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‘He came home with a smashed-up face’ The Ukrainian children facing bullying in Russian schools
While it’s too early to tell what the scale of the migration caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will be when all is said and done, it’s clear that the war has sent demographic shockwaves across the region. In addition to the millions of Ukrainian refugees who have fled to the EU, more than a million others are now in Russia, many of them victims of forced deportation. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Russians have left their own country, fleeing the Kremlin’s wartime crackdown on dissent and Putin’s mobilization campaign. While these crises differ in scale, one consequence they share is that children from both countries are suddenly living in environments where they stand out from their peers — a situation ripe for bullying. Journalists from the student-run online magazine Doxa spoke to Russian and Ukrainian parents now living abroad about the difficulties their children are having at school. In English, Meduza explains what they learned.
Iryna (name changed) is from a small town in Ukraine’s Donetsk region. She moved with her husband and two sons to St. Petersburg after the roof of their home was blown off by a shell. The family would have preferred to go to Europe, but Iryna's elderly parents still live in Ukraine, so she didn’t want to move too far away.
“One [of Iryna's sons] is a teenager and the other is just a baby,” Natalia, a St. Petersburg-based activist who works with Ukrainian refugees in the city, told the Russian news outlet Doxa. (Natalia spoke to journalists on Iryna's behalf; Iryna was too scared.) When the family’s home was shelled, Iryna's older son used his body to shield his little brother. Soon after, he began suffering from what sound like symptoms of trauma. “He would freeze for a few seconds at a time, he slept poorly, he cried out in his sleep, and his legs would shake,” Natalia said.
Unable to find a job that paid enough for an apartment in St. Petersburg, Iryna and her family eventually moved to a border town in the Rostov region. Still, she and Natalia stayed in touch. When she would travel to the city so Natalia could help her with document issues, she would sometimes start crying while talking about her new home. “[Iryna would say that] there are portraits of Putin and Kadyrov everywhere, the population practically pray to them, and everybody supports the war and hates Ukraine, despite the fact that practically everybody has family there,” Natalia told Doxa.
Iryna's older son enrolled in a local school, but he only went for three days. “He came home with a smashed-up face: the classmates beat him up after he told them he was Ukrainian and proud,” Natalia said. “Now the boy refuses to go to Russian school, and Iryna is afraid child protection services are going to come for him. Now the teenager is remotely attending his Ukrainian school.” The boy’s classmates are spread throughout Europe and the unoccupied part of Ukraine; he’s the only one in Russia.
Natalia told Doxa that explicit bullying of Ukrainian children in Russia is the exception rather than the rule, and other volunteers agreed. For example, Alla, a charity organization employee who lives in St. Petersburg, said that it’s easier for parents who’ve been deported to Russia from Ukraine to send their children to school than it is for migrants from Central Asia, who often face racism and hostility in Russia. This is in part because even Russians who support the war usually don’t blame Ukrainians in Russia for simply being there: “If they believe [Russian propaganda] and believe that Ukrainans are Nazis, then they think, ‘These people are running from the Nazis,' and [so] they treat the refugees alright,” she said.
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Nonetheless, many Ukrainian students in regions throughout Russia have faced bullying and harassment at school this year. Lida Moniava, the founder of the Lighthouse Charity Foundation, listed examples in a recent Facebook post:
Last week, two upperclassman girls spent five hours having a ‘chat’ with the director [of the school] and representatives of [security] ‘agencies.’ Their classmates had complained about an 'anti-Russian’ post one of the girls made on social media. [In another case,] kids were shouting at an overweight [Ukrainian] boy, ‘Did you sit in a basement and starve, fatty?’ Another boy, as part of an assignment for his social studies class, was asked to 'draw the flag of any country,' and drew the Ukrainian flag. His classmates snatched the drawing from him and stomped on it. One teenage girl started coming home from school sullen and depressed at the start of the year, though she said everything was fine. Then her mom looked in her backpack and found notes with threats from her classmates because of her nationality.
‘I’m glad my daughter is here’
The Russian parents living abroad who spoke to Doxa described a strikingly different situation. Initially, they said, their new acquaintances and colleagues asked how they could help their new guests; a few people were even given time off work. While some inevitably felt tension surrounding the topic of the war, nobody described experiencing as much as incivility from their new hosts.
Lidia, a Russian woman living in Tbilisi, said that there are six Russian-speaking children in her daughter’s class, not including her daughter. “One day, when they were talking to one another in Russian, the teacher came to them and asked them not to speak in the language of occupiers, even among themselves,” she told Doxa. “But none of the six children is even Russian. One of them, for example, is from Kazakhstan.” Overall, though, Lidia said that both the students and the teaching staff at her daughter’s school in Tbilisi are “so much less toxic than in Russia,” adding, “I’m really glad my daughter is here.”
Veronika, a Ukrainian woman who lives in Germany, has tried to take a more active role in her daughter’s school situation. “I don’t let my child be friends with Russian children. I develop an unfriendly attitude towards everything that comes from Rashka,” she told Doxa. Regardless of what their parents might tell them, however, Veronika's daughter and the Russian students in her class talk to each other — though “when parents come around, they separate,” said Veronika. “[One of the Russian girls,] of course, told her parents [that I forbid my daughter from talking to her]. But there was no conflict between us — maybe the parents [...] have decided it’s better not to react.”
Abridged English-language version by Sam Breazeale
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