Filing out of their Ukrainian language school - one of just six in the whole of Crimea - fourth graders Lisa and Masha spoke of how much they enjoy studying here. “This is because we are Ukrainians,” they said with wide smiles.
Their youth and innocence shields them from knowing what their parents and other adults here know: that it has become harder to be Ukrainian in Crimea since late February, when Russians invaded the peninsula. With Russian President Vladimir Putin finalizing the annexation of Crimea today, it could get tougher for Ukrainians there, many of whom are against the move, yet.
On referendum day, March 16, this school like many others became a polling station for Crimeans to cast their votes. Since then pro-Russian activists have forbidden the school's teachers to play the Ukrainian anthem there, and despite the long tradition, the Ukrainian flag has not been lifted.
Adorned with numerous Ukrainian attributes, including a portrait of poet Taras Shevchenko and rushnyky, traditional decorated towels, this school looks like an island of Ukrainian culture in mostly Russian-speaking Crimea.
The Ukrainian language school in Simferopol. Photo - Anastasia Vlasova
“I was told that the Ukrainian language will stay official in Crimea,” said Natalia Rudenko, the school's principal. “The ministry (of education of Crimea) promised me that our school will be kept.”
But not many - including her - believe these promises.
Hanna Kulykova is one of those parents. On Friday she was writing out her son from school, as later in the day the family would leave the peninsula. “We don’t want to take Russian citizenship,” she explained. “My son can’t understand why he isn’t Ukrainian now.”
Born in Simferopol, Kulykova and her husband openly opposed Russian occupation, which drastically deteriorated her relations with neighbors and colleagues. Her family business that includes a car service station, trucking and cargo insurance was closely tied with mainland Ukraine. In the new Russian Crimea, the business' prospects were low, Kulykova said.
So now her family is leaving property in Simferopol and moving to Odessa to start their life from scratch. “We don’t think about our property now, but rather about how to save our two children and their dignity,” she said.
Students at the Ukrainian language school in Simferopol walk past a Ukrainian flag hanging in the school's hallway. Photo - Anastasia Vlasova
Tetiana, who refused to give her last name for fear of reprisals for speaking out, said she fears for the safety of her two children, a ninth grader and a tenth grader, in Crimea. “We are in a trap here,” she said crying. “The children, who have never been interested in politics, now watch all the news, hoping something may change.”
Tetiana also was born in Simferopol, but having relatives in Volyn Oblast, she has always had close ties with Ukraine. Since late February she has heard the word “benderivka” (a nickname for followers of nationalist Stepan Bandera) shouted to her. So now she is thinking about leaving the peninsula, as she fears persecutions for being Ukrainian.
“But I and my husband were born here, we constructed a house here, and recently the lawyer told me that in order to sell the house I have to take Russian citizenship,” Tetiana said.
Unlike their parents, school children are more optimistic. “When I went to school Ukrainian was a language that many wanted to learn,” said Ania, a ninth grader, sitting with her classmates in a school hall and creating a birthday card for her friend. “And we haven’t seen any problems over studying in Ukrainian this year.”
Ania decided to precede her education in pedagogical college in Simferopol as she dreams to become a psychologist. She appreciates the quality of education she receives here and thinks there won’t be any problems with shifting from Ukrainian into Russian language at her college studies. “I think you can get used to everything,” she said.
Rudenko, the principal, who is also a teacher of Ukrainian, said it was extremely hard to create this school from scratch in 1997, to lure in good teachers and to build its reputation. Now this school has 950 children, 12 percent of whom are of Crimean Tatar nationality. The school has become so popular that parents put their names on a list to send their children there.
Rudenko said she was equally proud of all her graduates.
“I really hope we manage to save our school the way it is now,” she said.
Editor’s Note: This article has been produced for Kyivpost with support from the project www.mymedia.org.ua, financially supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, and implemented by a joint venture between NIRAS and BBC Media Action.The content in this article may not necessarily reflect the views of the Danish government, NIRAS and BBC Action Media.