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Schools face challenge of talking to Russian children about war in Ukraine


YEREVAN, Armenia — After last year’s invasion of Ukraine, academic freedom was among the first casualties. In wartime Russia, schoolchildren are now required to attend compulsory ‘patriotism’ classes, teachers face jail time for expressing antiwar opinions in their classrooms and, in some kindergartens, there have even been weapons demonstrations.

But outside the country, in Russia’s emigre communities — swelled by the hundreds of thousands who fled in response to the invasion or to avoid military conscription — newly established Russian schools are grappling with a different challenge: how to talk to children about the war, which has displaced their families but also spurred a wave of anti-Russian sentiment.

Vladislav Povyshev, a history teacher from Siberia, said he left Russia after it became clear he would not be able to teach in the way he wanted. “I understood that, especially with my subjects of history and social sciences, it would be difficult to get around these new, sharp corners in Russia,” Povyshev, 32, said in an interview in Yerevan, the Armenian capital, where he now works at the Liberated School, which was set up to serve recently arrived young Russian immigrant families.

Povyshev said that his students — overwhelmed by the move and missing home — ask a lot of difficult questions that he cannot always answer. “They want to know why we ended up here, at this point, from a historical and political perspective,” he said.

Povyshev has noticed that his students — all of whom grew up using the internet — often understand and see things more clearly than adults, “for better or worse.”

“They are well aware of the consequences that await Russia after the war, and they are aware of the reasons for Russia’s failures at the present stage,” he said, adding that there have been instances of children breaking down in tears in class, or struggling with anxiety. They want to know the causes of the war and its historical origins but are also deeply concerned for the future.

“They want to know how it will end, what happens to both sides after a war,” he said, “how future generations of Russians can improve the situation in Russia and relations with Ukraine and Ukrainians.”

Like other teachers, Povyshev is navigating different ways to respond without overstepping his duty as an educator.

In his classes, he gives his pupils the space to express their opinions and encourages them to find counterarguments or parallels in history and international law. Debates in his classes have touched on many issues including the history of Russian-Ukrainian relations, the collapse of empires and the notion of collective responsibility.

“The main thing is that we do not impose our own opinions and we do not suppress others’ voices,” Povyshev said. “It is always a conversation, always a dialogue. The students always have the opportunity to ask absolutely any question.”

The Liberated School’s ethos is markedly different than that of traditional schools in Russia where, even before the war, the curriculum was rigid and slanted, and rote learning the norm.

Pupils at the Liberated School. are encouraged to think critically, debate and freely express their opinions. Creativity is celebrated. And teachers tend to prepare their own lesson materials, diverging from standard Russian textbooks.

“It is like night and day” said geography teacher Polina Primak, 27, while shepherding a class to the playground for recess. “We try to make learning as close as possible to how we would have liked to have been taught when we were at school.”

Elena Chegodaeva, the school’s director, had just quit her job as a teacher a week before the war started, wanting a break from education. After she fled Russia last spring, she said she was given a renewed sense of purpose. She started out teaching 40 children in an apartment. She has since enrolled nearly 200 children and has relocated the school to a multistory building in downtown Yerevan, which is being renovated to create more, badly needed classrooms.

“We definitely have a kinder atmosphere than in most schools in Russia” Chegodaeva said. “We certainly will not have a portrait of Putin hanging on the wall. And we will not bend to anyone. We will not be told who are the good guys, who are the bad ones, who we should support and so on.”

Despite the school’s liberal values — and its predominantly antiwar-minded community — there appears to still be some nervousness around overtly political discussions and what several teachers referred to as “spreading propaganda.”

Chegodaeva said that while the school is physically outside of Russia’s borders, many employees and families still have links to life inside the country, and therefore potential repercussions.

According to OVD-Info, a watchdog group, there is rising backlash in Russia against minors for violating draconian wartime censorship laws. Schoolchildren who challenge their teachers or express antiwar opinions are publicly berated or ostracized. Sometimes the police are called. At least 19 teachers who expressed antiwar views have been fired, the group said.

If students ask Chegodaeva about her opinions, she shares them, she said, but she does not “make speeches” in the classroom. Not all the parents at the school share the same political views. Some support Putin and, even, the war.

“Children should make their own decisions. They should decide themselves how they relate to a political situation or a religious belief,” Chegodaeva said. “This topic is also very complex and very personal for many people. We have children here whose relatives live or lived in Ukraine, and this is extremely difficult for them.”

Povyshev said the school’s role was to liberate children’s’ minds. “Our task is to educate, to create a person who can think openly and rationally, who can consider different points of view,” he said. “A freethinking person must come to conclusions on their own.”

Many of the teachers and parents interviewed were reluctant to directly address difficult questions about the war; especially, alleged war crimes committed by Russian soldiers, and Russians’ collective responsibility for starting — or stopping — the war. The children seemed more preoccupied with their own homesickness than the war.

Each family makes different choices about how much to share with their children about the war.

Yulia Anfilatova, 35, said she vividly remembers the conversation she had with her 4-year-old daughter after the invasion began.

“She was very frightened. I explained to her that the war is not taking place here in Russia, but that on the contrary — our country is attacking another state that is not so far from us” Anfilatova said. “I said that there is no direct threat to us, but that other people, who are not guilty of anything, are dying and their cities are being destroyed.”

Anfilatova said she thought it was important to explain what was happening honestly and to make it clear that Russia was responsible — for the war and for the family’s need to flee.

“I told her it was unacceptable, and that I didn’t want our family to be a participant in this,” she said.

Anfilatova fled Moscow with her husband, Victor Tsatryan, 37, and their five children last spring. She said that her friends and fellow parents were having similar, difficult conversations.

“Everyone that I know is speaking frankly and is not creating any illusions: They discuss this situation on an equal footing with their children, without attempts to hide anything,” she said.

One year of Russia’s war in Ukraine

Portraits of Ukraine: Every Ukrainian’s life has changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion one year ago — in ways both big and small. They have learned to survive and support each other under extreme circumstances, in bomb shelters and hospitals, destroyed apartment complexes and ruined marketplaces. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.

Battle of attrition: Over the past year, the war has morphed from a multi-front invasion that included Kyiv in the north to a conflict of attrition largely concentrated along an expanse of territory in the east and south. Follow the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces and take a look at where the fighting has been concentrated.

A year of living apart: Russia’s invasion, coupled with Ukraine’s martial law preventing fighting-age men from leaving the country, has forced agonizing decisions for millions of Ukrainian families about how to balance safety, duty and love, with once-intertwined lives having become unrecognizable. Here’s what a train station full of goodbyes looked like last year.

Deepening global divides: President Biden has trumpeted the reinvigorated Western alliance forged during the war as a “global coalition,” but a closer look suggests the world is far from united on issues raised by the Ukraine war. Evidence abounds that the effort to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions haven’t stopped Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.

*This story has not been edited by The Infallible staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.