Ukraine's rebel university goes Russian in separatist-held Donetsk
In this Wednesday, Dec. 10, 2014 photo, students attend a lecture at the Donetsk National University in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine. (AP Photo/Balint Szlanko)
Balint Szlanko, The Associated Press
Published Tuesday, December 23, 2014 6:21AM EST
DONETSK, Ukraine -- In eastern Ukraine, where the country's pro-Russian insurgency has claimed thousands of lives, the region's top university is a major victim of the bitterness and rifts the fighting has caused.
The conflict has not only split the university in half and forced many students and professors to quit, it also has affected everything from the school's curriculum and the language of its instruction to its coat of arms and diplomas.
Even the name of the history department at the rebel-controlled Donetsk National University has been changed from the Ukrainian History Department to the Local and Regional History Department.
Political unrest, followed by today's warfare, bubbled up in east Ukraine over anxieties that a burgeoning nationalist strain could undermine the interests of the region's majority Russian speakers. Instead, it is now Ukrainian culture that is on the defensive.
For the moment, the main struggle is to keep the university going as staff members and students flee in droves, many of them attending classes in a newly created campus in Vinnytsia, a city 500 miles (800 kilometres) west of Donetsk.
"The number of students has decreased, not only because of them moving to Vinnytsia, but also because of the fighting in our region," said Irina Yaroshevich, a teacher of Ukrainian literature and folklore in Donetsk.
The final straw for many came at the start of the academic year, when gunmen arrived and demanded that staff subject themselves to the authority of the secessionist government of the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic.
"When the pressure from the militants became stronger, there was also pressure from below. Students asked the Education Ministry to continue our work in a territory under government control," said political sciences lecturer Vladimir Kipen.
He now teaches many of the same students -- still officially under the auspices of the Donetsk National University -- but in Vinnytsia.
He said to operate at the behest of the ragtag armed separatist movement that now controls swaths of Ukraine's eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk would have been unbearable. "It would be to operate in a climate of violence," Kipen said by telephone from Vinnytsia. "The university is as a matter of principle a place of freedom.
Sergei Baryshnikov, who stayed behind in Donetsk to head up the rebel-controlled university, said work is now afoot to modify the curriculum in line with the evolving situation.
"The Ukrainian history course has been minimized and has become part of a broader course of world history," Baryshnikov said. "This is right. It is appropriate and meets our political goals and ideological plans and intentions."
Donetsk National University student Anya Liutsoyeva confirmed that the Ukrainian history course now has been substituted with an ethnic history of the Donbass, the collective name of Ukraine's easternmost regions.
And although Russian is taking more prominence, Liutsoyeva stressed that the Ukrainian language has not been dropped altogether. "We still have Ukrainian departments of language and history. The subjects are still being taught and respected and valued as before," she said.
Educational and cultural reforms in separatist regions are unfolding against the backdrop of intense and ubiquitous evocations of the Soviet Union's role in World War II -- a trend that has political ramifications for the future of Ukraine.
A commonly aired view among separatist supporters is that many western Ukrainians actively assisted invading Nazi forces. The name of World War II-era Ukrainian nationalist insurgent leader Stepan Bandera, who allied briefly with the Nazis, is used as a curse word.
The fascist label has become common currency and is used relentlessly to decry the government that took hold after the February overthrow of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, a native of the Donetsk region. That accusation has its roots in the strong presence of radical Ukrainian nationalists among the ranks of the street movement that toppled Yanukovych.
That strand of thought appears to be underpinning the process of Russification, which Baryshnikov views as inevitable.
"This sign (on the university coat of arms) used to be in Ukrainian. But in our scientific council we made a decision that it would be in Russian," he said.
Public schools are being swept up in the same drive.
Viktoria Koval, headmistress of a Donetsk school, said the vast majority of parents expressed their preference for having children taught in Russian. "Our school used to be Ukrainian-speaking, but we provided parents with the opportunity to choose the language of instruction," she said. "But we still have Ukrainian textbooks, and now it is a mix of languages because the children speak both Ukrainian and Russian very well."
The shift to Russian is not purely about the politics, however.
The language is almost universally spoken in Ukraine's industrial east, and it was with according dismay that many there greeted an abortive move by lawmakers to scrap the official status of Russian in the weeks after Yanukovych's overthrow.
Ideological differences are translating into practical problems for the university students caught in the middle.
Baryshnikov said that graduates of the rebel-controlled universities will receive diplomas recognized by the Donetsk National University and Russian education establishments. But Kipen said that only those studying under the tutelage of the Vinnytsia-based part of the college will be eligible to receive a degree.
Hanna Yemielianenko, a lecturer in Ukrainian language in Donetsk, struck an optimistic note and said the region's multicultural legacy would ultimately get everybody through the hardship.
"We are very tolerant and we are accustomed to living in peace," Yemielianenko said. "We will always manage to preserve this, regardless of the leadership's position."