This is an interview with Kateryna Maliuta-Osaulova, International Secretary, Trade Union of Education and Science Workers of Ukraine. Rethinking Schools managing editor Ari Bloomekatz sent a series of questions to Maliuta-Osaulova and she responded in mid-March over email.
This interview grows out of Rethinking Schools’ long-standing interest in covering the struggles of educators and their unions throughout the world, and our broader interest in working for peace and justice. In the interview, Maliuta-Osaulova calls for the United States and NATO to “close the sky over Ukraine.” Given that schools have already been destroyed by Russian bombs, we can understand why Ukrainian teachers would want a no-fly zone over Ukraine. Although we stand in solidarity with Ukrainians resisting Russia’s invasion, Rethinking Schools shares the concern of many on the left that a NATO no-fly zone could provoke a wider confrontation between nuclear powers, including the United States.
The questions and responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Ari Bloomekatz: The first question I have is are you safe? The last we heard was that you were fleeing with your children to the west of Ukraine. Can you describe the journey?
Kateryna Maliuta-Osaulova: I’m safe. Last week my children and I moved from Kyiv to my parents’ house, which is located in the central part of Ukraine. It took us eight hours to drive 300 kilometers because of the threats of attack and the numerous devastations we had to drive around.
AB: Can you tell us about your union?
KMO: The Trade Union of Education and Science Workers of Ukraine organizes school teachers, people who work at pre-school childcare facilities, educators, professors and lecturers in higher education, as well as administrative and support staff of education facilities and retired pensioners. It has 26,294 primary organizations with a total membership of about 1.6 million.
AB: Before the invasion, what were the main issues the union was fighting for?
KMO: The Trade Union fights for improvements in education and science workers’ standards of living, increases in their wages, decent working environments, and social protection of students.
AB: How did Ukrainian educators talk about the potential invasion with their students in the weeks and months leading up to the Russian invasion? What role did the union play?
KMO: After 2014, we Ukrainians have not forgotten and think and talk about war always and everywhere. During these last eight years, military actions have been going on in the Eastern part of Ukraine. Donetsk, Luhansk, and Crimea were present in our everyday life. Educators have been talking about it in their history lessons, explaining what and why it happened. The children had to know everything.
AB: How are Ukrainian children coping with the invasion? Are all schools closed?
KMO: How can children feel after they have been forced to flee from their homes, live in basements or metro stations? They lost their usual lifestyle, friends, some of them lost their parents. Instead of going to school or university, Ukrainian children and young people are hiding in shelters, trembling, and shuddering from every noise. Children will have psychological trauma for their whole life, if they are lucky enough to survive. More than 3 million refugees have fled Ukraine, including 1.5 million children in less than three weeks. Their lives have changed drastically: refugee camps, new languages, maybe new schools. All these factors are very stressful. On March 14, 2022, in those regions of Ukraine where the situation is more or less stable and safe (eight such regions), the educational process in secondary education was resumed after the forced closures caused by the Russian invasion of our territory. Depending on the security situation in every particular region, school has taken place remotely or in some mixed form. For preschoolers, online kindergarten has started to work.
AB: Now that the invasion is happening, are educators in the union fighting the Russians on the front lines? Have many tried to flee to other countries?
KMO: Some representatives of education trade unions joined local military self-defense forces. For example, two of my colleagues joined them. A lot of educators are fighting on the front lines to protect our country. There is no official data on their numbers as it is extremely difficult to collect it now, it’s just information from the leaders of our regional trade union organizations, my colleagues, and friends. About 20 percent of people who had to leave their homes have fled abroad and about 80 percent have been staying in Ukraine.
AB: What are the other ways the union is responding to this invasion?
KMO: The Trade Union of Education and Science Workers of Ukraine, like many other trade unions in Ukraine, is actively supporting refugees, contributing to humanitarian aid provisions, and providing assistance to our members. All trade union movements were shocked that all Russian trade unions of education supported the war, supported killings of civilians and children, supported the total destruction of infrastructure, including schools. Our trade union sent a statement to the EI (Education International) and the ETUCE (European Trade Union Committee for Education) in which we condemn their position and strongly believe that the actions are contrary to the principles of the international trade union movement and they could no longer be considered genuine trade unions and be members of the international trade union family. We’ve sent a statement to Education International and the European Trade Union Committee for Education and called on them to address their member organizations with the request to push the governments of NATO member states to close the sky over Ukraine by providing the means of defense in order to stop the full-scale aggression of the Russian Federation.
AB: What can educators and students around the world do to help support your union and the people of Ukraine?
KMO: You need to increase the pressure on Russia — organize campaigns, protest against it, and refuse to buy Russian products, to push your government to make a decision to close the sky over Ukraine. All actions are needed!
AB: What do you think students in the United States should be learning about this war?
KMO: The whole of Europe and the world needs to understand that they are sending aid to Ukraine because hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians today, at the cost of their lives and the lives of their relatives and even children, are deterring the aggressor from invading other countries. Today, Europe and the world have a chance to defeat a tyrant who has been intimidating everyone around for decades. This requires Ukraine to persevere. And Ukrainians will win.
AB: Is there a particular message you want to send to the world about what is happening in Ukraine?
KMO: It’s a disastrous, bloody war. Every day of the war means dozens of deaths of civilians. We will fight and we will win anyway. The whole Ukrainian people will resist. But the help of every country will save lives. Together we are a force that cannot be defeated. Let us remain united!
To access resources to help teach about the ongoing war, and to read the Rethinking Schools editorial about the violence in Ukraine, click here.