How Kremlin propaganda grooms Donbas teenagers
Elina Kent: Welcome to the Kyiv Post Podcast, where you can tune in to stories that give you a deeper understanding of Ukraine.
I’m your host Elina Kent. I’m a multimedia producer and lifestyle journalist here at the Kyiv Post.
It has been just over seven years since the start of Russia’s invasion and aggression in Eastern Ukraine. The war has slowly dragged on with no end in sight. Meanwhile, children in occupied Donbas swallow pro-Kremlin propaganda on a daily basis.
Ukraine is no longer mentioned in their textbooks, except when accompanied by the terms “Russophobia” and “neo-Nazism,” popular on Russian TV.
Trying to nurture a generation loyal to the pro-Russian regime, the occupation authorities have Russified all education, waging a massive propaganda campaign in schools and beyond.
While this campaign has turned some young people against Ukraine, the occupants’ methods are failing. Tired of war, poverty and isolation, the youth of Donbas are fleeing to the rest of Ukraine or to Russia in search of a better life.
Our staff writer Anastasiia Lapatina interviewed teenagers from the occupied territories of Donbas to see how Russia’s efforts to eradicate Ukrainian identity in the region affected their education and hopes for the future.
EK: So what does the current situation look like in Donbas?
AL: So the situation in the occupied territories of Donbas is quite grim. Especially for the young people who live there. Everyone I have talked to said that they were quite unhappy for the lack of opportunities for education or career growth. Since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, basically all Ukrainian and international companies have left the region. The only stores and businesses that can provide services are either locally managed or Russian. And this creates a significant shortage of basic goods and services which contribute to this overall feeling of isolation from the world that many teenagers spoke to me about.
So basic stuff like banking, for instance, is a huge problem. The only bank that somewhat functions on occupied territories is the one established by the occupants and it doesn’t work very well so no one really uses credit cards, only cash. And international money transfers or Apple pay, all these things are completely foreign to people who live on occupied territories and for the youth all of these problems are very annoying because they kind of feel out of sync with the rest of the world.
There is also a curfew which has now lasted for 7 years, so no one can go outside from 11pm to 5 in the morning. And the curfew is only lifted for some holidays. So a couple times a year. So you can imagine, no nightlife, nothing of the sort. So the situation is not very good overall, especially for the young people.
EK: What are some examples of the “Russification” that takes place?
AL: So the very obvious thing is that kids can no longer study Ukrainian literature, language or history in schools. And if you want to do that you have to find private tutors or study online at a Ukrainian school, which many kids do. So instead, classes like Donbas citizenship and spirituality lessons or Russia in the World have been installed in the program. Kids also learn the Russian language and then the history of the fatherland, which is taught according to the history of Russia textbooks.
Also portraits of famous Ukrainian artists or like Taras Shevhchenko the most world renowned Ukrainian writer, those have been removed and instead replaced with the leaders of the local occupational authorities or Russian backed militants in the region. And another problem is teachers who just tell kids lies about Ukraine, installing anti-Ukrainian propaganda in their heads. Calling Ukrainians fascists or nazis, telling stories about how in Ukraine people’s skulls get measured to determine if they are Ukrainian enough.
This is a lie of course, but it is something that one can hear on Russian state TV quite often.
EK: How effective is this propaganda in influencing the children?
I can’t say it’s 100% effective. About half of the people I talked to, kids aged 15 to 18 or 19 maybe, they all want to flee Ukraine. But there are still a lot of people, so I’d say hundreds or thousands, it’s difficult to say, they are living in isolation that follow these Russian narratives and anti-Ukrainian propaganda, and there are a lot of kids that join pro-Russian patriotic camps or military camps, and there they create various patriotic events, pro-Russian events celebrating May 9th which is the Victory Day in the post Soviet Union republics.
So I can’t say for sure but it is clear that everyone who lives there wants to leave either to Russia or Ukraine.
EK: And is it difficult for them to leave?
AL: Yes it can be quite difficult to leave because as one girl told me in her opinion it is to the occupational authorities advantage that the students stay, they need workers, they need the students they need the youth to kind of pump up life into the region, so there are routine border closures, in between occupied territories and Ukraine.
Even to go to Ukraine from the occupied territories most people go through Russia, so they cross the border between occupied territories in Russia, go into Kharkiv region, and then go wherever they need to go in Ukraine. And that creates a lot of difficulties and takes a lot of time, so you are travelling basically the whole day, and for many kids who want to apply to Ukrainian universities they have to go and take admissions tests, something known as ZNO here. Those are done at the end of your schooling in grade 11, and to do that they have to travel to Ukraine, but the occupants every year, they kind of think of something to make this as difficult as possible, many kids have missed those tests and couldn’t retake them and couldn’t go to the universities they wanted to. Because they just couldn’t get there. One girl even told me she doesn’t know what’s harder, taking the exams or getting to take them.
The occupants are really trying to lower the amount of people who flee, but nevertheless people manage. And it’s way easier for people to flee to Russia. Because there are many connections, economic, bureaucratic ones between Russia and the occupied territories. Russia has been giving out thousands of Russian passports to people in the occupied territories and that just makes everything easier because you can travel back and forth and your documents are accepted.
I’ve also been told by one girl, as much as she loves Ukraine, it is very difficult to get there because her documents issued by the occupational authorities are not recognized in Ukraine and it’s very difficult to get to Ukraine because of these border crossings so she is going to pursue her education in Russia. And that saddened me all too but that’s unfortunately the reality.
EK: Ukraine created a program for children who live in the occupied territories of Crimea and Donbas. Through such a program teenagers can choose to apply to one university in Ukraine without a passport or high school transcript to ease their journey into Ukraine. However, the program is difficult to manage so most choose an alternative route, attempting to take the admissions tests and travel to Ukraine and apply to as many universities as they want. So what future options do these young students have?
AL: So students have at least two options. They can go to Ukraine after they graduate or they can go to Russia. In Russia it’s easier to do so just because you can receive Russian passports. Or they can choose to remain in the so-called republics on the occupied territories, but from what I’ve heard virtually no one wants to do that. Just because there is poverty, there is curfew, there are no prospects for career growth or good education because after Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, the majority of good teachers left the region, so even the universities that were one of the best in Ukraine before, they are now at very very low standards.
And I guess you can also move into a third country to Europe, and most people in the occupied territories don’t have the resources to do that.
EK: Thank you so much for coming in and talking to us about your article.
AL: Thanks for having me, it was really nice.
(c)KYIV POST 2021