Issue 07-08/23

Survival. Waldorf in Ukraine

Olena Mezentseva

«I have something in my heart that will not die.»

Lesya Ukrainka 

24 February 2022 split our lives into «before» and «after». We woke up at 4am to the sound of explosions and the terrible word «war» entered our daily lives. After shock in disbelief, we thought: «This can't last long,» because we live in a civilised world, because we remember the consequences of the Second World War, because we can always negotiate, because ... After all, people in Russia had read the same books, seen the same films and visited us over the past decades, without visas or borders!

What was «before»?

Waldorf education in Ukraine has followed the path taken by most of the post-socialist and post-Soviet countries. Inspired by the winds of freedom, the desire for change and full of enthusiasm, young people in the 1990s were looking for new ideas to shape the future with their own hands. Later, centres of anthroposophical initiatives began to develop into Waldorf kindergartens and schools.

It took a long road for Waldorf education in Ukraine to be approved by the ministry of education and science. Today it is one of the four local alternative systems of education recognised by the ministry, and Waldorf teachers are invited to serve as experts on ministerial commissions. According to the education act, each educational institution can choose one of the state programmes or one of the alternative programmes recognised by the ministry of education. This is why both private and state Waldorf schools and kindergartens exist in Ukraine. Both options have their advantages and disadvantages. Public schools and kindergartens have more external supervision but benefit from state financial support, which was an important factor during the coronavirus pandemic and is one also now during wartime. Private educational institutions are less under the control of state authorities, but rely exclusively on parents for their finances.

Before February 2023, there were many meetings of the different Waldorf schools: with Olympic games for year five, medieval tournaments and balls for year six, festivals of theatre projects for year eight, summer camps and conferences for upper school pupils. Before each school year, the teachers met for education conferences and subject teacher seminars. Every year we welcomed new students, young colleagues, built, planned ...

What happened after 24 February?

The natural reaction of many families was to grab their children and flee immediately. Mothers woke their children and put them in the car in their pyjamas or ran to the train station during explosions; children clung to their fathers. These men had tears in their eyes because they did not know if they would ever see their children again. Some women stayed in their homes and tried to support each other. But increasing numbers of nights in cold cellars caused them to flee with their children. They took only the bare essentials with them on the journey: sleeping bags, warm jumpers and socks, thermos flasks with hot tea, food for a few days, documents.

In the first month of the war, it was as if schools and kindergartens were frozen. Everyone looked after their own family, stayed overnight in other people's houses, read the news on the phone every minute and listened to the sound of the sirens of the fire brigade. Then the networking began with those who had fled. One woman was in western Ukraine, the other in Poland or the Czech Republic – there you are closer to home. Others fled to relatives in Italy or Spain, some even as far as Canada. But most of the people from our school were in Germany. There had been contacts with Waldorf schools here for a long time, and Christian Communities, who had also hospitably opened their doors for overnight stays before the war, warmly welcomed us.

Families sought contact with Ukrainian teachers. A month later, the schools started organising online meetings. In this way, people could at least see each other and find out who was where. The educational committees of several Waldorf schools joined forces and drew up a timetable for pupils who were unable to come to school. Teachers began to study anthroposophical literature intensively and tried to find an answer to the question: «Why us? Why here? Why now?»

Schooling in wartime

When the new school year began in autumn 2022, the war was ongoing. The country had to adapt to many new regulations. Military training took place in the grounds of many schools during the summer, as they had sports halls, canteens and basements. The ministry of education ordered an air-raid shelter for every school. However, it was not clear whether schools were allowed to reopen as schools.

Waldorf schools and kindergartens in the cities of Dnipro, Kryvy Ryh, Zaporizhzhya, Kharkiv, Mykolaiv and Kremenchuk worked exclusively online, being areas near or in the war zone. Schools and kindergartens in Kyiv and Odessa could only do this in air-raid shelters.

Teaching online is not really an option as the electricity is always switched off on a scheduled basis and at different times in different parts of the city. This makes it almost impossible to draw up a timetable. It is possible to study now and again in the school basement without light and heating, thanks to donated generators. But getting to school is often a problem because all means of transport are cancelled during air raids. Sometimes you wake up in the morning and there are 27 messages in the teachers' chat, such as: «Ms M. is picking up my class because the metro has stopped», or: «I'm going over the bridge over the Dnipro.» «I'll be there in an hour and a half», or: «Air raid warning. Is anyone at school? Because the children have already left» – «I'm here. I will take them all to the basement.»

Many main lessons look like this:

Morning verse –
Song – Rhythmical exercise –
Maths exercises – Air raid warning –
Basement – Maths exercises –
Story – End of lesson.

A person survives under almost any conditions. Teachers have drawn up the following rules: «We start lessons one hour after the air raid warning if it was given before the start of school. In an air raid, the pupils take their backpacks, torches, drinking water and a supply of dry food, and each class knows which staircase to take to the basement.»

Some psychologists write that children have a high «resilience potential in life», adapt quickly and forget traumatic life events. On the other hand, there is also the view that psychological trauma not only persists in the individual, but also over three further generations. When I asked a colleague: «What keeps you going?», he replied: «The children! They are so happy to be at school, to meet their classmates, to do things together, to communicate, to learn!» Teachers and parents do their best to keep the children's lives somewhat normal: they maintain the rhythm, run lessons and projects, organise holidays and performances. Under wartime conditions, this is a particular challenge because you don't know where to set up the seasonal table – in the hallway or in the basement.

According to statistics from the Association of Waldorf Initiatives in Ukraine, two thirds of school children are currently not living in their home country and are often, as my German colleague said, «sitting on packed suitcases». No one knows whether the effort of adapting to the new environment is worth it at all. After all, we all want to go home again!

I would like to thank all the schools that took our children in, surrounded them with care and support, taught them the new language and supported Ukrainian families. «We feel like one big family» – this is the kind of feedback we often hear from Ukrainian families. But when asked «How did you spend your school holidays?», the answer is: »We went to Ukraine.» They met with the fathers, but there is never enough time to discuss everything. Or it could not be put into words because of the longing.

What next?

Ukraine's new minister of education has announced that the next academic year will be full-time and on-site as much as possible. But should we take the children back to Ukraine when the situation is still unstable and dangerous? On the other hand, how can you prevent schools from closing permanently? This is particularly true for Waldorf schools and kindergartens. Many kindergarten classes and groups working in accordance with Waldorf education in public educational institutions have already closed or will close next year as schools merge classes for economic reasons. A start could be made with small initiatives and then wait until the children return so that operations can fully resume.

Currently, the Ukrainian animated film Mavka: The Forest Song, based on the work of the Ukrainian poet Lesya Ukrainka (1871 – 1913), is being shown in cinemas in Ukraine and other countries. The animated film has nothing to do with the original work except for the names of the main characters, as is common in popular culture. But the words of Lesya Ukrainka's Mavka touch the soul of all Ukrainians: «No, I live, I will live forever, I have something in my heart that will not die!»

Thank you to all the people who support Ukrainian schools, families and children!

Donations to support Waldorf schools in Ukraine are accepted by Friends of Waldorf Education: Freunde der Erziehungskunst Rudolf Steiners e.V. | GLS Bank | IBAN: DE47 4306 0967 0013 0420 10 | Purpose: Ukraine


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