The Rinat Akhmetov Foundation’s Museum of Civilian Voices Highlights Ukrainian Educators’ Heroic Tales of Teaching Under Fire

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 In the United States, we often speak of the educational system being under fire. Active shooter drills have become all too common in classrooms across the country. While insidious school shootings make for hotly contested talking points come election time on both sides of the aisle, as a sovereign nation under Russian attack, Ukraine is all too familiar with bad actors transforming what should be an innocent time of learning into a test of emotional and spiritual endurance fraught with fear and uncertainty. Ukrainian teachers facing this desperate new reality are now sharing their stories with the Rinat Akhmetov Foundation’s Museum of Civilian Voices.

Working remotely from a shelter, Valeriia Hukova, a primary school teacher from Kharkiv, found the wherewithal to go on instructing her students in the devastating aftermath of the Feb. 24, 2022, Russian invasion, even as hostile missiles continued to bombard the city. The date “February 23” inscribed on the blackboard on the last day of formal classes at the school where she’d taught prior to the incursion served as a chilling reminder of the unfolding events. “[It was] as if time had stopped,” Hukova recalled.

Hukova saw families beginning to evacuate on Feb. 24, but said the heavy shelling didn’t start until two days later. By then, she, her boyfriend, and others were sheltering in a basement underneath the restaurant where he worked as a chef. Even though there was no electricity, Hukova managed to keep in touch with students whose families remained behind. By March 1, having organized lesson plans geared toward remote learning, she and the children got back to the business of education.

Russia Puts Ukrainian Education in the Line of Fire

According to “Tanks on the Playground,” a Nov. 9, 2023, article featured on the Human Rights Watch website, since the 2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine, “education in the country has been under attack.” The Ukrainian government reported 3,428 educational facilities were damaged and 365 were destroyed between February 2022 and October 2023. However, the malicious attacks by Russian forces didn’t just destroy schools; they actually put children and school staffers directly in harm’s way.

Larisa Arkadievna Bykova, headmistress of School No. 29, explained that like other Ukrainian educators, after the initial Feb. 24 Russian invasion, she began organizing distance learning protocols to set in place. She contacted staff and the families of students, telling them to stay home. By the following day, however, Bykova was asked to open up the school basement as a shelter. While it wasn’t a “certified bomb shelter,” she complied and families moved in. 

Bykova said that at 1 p.m. on March 2, 2022, the unthinkable happened. She was inside the building, children were outside playing on the soccer field. All at once, Bykova heard her husband shouting, “Drop to the ground.” She reports a thunderous clap was followed by a chorus of explosions. Windows everywhere shattered. 

“It was the first time the school was shelled,” Bykova recalled. “We ran out into the corridor and saw that all the walls were [torn apart] by shrapnel … Our psychologist, two teachers, an 11th grader, and the parents of our students were killed.”

The Museum of Civilian Voices Is Both Testament and Teaching Tool

The Rinat Akhmetov Foundation’s Museum of Civilian Voices is one of many philanthropic projects funded by the corporate sponsors of the Rinat Akhmetov Foundation, including international steel and mining conglomerate Metinvest. With the motto of “Recording the past and present for a better future,” the museum functions as an online repository for the collected remembrances of Ukrainian military veterans, innocent civilians, and the family members whose lives have been irreversibly impacted by Russia’s illegal and immoral assault on their homeland. Dating back to events in 2014, the archive holds more than 100,000 accounts of life in the war zone, and continues to grow. 

But in addition to documenting survivors’ eyewitness recollections of war atrocities for reasons of justice and accountability, the Rinat Akhmetov Foundation’s Museum of Civilian Voices counts therapeutic benefits for victims of Russian aggression among its objectives. Its stated mission is “to be the world’s largest archive of stories told by civilians who suffered from hostilities in Ukraine; to create a reliable source of information about the life of civilians amid the war told in the first person; to become a unique psychotherapeutic project that will [contribute] to the psychological well-being and mental health of Ukrainians traumatized by the war through sharing of their stories.” 

Along with the aforementioned goals, an equally crucial project objective is education. The Museum of Civilian Voices’ searchable online oral history portal holds a wealth of experience and knowledge that serves as a valuable reference resource for students, educators, journalists, and scholarly researchers. It’s hoped that having access to this extensive, truthful event archive will allow future generations to educate themselves about the extent of Russia’s criminal conduct, put the insights they glean into a global context, and help them quantify the true cost of Russia’s malicious villainy that came at staggering expense to Ukraine.

Keeping Education From Becoming a Casualty of War in Ukraine 

“[Russian] attacks have had a devastating impact on Ukrainian children’s access to education during the war and likely long after, as the repair and reconstruction of schools, particularly amid other destroyed civilian infrastructure, will require major resources and time,” Human Rights Watch stated.

Ukrainian educator Natalia Hryhoruk, a ninth-grade history teacher and recent winner of the annual “My Ukraine” essay contest sponsored by the Rinat Akhmetov Foundation, reports one of the most difficult topics she covers in her class is the time period when Ukraine was part of the Russian Empire. “Children see that everything is repeated,” she observed, highlighting why educational projects such as the Rinat Akhmetov Foundation’s Museum of Civilian Voices are so vitally important to future generations. “Current events should be written and talked about,” Hryhoruk added, “they should touch the soul and remain in everyone’s memory.”