war crimes in Ukraine

The Tribunal for Putin (T4P) global initiative was set up in response to the all-out war launched by Russia against Ukraine in February 2022.

Russia forced to close school in occupied Kherson oblast for lack of teachers willing to collaborate

Halya Coynash
Russia abducted school directors, threatened to take children from their parents and tried other methods of coercion, but has consistently had difficulty in foisting its propaganda on Kherson oblast schools

Kakhovka is Ukraine Mass demonstration on 6 March 2022 Photo Oleh Baturin

Kakhovka is Ukraine Mass demonstration on 6 March 2022 Photo Oleh Baturin

The Russian occupiers opened a school in occupied Arkhangelska Sloboda (Kherson oblast) on 3 October, only to close it the following day.  The ceremonial   opening gave local collaborators a good propaganda photo opportunity, however parents have told the Centre for Journalist Investigations [CJI] that the Russians were unable to muster up enough teachers, willing to collaborate.  The same reluctance by teachers in the Zeleny Pid Rural Hromada to work for the invaders led to a school head being brought in from occupied Crimea for the school in Kostohryzove.   On 9 October, the occupation regime claimed that a school would be opened in the village of Zeleny Pid, however CJI reports that it remains unclear whether this will be possible.

The claim that children in Arkhangelska Sloboda had to be sent to continue studies online is also suspect, given the erratic Internet connection on occupied territory.  

In fact, many parents are likely to welcome the closure of the school and the problems with connection.  Russia’s insistence on foisting so-called ‘Russian standards’ on schools in occupied parts of Ukraine is about pushing Moscow’s narrative about its invasion and annexation, and ‘Russian world’ ideology.  Schools are essentially there to try to eradicate the children’s Ukrainian identity and convince them that they are ‘Russian’.

It was for that reason that many parents tried for as long as they could to not enrol their children in such occupation schools.  Since its fake ‘referendum’ and Russia’s claim that occupied territory has become part of the Russian Federation, this has become even more dangerous.  Parents are repeatedly threatened with having their children taken away from them if they are not enrolled, with similar methods also used to force them into taking Russian citizenship.

It is likely that a significant percentage of teachers from the area left, either as soon as they could after Russia’s invasion, or after they understood the direct danger they were in if they remained.  Viktor Pendalchuk, Head of Kakhovka School No. 1, was abducted by the Russians twice and held in their torture-chamber prisons.  Before finally releasing him the second time, he was expressly warned that if they seized him again, he would not come out alive.

Oleh Baturin, a CJI correspondent who was himself abducted and tortured by the Russians in early March 2022, has spoken with two head teachers – Viktor Pendalchuk and Oksana Yakubova,. Both were abducted and imprisoned for their refusal to collaborate with the invaders.

Oksana Yakubova

Oksana Yakubova

Oksana Yakubova was the Director of Lyceum No. 2 in Nova Kakhovka when Russia invaded, however she was probably also targeted by the Russians because of the 15 years she served as the head of the Nova Kakhovka City Council’s Department of Education. She was seized by the Russians on 17 August 2022, with the invaders trying to blame her for the failure to foist Russian education on the occupied city.

She explains that it was in the summer of 2022 that the Russians began aggressively seizing all schools and trying to force teachers to collaborate.  They insisted that there would no longer be any Ukrainian schools in Nova Kakhovka, only ‘Russian’. Preparations for the new school year under occupation were not going well, with the invaders having problems getting both teachers and students.

They therefore tried to blame her and her colleagues, she says, and recalls that somebody even suggested that if they got rid of her and Iryna Dubas, Director of Lyceum No. 3, “children and teachers will appear.” 

One of the education workers who had agreed to collaborate (while imprisoned himself) appeared, together with men carrying machine guns, and asked her to work for the occupiers.  She refused.

The first to be imprisoned was Liudmyla Haiseniuk, Director of the Nova Kakhovska Lyceum No. 6.  She was held for 24 hours, after refusing to collaborate and to hand over the school computers. Yakubova recalled that she and other colleagues understood what was coming and began making plans to leave the city.  She and Iryna Dubas had agreed to leave together on 16 August 2022, but that was delayed due to shelling.

