Russian Textbooks Sent to Eastern Ukrainian Schools

Members of an honour guard hold their weapons as they wait for the arrival of separatist leader Zakharchenko in front of a theatre in Donetsk

Honor guard members wait for the arrival of separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko in front of a Donetsk theater in eastern Ukraine on November 4, 2014. (Maxim Zmeyev, Reuters)

“Because of the development of our relationship with the Russian Federation and the Customs Union (Russia, Kazakhstan & Belarus) we will integrate our system with the Custom Union’s education system. That doesn’t mean that we will use the Russian Federation’s education system.” – Andrey Udovenko, headmaster of School # 61, Donetsk, Ukraine.

The situation:

The school system in the pro-Russian, separatist-controlled eastern area of the Ukraine known as the Donetsk People’s Republic will no longer be using Ukrainian education materials. Instead, Russian educational materials will be distributed to schools in the region. According to a report on, 5 tons of textbooks recently arrived in Donetsk.

In addition, they will adapt the Eurasian Customs Union’s education system. The article goes on to state, “officials in Donetsk say parents will still have a choice as to whether their children will use Russian or Ukrainian as their main language.”

Meanwhile, the two-month tentative ceasefire is on the brink of collapsing, triggered by the recent separatist elections (held with Russia’s support). This too has impacted schools: On November 5,  a seemingly errant shelling killed two students and wounded four others while they were playing on a school soccer field. It is not known whether Ukrainian forces or separatist militants each were responsible.


This announcement should not come as a surprise, given the separatists’ close alliance with Russia. However, there are several ways the textbook decision can be viewed.

On the one hand, when interviewed for the report, Igor Kostynok, Donetsk People’s Republic Education Minister, emphasized that the change has to do with education standards. The concept of improved quality of education (as well as access to higher quality learning materials) is implied in the education minister’s statement.

Furthermore, adapting the Custom Union’s system (and emphasizing Russian fluency) could be seen as a means to help the young generation become fluent in the language(s) of regional economics. Penn GSE professor Daniel Wagner writes that economic development is one way to “consider the promise of improved quality of education.” (Wagner, 2010, p.743) Thus, the move could potentially fulfill that promise, leading to several returns on investment: a successful bid to join the Eurasian Customs Union and greater economic development in the area.

On the other hand, the move appears to be an effort by the Donetsk People’s Republic, working in collaboration with Russia, to further sever ties to Kiev. Thus, Russia, which has regularly been accused of military interference in the civil war, now stands accused of waging ideological warfare. To that end, a Ukranian media source compares the shipment of textbooks to the movement of weapons across the Russia-Ukraine border. (Further, it is possible that Russia may be anticipating a different kind of ROI than Donetsk—political and territorial gain.)

It’s worth pointing out that teaching students the Russian language (necessary for the textbooks) lends credence to the ideological warfare argument, since language and identity are very closely related. (However, it seems to me that all of the above reasons could play a role.)

Ultimately, regardless of the reasons, the education shift will only increase tensions between Kiev and the separatists.


Ukraine’s rebels open school doors to Russian education. (Nov 2 2014.) Retrieved on Nov 14 2014 from

Ceasefire Crumbles in Eastern Ukraine. (Nov 13 2014.) Retrieved on Nov 14 2014 from

Herszenhorn, D. & Roth, A. (28 Oct 2014.) Russia Backs Plan by Ukraine Separatists for an Early Election. The New York Times. Retrieved on Nov 14 2014 from

Orel, T. (2 Nov 2014.) Kvit: Russian textbooks are delivered to DNR and LNR schools while Ukrainian ones are burnt. Gordon. Retrieved on Nov 14 2014 from

Stout, D. (6 Nov 2014.) Artillery Fire Kills Teens in Donetsk as Ukraine’s Ceasefire Breaks Down. Time. Retrieved on Nov 14 2014 from

Wagner, D.A. (2010.) Quality of education, comparability, and assessment choice in developing countries. Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education. 40:6, 741-760.


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