Music resounds through the hallways to signal the end of class at Kiev’s Lyceum for the Humanities, one of the Ukrainian capital’s top public high schools.
Lively students dressed in dark blue school uniforms pour into the stairwells as they make their way to the next class. Once they’re seated at their desks, their teacher explains that today a foreign journalist has come to meet them.
Ukraine’s cease-fire agreement between government forces and separatists seems to be holding for the most part, though there was sporadic fighting over the weekend. While Ukrainians remain uncertain of their future, schoolkids throughout the country returned to classes last week.
At the lyceum, the 16-year-olds eagerly gather round to tell what “back to school” feels like when their country has been at war all summer.
For Mariya Spinko, the biggest tragedy of the conflict is what it has done to Ukrainian families. She says her dad’s side of the family lives in the eastern city of Donetsk, now a separatist stronghold.
“The worst thing is when I hear from my grandma, when she calls Russian soldiers ‘our boys,’ ” Spinko says. “I’m like, ‘What? How can you do that?’ Because they think Russia is our future.”
Spinko says she wants her future to be in Europe — and she’s not speaking to her grandma right now.
Anastasiya Yelienieva says her summer was stressful, even though she spent part of it in Spain. She says her family wasn’t sure which country it would come home to.
“We were worried about if we could return to Ukraine, or will we return to Russia,” Yelienieva says.
Ties To Both Countries
Like many people in Ukraine, Yelienieva also has family in Russia. She says that side is convinced Kiev is full of fascists who want to kill Russian-speakers.
“They don’t believe us,” she says. “They think there are lots of terrorists here and it’s not safe. They believe the media in Russia, and that’s the problem. They don’t want to hear us.”
Lena Grishkova, of Donetsk, is one of around 20 new students from the eastern part of the country. She says all of her classmates fled Donetsk and she doesn’t even know if their old school is still standing. Even before the heavy fighting started there, she says, it became scary because her family didn’t support the separatists.
“It was horrible,” Grishkova says. “Every time I went outside, I realized that some person could take my hand and ask, ‘What is your opinion?’ And, you know, I felt petrified.”
Nikita Denischenkov also fled to Kiev from Donetsk. He says his family didn’t support the Russian separatists or the new government in Kiev, which they considered illegitimate. He says they had to leave his grandparents behind, and he just wants the fighting to stop.
“The crazy situation, we don’t know what will be the future in Donetsk,” Denischenkov says. “It’s Russian, Ukrainian or a separate country. We … know nothing.”
Denischenkov and the others say the constant uncertainty and fear make it hard to concentrate on school.
But for many Ukrainians, the conflict with Russia has created a strong sense of identity that wasn’t there at the breakup of the Soviet Union 23 years ago. These students, like Kerina Mizina, feel a new Ukrainian patriotism for the first time, and see their future in the West.
“Both our countries were in the USSR, and that’s why we thought that we have the same culture and the same history … and because Europe [was] just like a different planet,” Mizina says. “But now, fortunately, Ukrainians start to understand that we are different, and Ukraine is [an] independent country.”
The students here from Donetsk say they want to go home, reunite with their friends and rebuild their city. But no matter where they’re from, the students in this class say they want to continue living in Ukraine.