The Russians came for Yakubova on 17 August, and for Dubas the following day. When she asked why she’d been detained, she was told “for the disruption of Russian Federation education in Nova Kakhovka.”  They also accused her of promoting Ukrainian education, introducing distance learning and not handing the invaders school office equipment purchased by the Ukrainian taxpayer.  

During her first interrogation, they demanded that she sign an interrogation to work for the occupiers and to provide them with a list of all pro-Ukrainian teachers.  If she did this, she would be released the next day.  She refused and was taken back to the cell “to think”.

The conditions that she and the other women hostages (initially the heads of two local hromadas) were held in were appalling, and she was certainly threatened, but not physically tortured.  The women could, however, hear the torture that former Ukrainian defenders and other men were being subjected to.

She was saved, she says, by the fact that her colleagues were able to gather the office technology which the invaders had demanded. It was by then clear that she would not agree to collaborate, and they released her on 23 August (the eve of Ukraine’s Independence Day). She and her husband, who had also received a warning that they could come for him, left Nova Kakhovka on 25 August 2022.  They were forced to go via occupied Crimea, into Russia and from there cross into Latvia.  She recalls how the Russians tormented the very many Ukrainians, including pregnant women or mothers with babies, who were forced to wait in the open air for huge periods of time.  It was hell, she says.

Viktor Pendalchuk Photo from his Facebook page

Viktor Pendalchuk Photo from his Facebook page

Viktor Pendalchuk was the Director of School No. 1 in Kakhovka.  He was first seized at the end of April 2022 and held for two weeks in one of the prison – torture chambers that the Russians have established for civilian hostages in every area that came under occupation.  The first few weeks were spent In a kind of vacuum, however Kakhovka residents did come out in mass demonstrations against Russia’s invasion.  The Russians, however, began abducting people and terrorising those who took part in such demonstrations, including by firing warning shots.  It was clear to them all that the invaders would not confine themselves to rubber bullets and people genuinely feared for their lives.

At the end of April, a local collaborator Irna Makhnyova, installed as the invaders’ head of education, turned up at School No. 1 and proposed that Pendalchuk collaborate with them.  He refused, and she demanded the keys of the school, saying that, from now on, she would make all decisions.  It was around a week later that Makhnyova turned up again with Olena Tereshchenko, a local collaborator, and two men, and demanded that he hand things over to Terashchenko, as new ‘school head’. The two men, whom he’d never seen before, threatened to harm his family if he didn’t hand over all documents to them

He was seized a few days later, on 30 April 2022, when a large number of military vehicles turned up and surrounded his home. He had just set off for the shop but returned, fearing for the safety of his wife and daughter.  

The aim, as with Yakubova, was to force him into collaborating with the invaders, and to begin the school year under the Russian flag.  He had refused before they seized him and continued to do so while imprisoned.  During his abduction, having handcuffed him, after forcing his arms behind his back, covered his head and positioned a rifle at his back, the Russians claimed that they had come “to save him” and that he had, purportedly, “suffered from Ukrainian nationalists”.

He was taken to the police building in Nova Kakhovka which they had taken over and thrown into a basement cell with six other men of different ages.  The conditions there were also terrible, though some of the men said that they were still better than in other cells.

Pendalchuk was beaten, but not subjected to the electric shocks and other forms of torture that men held in his cell endured.  He was eventually released after two weeks.

The Russians were still unable to get any school in the Kakhovka Hromada running in September 2022.  This obviously clashed badly with Moscow’s claim that the fake referendum it staged in late September had shown ‘overwhelming support’’ for joining Russia.

Pendalchuk was seized again on 5 or 6 September 2022.  They claimed that he was “continuing underground work for the Ukrainian Armed Forces and organizing a collection to buy some military equipment.”  He was held in a basement that time for 25 days.  He recounts that the collaboration militia beat their hostages and claimed that they were “cleaning our nation from all kinds of dross.”

He says that he and the majority of those seized in September were not tortured, though they were subjected to psychological pressure.  He himself was not once ‘interrogated’,  but says that from his cell, they could hear screams from people being tortured.  He was told that two young men had died of torture. 

Pendalchuk was released after 25 days, but warned that if he is still hoping that the area will return to Ukrainian control, he should leave. “Otherwise, you won’t get out of here a third time.”

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