Ihor Todorov: “The education system in the occupied territories produces enemies of Ukraine”

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, has resulted in significant losses for Ukraine’s education system, as it has in all spheres of the country. The key factors that influence the transformation of the educational landscape during wartime are:

The forced displacement of a large number of Ukrainians. More than 5 million Ukrainians have relocated within the country due to pressure, while more than 6.2 million have moved abroad. According to the UNHCR, more than one-third of all Ukrainian refugees abroad are minors. More than 23,000 teachers and 600,000 students have left for other countries. Furthermore, sociologists predict that after the war, an additional 100,000 to 745,000 people could flee Ukraine, including a sizable proportion of young people studying in university. Hence, Ukrainian higher education institutions are confronted with the significant challenge of diminishing enrollment, a trend anticipated to persist in the foreseeable future.

Devastation and damage to educational institutions as a result of war. As of February 2024, bombing and shelling had damaged approximately 3,800 educational institutions. According to UNESCO, more than 1,400 buildings of Ukraine’s scientific institutions have been destroyed or damaged as a result of Russia’s full-scale invasion, with the restoration of the state’s scientific infrastructure costing 1.26 billion US dollars.

Russia’s neocolonial humanitarian policies. Russia is forcibly imposing its own educational system on occupied territories. Its primary goal is not to provide high-quality educational services but to eradicate the Ukrainian identity while distorting and defaming the concept of Ukrainian statehood in the minds of the youth. According to Amnesty International, Russia has transformed its education into a propaganda machine, including historical distortions and efforts to eradicate Ukrainian culture and identity. Amnesty International’s research reveals a disturbing pattern: when parents opt not to enrol their children in schools following the Russian curriculum, the Russian military resorts to coercion by threatening to forcibly remove and deport their children to Russia.

Furthermore, representatives of the occupation administration consistently put pressure on educators, requiring them to teach Russian educational programs and implement Russian language instruction.

Thus, the main challenges confronting the Ukrainian education system as a result of Russian aggression are the loss of human capital, the destruction of educational infrastructure, the severance of educational and humanitarian ties with Ukrainians in occupied territories, and the difficulties in resuming the educational process under martial law.

It is important to remember that Russia’s experiment with replacing identity in occupied territories began long before the full-scale invasion, specifically in 2014, when the Kremlin annexed Crimea and launched its hybrid war in Donbas. Simultaneously, the education sector was central to the Russian Federation’s colonial expansion.

Therefore, UCMC sought the counsel of Dr. Ihor Todorov, professor of International Relations at Uzhhorod National University and director of the Centre for International Security and Euro-Atlantic Integration. Prior to this, Mr.Todorov, Professor at Donetsk National University – one of the leading universities in Ukraine, was forced to relocate to Central Ukraine in 2014 due to the Russian occupation of Donetsk. 

Todorov’s personal experience as a well-known historian in Ukraine is a telling testimony to Russia’s long-standing aggression against Ukrainian education. As a result, we asked Mr. Todorov about the challenges that Vasyl’ Stus Donetsk National University faced during the first wave of Russian occupation in Donbas. We also asked him about how the war has affected Ukraine’s educational landscape. 

Q. Tell us about your personal experience with Donetsk National University’s 2014 relocation

I’ve had a close relationship with Donetsk National University (DonNU) since 1976, when I began my first year in the History Department. Since 1981, I’ve worked at the Preparatory Faculty for Foreign Citizens, the Faculty of History, and the Department of International Relations and Foreign Policy. I defended my PhD and doctoral theses at this university. So, this is my true alma mater.

Already in the spring of 2014, when the occupation of Donetsk first began, the university attempted to pretend that nothing was happening. This was made possible by the positions of some university leaders who supported the ‘Russian world’. Some of them were covert Russian sympathisers, such as Svitlana Bespalova, the current director of the fake university in Donetsk and the vice-rector for research at the time.

After the fighting for the Donetsk airport began in late May 2014, the university was closed for several days before instructions were issued to quickly hold the current exams and commissions. That is, the university continued to operate, but the students were no longer present.

