Between war and school. Waldorf education in Ukraine

Elena Killge

Everything started with Volodja, who had just reached the age of 21 when he discovered the name of Rudolf Steiner in one of his mother’s books. It did not let go of him until one day he stood in front of the Goetheanum. Three months he remained in Dornach, learnt German and studied anthroposophy.

Now he has been killed by a mine.

“Kiev needs a Waldorf school. We will found one!” Volodja’s conviction and sense of purpose infected many people in Kiev. I was one of them. It was the 1990s. Waldorf education in Ukraine? Impossible! You’re mad! Travelling westwards for a Waldorf teacher training was simply not possible. But we “called” and the West came to us. Swiss lecturers who previously did not know one another gathered in a collegium, brought together through our letters, and decided to establish a Waldorf teacher training course in Kiev. Eduard and Barbara Hasselberg, Eckhard and Brünhild Dönges, Peter Lüthi and many practising Waldorf teachers from Switzerland regularly came to Kiev and trained us. Many of them linked their personal destiny with Ukraine. There are meanwhile seminars for special needs education, eurythmy therapy, anthroposophic medicine and Waldorf teacher and early-years teacher training in Kiev. That is a miracle!

The Waldorf initiative twenty years ago in Kiev consisted of a small but very enthusiastic group of people. In 1998 the first Waldorf kindergarten opened its doors and a year later the school. The first Waldorf children came together at the house of an early-years teacher – acquiring a building of our own seemed a distant dream at the time … Incredible, when we see the four-storey building of the Sophia Waldorf School with its 400 pupils today! Classes 1, 2 and 3 run in parallel with about 30 children in each parallel class.

The driving force during the whole of this time was Volodja, Volodymyr Kochetkov-Sukach. He had meanwhile grown older and had four children of his own at the Sophia Waldorf School in Kiev. During difficult times, when Waldorf education was under constant attack, courageous parents stood by the school like a ring of steel and prevented its closure. Today no one doubts any longer that Waldorf education has its secure place in the life of Ukrainian society.

Once again we are in difficult times – not just with regard to the Waldorf schools: the whole of the country is today fighting for its future.

Teaching in time of war

Is it possible to imagine what it is like when the husbands of the teachers and parents of the children are at war? When teachers volunteer in their spare time to collect medicines and donations for the front, go to funerals or help the wounded and their families? What it is like when there has been no peace for the last one-and-a-half years, only grief and pain, the expectation of the worst and yet the hope that it will finally come to an end … and yet there is no end? No one is unaffected! Volodja’s death deeply affected all those connected with the Waldorf school and anthroposophy in Kiev: he founded the Sophia Waldorf School and many other projects which will continue to play a central role in our life also in the future. He was proof that miracles happen, a living example of what a free-thinking person can bring about. So we live at war and yet continue to teach, we live with our eyes turned towards the future.

The children at the Sophia Waldorf School are also occupied with more than lessons. They regularly write letters for the soldiers and paint pictures for them. These letters are eagerly awaited at the front, they serve as protective talismans and inner support for all those engaged in the fighting. For some time the pupils have been weaving so-called multifunctional tape which can be used for suturing wounds, bandaging injuries or even to help pull out injured people who have been buried in rubble. The pupils often give concerts in Kiev hospitals and try with their music to give the people there a little warmth.

Of course today’s situation is very stressful for everyone. But I have never experienced so much compassion and attentiveness among people for one another.

Official recognition after 13 years

There are only four official Ukrainian Waldorf schools: Dnepropetrovsk, Odessa, Krivij Rig and Kiev. Several private Waldorf schools and initiatives have closed for financial reasons or are no longer Waldorf. All schools working within state education continue in existence and are even growing. The year 2014 was not only marked by the Maidan revolution and the war with Russia. That year also saw the successful conclusion of an “educational experiment” undertaken by the Ukrainian education and science ministry together with the Waldorf schools. As a result of this “experiment”, which lasted 13 years, the schools may now officially work in accordance with the principles of Waldorf education. In the 1990s, when they started with their work, it was almost that they had to keep themselves hidden. Seventy-seven percent of the former Waldorf pupils are today students at colleges and universities.

There are lectures and seminars on Waldorf education at Kiev’s University of Education. Interest in Waldorf education continues to grow and there are several new educational initiatives in Dnepropetrovsk, Saporoshje, Nikolaev and Kiev.

About the author: Elena Killge is a eurythmy teacher at the Mittelrhein Rudolf Steiner School / Neuwied and was born in Kiev.