IZIUM, Ukraine – Russian officials approached Ina Mandryka with a simple proposal: If she agreed to open a school in a town in the occupied territory and teach in Russian, she would be promoted from vice principal. to the principal.
For Mrs. Mandryka, it was an easy choice. “I declined,” she said. “To teach the Russian curriculum is a crime.” The school, with classrooms decorated with colorful pictures of giraffes and bears, remains closed.
Iryna Overedna, a second grade teacher in the city of Izium, made another choice. Ms Overedna said: “The teacher in me thought, ‘The kids should go to school. Besides, she said, she needed a salary to support her family. She went to Kursk, southwestern Russia, to study the new curriculum.
When the Ukrainian army forced the Russian Army into a chaotic retreat in northeastern Ukraine this month, they recaptured towns and villages that had been occupied for more than 5 months. In doing so, they inherited a legal and ethical issue involving some thorny verdicts: Who in the towns cooperated with the Russians when they took control?
In many places, the Russians have left behind their own tanks and war, but also evidence of potential war crimes with mass graves and torture chambers. For thousands of Ukrainians, the occupation has become a dark interlude of wartime cooperation, now punishable under Ukrainian law.
But the status of many activities is not necessarily obvious, because they are intertwined with everyday life. For example, the Ukrainian authorities do not consider doctors, firefighters and employees of utility companies as traitors because their work is considered essential to the functioning of a town. But police officers, city and regional government employees and some teachers who have agreed to work under the Russian educational program are classified as collaborators.
The teachers pose a special dilemma.
Ukrainian officials have repeatedly criticized teachers who are willing to follow Russian instructions. In a war to destroy Ukrainian identity and language, they say, it is a grave crime to agree to educate children according to a curriculum that denies the existence of a Ukrainian state.
There is a simmering anger within the Ukrainian government towards teachers who have opinions with the Russian authorities. Serhiy Horbachov, the education inspector, said at least the teachers who collaborated should have lost their certificates. “These people are absolutely not allowed to work with Ukrainian children,” he said in an interview. “It’s going to be a very difficult and painful story.”
About 1,200 schools remain in the occupied territory. During its counter-offensive, the Ukrainian army captured an area covering about 65. About half opened its doors on September 1 to teach Russian language textbooks, with a total of about 200 teachers, prosecutors According to Ukrainian officials, it was only closed for a few days when the army swept in.
Volodymyr Lymar, deputy prosecutor for the Kharkiv region, said in an interview that not all will be arrested. Teachers will be evaluated for their active role in preparing or promoting Russian language propaganda to children, he said, and punishment will be given accordingly. “For teachers, it’s a difficult question,” he said.
Izium, a city that was once elegant 19th-century brick buildings on stone slabs overlooking the River Siversky Donets, is now largely a ruin. When Ukrainian soldiers recaptured it, residents greeted them with hugs and homemade dumplings. Even days later, many were so relieved at the end of the occupation that they cried while describing the city’s liberation.
But they object to the way they are being judged for the concessions they have made to survive the occupation – and even small acts of cooperation with the Russian Army. It raises a more common problem for Ukrainians as they liberate territory: division and mistrust arising from accusations of cooperation.
Some civilians in northern Ukraine have already fled across the border to the Russian city of Belgorod, saying they fear retaliation by the Ukrainian authorities for working in the city government. Others say that aggressive social media campaigns have made them a target for townspeople.
Within weeks of the Russian invasion in February, residents of Izium say, their sleepy provincial town transformed into a world of horror seen through the glass: Bodies lay unfocused on the pavement summer, ruined buildings and Russian soldiers patrolling the streets. People huddled in basements for safety from shelling.
Before long, residents were forced to make nasty choices.
Oksana Hrizodub, a Russian literature lecturer who refuses to teach Russians, said: “Each person chooses his or her own destiny, but she does not judge those who have done so. “For the people stuck here, it’s personal,” she said.
Most teachers either fled the territory before the occupation or refused to teach the Russian curriculum, staying at home without pay and living off preserved vegetables from their own gardens or distributed by neighbors.
“They are putting pressure on some but not all of us,” said Svitlana Sydorova, a biology, geography and chemistry teacher in the city of Balakliya who opted out of the Russian program. “Some agreed to cooperate of their own free will. The police should find that out by looking at each case one by one. “
Others took refuge to escape threats and pressure from the Russians. Iryna Shapovalova, an English teacher, said she mostly stayed at home to get through work and avoid attention. “I was lucky,” she said. “I hid with my children.”
Ms. Overedna, the second-grade teacher who has agreed to return to work, describes what she characterizes as small steps toward collaborating with the Russians. At first, the ethical compromises were small, she said.
First, she participated in June in a Russia-supported project to clean up debris from a community center, called the House of Culture, so that high school students could use it for a graduation ball.
She and others receive a “working rations,” in exchange for a portion of food – but said they don’t make it too much to give teenagers a sense of normalcy and a celebration. small memories.
She said that at the end of the summer, the Russian occupation authorities contacted the teachers who had cleared the House of Culture to ask them to open schools in the fall. First, they will have to go to Kursk to study the curriculum. She decided to go and continue teaching.
“What if the occupation lasted for many years?” Ms. Overedna talks about her rationale. “The kids shouldn’t go to school?”
She said that she did not find the Russian curriculum for second grade to be particularly political. Yes, it was written in Russian, not Ukrainian, and she was instructed to teach two Russian poets, K Lawyer Chukovsky and Mikhail Prishvin. If not, she says, “It’s just a teacher’s conference,” like countless others she’s attended over the years.
“My goal is to survive,” she said. “To survive the winter, I need to eat. To eat, I need to work. To work, I have to go to conferences.”
It was not just the teachers who compromised in many ways big and small with the Russian Army. Serhiy Saltivskyi received a “working ration” consisting of packages of spaghetti and additional cans of beef for moving bodies in his cargo truck.
Initially, people buried those killed by shelling, or by gunfire by Russian soldiers, in shallow graves in courtyards and parks. However, when the weather was warm, the Russians demanded that the bodies be moved to a pine forest on the edge of town, where there are now more than 400 graves and are being investigated for evidence of war crimes.
Mr. Saltivskyi defended his role in these uprisings, saying he did nothing wrong. “You can’t turn a town into a cemetery,” he said. “There are women and children, and it’s tough, but who’s going to do it?”
The “working rations” kept him alive but came with a price to pay after liberation, in a sign that the Russian retreat had left communities divided over assessments. about who collaborates and who doesn’t.
Mr. Saltivskyi said: “Now, people come to me on the street and point and say, ‘He’s that guy!’.
Yelena Yevmenova, the director of an apartment complex in Izium, gave a list of all the inhabitants of the building to the Russians in exchange for humanitarian aid. She says she has no regrets – people need to survive, she said. “Now let them accuse us of eating canned Russian beef,” she said.
Ms. Overedna said that she did not actually guide Ukrainian children in the Russian curriculum; Ukraine’s attack began before her school opened.
And she doesn’t consider her willingness to teach a crime. She said in an interview in an interview in her apartment: “Teaching is my job, a dark, messy space filled with boxes of canned goods. There is no electricity and to prepare meals, she cooks over a campfire in the yard.
Going through the hardships, she longs to return to the normalcy of the school year, she said. “I can’t imagine myself not being in a classroom.”
Now, she said, “everyone is talking about who was a collaborator who worked for the enemy.”
She added, “And now everyone is saying, ‘You’re everyone’s enemy.'”
Evelina Riabenko contribution report.