Educational Aspects of Re-educating Deported Children
Russia’s war against Ukraine encompasses multiple fronts, including the aspect of deportation. For nearly two years, the aggressor country has been forcibly removing Ukrainians from the temporarily occupied territories, with a particularly alarming focus on the re-education of minors. This issue extends beyond cultural and national identity interference, presenting many legal and ethical dilemmas. Education, traditionally a tool for development and self-realization, is being repurposed as an instrument of political manipulation. This article explores the critical aspects of the educational policies imposed on deported Ukrainian children in Russia and evaluates their effects on these children’s identity and self-awareness.
Maria Lvova-Belova, Russia’s Commissioner for Children’s Rights, acknowledges that since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, over 744,000 children have been deported to Russia. The Ukrainian state portal “Children of War” indicates that, as of July 31, 2023, there are 19,546 deported children, according to Ukrainian official records. Daria Herasymchuk, the Ukrainian President’s Commissioner for Children’s Rights, estimates the number could be as high as 200,000 to 300,000. While the precise figure remains unknown, it’s evident that a significant number of minors are being integrated into Russian educational systems. Human rights organizations such as the Regional Human Rights Center and ZMINA, along with international bodies like The Institute for the Study of War, have identified at least 34 camps in Russia and Belarus where deported Ukrainian children are detained.
In some instances, young children and minors are being illegally placed in specialized institutions or even adopted. Maria Lvova-Belova herself adopted a 15-year-old boy, Filip, from occupied Mariupol.
The deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia and Belarus often occurs without parental or guardian consent, or under duress and manipulation. This practice breaches children’s rights and international humanitarian law. Russian authorities frequently justify these actions under the pretext of ‘protecting’ children from the Ukrainian Armed Forces or the ‘mandatory rehabilitation and recuperation’ in sanatoriums or children’s camps. In reality, these authorities endeavor to indoctrinate Ukrainian children with the political and cultural ideologies of the Russian Federation, infringing upon the children’s right to maintain their cultural identity and access information freely.
Research conducted by ‘Ukrainska Pravda’ reveals that the re-education process involves various entities, including ‘children’s services’ from the temporarily occupied Ukrainian territories, ‘children’s ombudsmen,’ and the ‘ministries of education, youth, and sports’ in Russia and Belarus.
It remains unclear whether deported Ukrainian children are segregated into separate school classes and kindergarten groups or dispersed among various educational institutions. However, eyewitness accounts from health camps indicate that minors from the same occupied territories are grouped together. Testimonies from returned children suggest a focus on Russian history, culture, and language, in these re-education efforts, often at the expense of Ukrainian history and culture. This systematic approach erodes the children’s national self-awareness and cultural identity.
The educational curriculum in schools is ideologically driven, aiming to instill specific political and social views, reinterpret historical events, and present conflicts from a skewed perspective. Investigations into contemporary Russian textbooks, likely used in educating deported Ukrainians, reveal distortions of history in favor of state ideology. Such actions contravene the 1948 Geneva Convention on the Prevention of the Crime of Genocide, specifically Article II(e): ‘Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.’ Moreover, re-educating children from one ethnic group by another is a violation of Article 6(e) of the Statute Element of Crimes (2000) of the International Criminal Court: ‘The perpetrator intended to destroy, in whole or in part, that national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.’
On September 1, 2022, Vladimir Putin initiated the first ‘Conversation about the Important’ at a Kaliningrad school. Since then, every Monday, Russian schools dedicate the first lesson to discussing ‘important matters,’ focusing on ideologically tinted social, political, and historical topics. The Russian Ministry of Education states that the objective of these classes is ‘to ensure students understand the goals of the Special Military Operation, recognize the residents of the DPR and LPR as Russian, and view their return to Russia as crucial. Russian soldiers are heroes.’ Pupils are taught that Russia is ‘liberating Ukrainians from Nazis’ and that Ukrainian territories have ‘historically always belonged to Russia.’ Through this program, the Russian education system manipulates historical and political narratives, influencing not only Russian minors but also forcibly deporting children.
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A further encroachment on children’s rights is the militarization of education. In 2016, the all-Russian children’s and youth military-patriotic movement ‘Yunarmiya’ was established by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
Its primary purpose is to instill patriotism and military readiness in young people, potentially grooming them for future wars of Russia. Our research shows that Yunarmiya’s curriculum overly glorifies military victories, heroic acts, and the concept of self-sacrifice, particularly among the youth, to prepare them for military service and warfare. For instance, the ‘Fundamentals of Life Safety’ course emphasizes Russia’s purportedly unique role in national and international security. Students are required to demonstrate an ‘understanding and recognition of Russia’s special role in ensuring state and international security, defense of the country, and comprehension of the role of the state and society in solving the task of protecting the population from dangerous and emergency situations […] of a social nature’.
‘The Movement of the Firsts,’ effectively under Vladimir Putin’s leadership, engages youth in civic and political activities, promoting nationalist and patriotic values. According to the organization’s bill, its aim is to support the state in educating children, guiding their career choices, organizing leisure activities, and inculcating Russian spiritual and moral values in the youth. As of July 2023, ‘The Movement of the Firsts’ includes 26 leading children’s and youth organizations, with a total membership of 1,087,250 minors.
Key activities of the organization include fostering patriotism and historical memory, encapsulated in the motto ‘Serve the Fatherland!’ This involves support for Russian military personnel engaged in the war in Ukraine. Children are actively involved in war-supportive activities, such as producing trench candles, weaving camouflage nets, drone operation training, and participating in military-patriotic games. Moreover, mentoring programs include regular interactions with participants of the so-called special military operation, where involvement in the war against Ukraine is glorified, effectively serving as propaganda and aiding in the creation of a mobilization reserve.
Since Ukrainian children enrolled in Russian schools are treated as Russian students, they are forcibly integrated in these movements. Such participation expedites the re-education of deported Ukrainian children, imposing an ideology in stark contrast to Ukrainian cultural and national values. The impacts of this influence include:
- Replacement of Cultural Ties: Educational propaganda aims to supplant primary cultural connections by embedding new, conflicting cultural values, leading to a disconnection from their native culture and a loss of self-identification.
- Creation of Stereotypes: The educational system creates stereotypes that provoke hostile attitude towards Ukraine.
- Stress and Psychological Pressure: The re-education process and propagandist interventions in education inflict considerable stress, psychological strain, and detachment from previous beliefs.
- Social Isolation: Differences in cultural and national identity lead to social isolation from peers and the community, causing feelings of loneliness and alienation.
Therefore, the re-education process, inclusive of educational propaganda, profoundly impacts the identity and self-awareness of deported Ukrainian minors, particularly in their understanding of cultural and national belonging. This situation poses a high risk of socio-psychological problems, such as stress, loss of self-identification, and social isolation, all of which are being actively facilitated by the Russian education system.
Currently, estimates suggest that between 19,564 and 700,000 Ukrainian children have been deported to hostile environments, undergoing daily institutional re-education. The only effective solution to stop this violation of children’s rights is the immediate repatriation of all unlawfully deported minors to Ukraine. Unfortunately, the aggressor state resists this, barring third-party and international human rights organizations from accessing their territories, thereby perpetuating the ongoing deportation and re-education. Presently, all measures to pressure Russia remain ineffective, with the sole exception being Ukraine’s victory in the war.
Anastasiia Saenko, author
Oleksii Havryliuk & Maksym Sushchuk, editors