need documents to drive a car and you must also replace your license plate with a Russian license plate. Without a passport, life becomes simply impossible.”

Natasja in Crimea knows that this has its effect. “Everyone around me has a Russian passport. Although there are many people who keep their Ukrainian passports in some drawer for the day when liberation comes.” And that day is getting closer, she says. “I live fifteen kilometers from the Saki military airport, here in Crimea. There are fighter jets flying over my house all the time. But from time to time I also hear explosions. Then I know something is wrong on the Russian side and I laugh quietly. “The sound of explosions is the sound of freedom to me.”

Natasja’s name has been changed for security reasons. The editors know her real name.

Also read:

Two teachers denounce the Russification of schools in Crimea. ‘The books now talk about Malaya Rossia, Little Russia’

Through “patriotic” education, Moscow is slowly but surely trying to brainwash children in the occupied Ukrainian territories. What is this “Russification” of education like? Two teachers from Crimea, annexed by Russia since 2014, share their experiences.

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