DONETSK, Ukraine: Valeriya Turbay says she’s forgetting how to speak Ukraine’s official language as schoolchildren in the bastion of the pro-Russian rebels get fewer lessons after two years of onslaught of Kremlin-inspired instruction. Ukrainian is the main teaching language in schools across the bulk of the country controlled by pro-Western Kiev since the historic February 2014 ouster of a Russian-backed regime.
But in rebel-held eastern Ukraine – where most people know both languages but usually speak Russian – schools now teach just one Ukrainian language and literature lesson per week.
“There is so little Ukrainian spoken that I am literally starting to forget it,” says 16-year-old Turbay.
Schools in the region used to teach two to five hours a week of Ukrainian classes.
Now they have doubled the number of Russian language and literature classes since the insurgency began in April 2014.
Ukrainian patriotism is demonized in the east while Russian and separatist ideology is the norm in classrooms full of youngsters caught up in the geopolitical conflict.
“There have been some serious changes to our region,” says Donetsk student Andrei Trubetsky.
“And so we have seen the Ukrainian language and literature become a kind of political victim,” he tells AFP.
Trubetsky comes to school dressed in the same camouflage fatigues as his rebel fighter father and says he is in fact proud of the shift toward Russian in his classroom.
“We have been helped by Russia,” Trubetsky says.
“They have shipped in some very good school books.”
Moscow brushes off Kiev and its Western allies’ charges of backing the insurgents in the conflict, which has claimed nearly 10,000 lives since it broke out more than two years ago following Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Rebel forces, which Kiev estimates number some 40,000, have carved out an unofficial state in the industrial heartland of east Ukraine.
Monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said in a September report that “instead of Ukrainian history, these schools teach the history of the Donbass” – another name for the industrial region.
Regional schools and colleges have swapped old textbooks for ones printed in Russian.
The last official census conducted in Ukraine in 2001 showed that over three-quarters of the people living in the Donetsk region were mainly Russian speakers.
But the country has since undergone a profound transformation and some recent studies show a more even split in the Donbass.
Teachers of Ukrainian language and literature have to undergo new training sessions in order to be able to lead classes in Russian and keep their jobs.
But some parents are secretly hiring private tutors who can brush up their children’s Ukrainian skills.
The Russian and Ukrainian languages have the same Slavic roots but are different enough that they are not always mutually comprehensible.
A 43-year-old history teacher, who agreed to be identified only as Igor for security reasons, says most of those who ask him to tutor their children in Ukrainian harbor hopes of one day escaping the rebel zones.
“Children have run up against the fact that diplomas [issued by the rebels] are not recognized by higher education colleges outside the Donbass,” Igor says.
“So children are looking for tutors who can help them reach Ukraine and its universities.
“And their parents are looking for tutors that can be trusted to keep things private, because they are afraid of retribution from the rebels,” Igor says.
Kiev refuses to recognize the separatists’ authority and calls the language changes being undertaken there a crime.
In Kiev-run areas of Ukraine, Russian can only be used on an official level if local councils adopt such a measure.