"Underground Educational Programs Combat Russian Propaganda in Occupied Ukraine"

 In the tumultuous early weeks of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Nataliia (not her real name) faced a difficult decision. Fleeing her southern hometown of Melitopol, she left not only her home and loved ones behind but also her career of 20 years as a teacher. Unable to tolerate living under Russian occupation, Nataliia felt compelled to contribute to the cause in territory still under Ukrainian control.

The situation in Melitopol, now under Russian occupation, is dire. Nataliia's former classrooms are adorned with portraits of Vladimir Putin, and Ukrainian children are subjected to a curriculum that denies Ukraine's sovereignty. They are coerced into singing the Russian national anthem and are compelled to write "inspirational letters" to Russian soldiers. Any dissent is met with threats of violence against both children and their families.

Recognizing the urgency of the situation, Nataliia and her former colleagues took action. They created an online teaching platform to provide Ukrainian children with access to the authentic Ukrainian curriculum, aiming to counter the propaganda and indoctrination imposed by Russian authorities.

Launching the platform was not without risk. Even mentioning the word "occupation" could lead to scrutiny by Russian authorities, and expressions of loyalty to Ukraine could result in harsh consequences. Yet, despite the dangers, hundreds of families embraced Nataliia's initiative, seeking to preserve Ukrainian identity and culture for their children.

The clandestine nature of the online classes reflects the perilous environment in which they operate. Students attend Russian school during the day and participate in secret online Ukrainian lessons in the evening, using false identities and keeping their cameras off to avoid detection. Recordings are provided for those unable to access live sessions due to connectivity or power issues.

For Nataliia, the importance of the endeavor lies not only in imparting knowledge but also in maintaining the connection of Ukrainian children to their heritage. The psychological toll of the Russian propaganda is palpable, with students experiencing immense pressure and confusion amid the upheaval.

Valera (not his real name), a 14-year-old student, exemplifies the struggle against Russification. Despite attending a Russian school, he resists by participating in online Ukrainian classes. He recounts instances of defiance, such as refusing to stand for the Russian anthem, despite the risks.

Despite the challenges, Nataliia remains steadfast in her mission. She acknowledges the formidable obstacles posed by Russia's occupation but remains committed to safeguarding the future generation from indoctrination. As the occupation persists, the battle for the hearts and minds of Ukrainian children intensifies, underscoring the critical importance of initiatives like Nataliia's in preserving Ukrainian identity amidst adversity.

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