In terms of subsequent events, there was initially some hope that Donetsk would be liberated and that we would return to work after the holidays. However, by the end of August, it had become clear that this was impossible. I personally submitted my letter of resignation and resigned on September 1, 2014. Back then I refused to travel to Donetsk because I did not want to end up in the “basement’ (prison – UCMC), where my colleagues had been detained. 

And so, I relocated before Donetsk University moved to Vinnytsia (city in the central Ukraine – UCMC) in the autumn. I was hired at Uzhhorod National University, where I still work today.

Separatists effectively took control of Donetsk University in early September. It was clear that the university could no longer function as a Ukrainian educational institution. And thus, the university’s relocation process began. We should honour Rector Roman Hryniuk and his inner circle for their patriotic stance, which included secretly taking the university flag and certain documentation. Many students and postgraduates attempted to get their documents back. They were resisted in every way imaginable, but those who wanted to connect their future lives with a real university were able to. 

Q. What were the most significant challenges that Vasyl’ Stus Donetsk National University faced as hostilities flared up in 2014? 

Some work was completed, but before we could begin the educational process, we needed to find a location. If I recall correctly, one building was provided at the factory. Several organisations and Vinnytsia residents contributed to the establishment of Donetsk University. 

Despite the assistance, there were significant difficulties. The reality is that Vinnytsia has never had a classical university. For example, there was no speciality in which I worked: international relations. This specialty is popular, and Vinnytsia universities faced competition. Not everyone was pleased with DonNU’s stay in Vinnytsia. Nonetheless, people have demonstrated through their efforts that DonNU is now one of the strongest universities in the region. In my opinion, Donetsk University is the best example of a university in exile in Ukraine. Civil society played a significant role in this.

Q. How has the full-scale war since 2022 impacted the operations of Uzhhorod National University, particularly in the early months of the invasion?

Indeed, Uzhhorod National University cancelled classes for the first two weeks after the full-scale invasion began. Many people were involved in welcoming refugees. Uzhhorod is a small city, the smallest regional centre in Ukraine, with slightly more than 100,000 residents. Of course, the population composition has changed due to the large number of refugees. The university offered all possible assistance and the UzhNU Volunteer Centre was doing exceptional work. All university dormitories were made available to the displaced people. I am proud of how the university handled this war in the rear.

Further education has more or less resumed. At the time, COVID was still in effect, and we had gained a lot of experience in distance learning over the previous two years, so there were no major changes. It is clear that many people from Uzhhorod left the country, particularly girls and boys under the age of 18, to continue their online education in other countries. We now offer online education exclusively to master’s and part-time students. Many students are abroad, and in order to avoid losing them, we have to do so.

Q. What are the war’s consequences for Ukraine’s educational landscape?

Certainly, they are sad. A large number of students are studying abroad, which presents a problem because these children are already studying in their host countries while also continuing their studies in Ukraine. This, of course, is an additional burden. Not everyone can handle it. However, I believe it is normal for people to maintain contact with their homeland.

Because of their experience studying under COVID, the higher education system was able to adapt more easily. Many educational institutions have reverted to offline learning. However, the problem of filling the student body remains, as many people have gone abroad. Finally, many people don’t have time to study right now. Although studying full-time allows you to avoid the draft, it is still an important part of life.

Q. Will the occupiers’ efforts to change Ukrainian identity through the school system and universities in uncontrolled territories be successful (the role of propaganda in education)?

In my opinion, natural human conformity and, on occasion, Stockholm syndrome are at work. The occupation of Donetsk has been ongoing for ten years. And I know people who support Ukraine but are unable to leave Donetsk due to personal reasons. They are forced to work for the occupiers’ bogus “universities”. As a result, by accepting a Russian reality, they objectively contribute to the fact that the occupied territories’ educational system continues to produce Ukrainian enemies. It is disgusting that Russians are enlisting students and then forcing them to kill their fellow citizens, but this is the situation.

Unfortunately, the experience of the territories occupied in 2014 demonstrates that there is a genuine shift in Ukrainian identity. The occupiers’ actions in the field of education do have an impact. It has been less effective in Russian-controlled territories since 2022. However, the longer the occupation continues, the more dangerous the situation will become for the Ukrainian identity. This is objective. It’s not because people are bad; they’re just forced to adapt to the current situation. Mainly because of the risk to themselves and their loved ones.