Tears welled up in Olena Andrushok’s eyes as she stood in the empty hallway of Izyum School No. 11 and surveyed the damage.
Nearly all the classroom doors had been pulled off their hinges, and the matting had been ripped off most floors. Light fixtures were missing, radiators had been yanked from the walls, and a Russian missile had turned part of the building into a pile of rubble. The library shelves stood empty – every single book was gone.
Ms. Andrushok and her staff had spent decades turning the school into more than a collection of classrooms. They’d converted part of the school into a museum to commemorate Izyum’s role in the Second World War, filling it with one of the best collections of artifacts in the city. Another room had become a showcase of Ukrainian culture, featuring displays of traditional clothing and artwork and a space for children to put on plays. The staff ran camps in the summer and encouraged former students to paint giant murals in the hallways that celebrated Ukrainian heritage.
After 45 years at the school – as a student, teacher and principal – Ms. Andrushok, 51, saw the violations of the building as a personal loss. “For me it’s like my second home,” she said.
The Russian army occupied Izyum from April 1 to Sept. 10, and the evidence is everywhere in School No. 11, from the makeshift conference room the soldiers assembled to the rows of neatly piled radiators, removed for some unknown reason. Ms. Andrushok said she found documents indicating that School No. 11 had received accreditation from Russian education officials, clearing the way for it to reopen under occupation.
It wasn’t the only school Russian soldiers targeted as they swept through this part of the Kharkiv region in the early weeks of the war. Now that Ukrainian troops have recaptured the area, stories have emerged of Russian forces stripping schools of Ukrainian books and symbols and forcing teachers to follow a curriculum dictated by Moscow. In many places, the toughest resistance came from principals and teachers who refused to go along.
Nataliia Pushkar wasn’t going to wait for the Russians to enter her school in Kupiansk before she took action.
The school serves children with special needs, and as principal Ms. Pushkar felt she had a duty to protect it. As Russian troops closed in on the city, she heard from friends in occupied villages that soldiers had removed books from schools. She quickly called a couple of teachers, and they grabbed every book they could find. They started hiding them behind radiators, in crawl spaces, at the back of storage rooms – anywhere they thought the Russians wouldn’t look. “We didn’t want to give them an opportunity to take them,” Ms. Pushkar said from her home. “Books are the most important thing for a school.”
Ms. Pushkar didn’t get away unscathed. Russian soldiers came to her house and, after going through her collection of Ukrainian literature, arrested the 64-year-old as an enemy sympathizer. They held her for 27 days. “It was inhuman,” she recalled.
Now that the Russians have been forced out of Kupiansk, she hopes the school will eventually reopen and that its 170 students will return. The building’s walls are intact, but the windows have been blown out, the doors are gone and the roof is unstable. And until recently the city had no electricity and no internet access.
For now, though, the books remain hidden. Ms. Pushkar is too nervous to put them back on the shelves, fearing the Russians might return. “We’re still afraid to live through all of this again,” she said.
Not far away, in the village of Pershotravneve, Liliia Lukomska said Russian soldiers ordered her to reopen the kindergarten she ran with a small staff. “But we didn’t do it,” she said.
The soldiers tore down the Ukrainian flag and got rid of every other national symbol they could find. They also took blankets, cooking utensils and pillows. Ms. Lukomska said she hid several books and stencils that said. “My homeland is Ukraine.”
She’s now living down the road in Borova with her father and husband in a house owned by friends. Even though Pershotravneve is under Ukrainian control, the front line is just two kilometres away and she’s too frightened to return home. “It’s not possible to live in our village,” she said.
Liudmyla Shevelov also refused to co-operate with occupying soldiers when they instructed her to teach the Russian curriculum at the school in Borova. Ms. Shevelov is the vice-principal and was told that if she didn’t co-operate she’d end up in a filtration camp, a type of detention centre that often results in deportation to Russia.
She held out even after soldiers repeatedly came to her house and searched almost everything she owned. When Ukrainian troops retook the town on Oct. 3, Ms. Shevelov and her husband, Oleksandr, ran outside to greet them. “I was crying,” she said. “We’d been waiting for them.”
Borova’s small library wasn’t spared. Librarian Svitlana Lykhnytskyi said Russian soldiers restricted access to Ukrainian books and started hauling some of them away. She stayed clear of the library during the occupation and is now trying to reopen it. But the building needs extensive repairs, and the town has no electricity and limited water.
Back in Izyum, Ms. Andrushok isn’t sure when School No. 11 can welcome back its students. She hopes classes will resume a year from now, but everything remains uncertain while the war rages on.
As she spoke, one of the school’s cooks, Marina Diachenko, stopped by with a load of wood for the repairs. The two women hadn’t seen each other since the city was recaptured. They hugged warmly and talked about how much they missed the students and the noise – not of the war but of the crowded lunch room.
“All of this noise, it’s a continuation of our life,” Ms. Andrushok said. “When we are looking at kids, we become younger.”