Rather than implementing the officially stated “denazification” process, the Russian authorities are actively involved in the process of “de-Ukrainization” in the occupied territories. With the intention of eradicating Ukrainian identity, the Kremlin is coercing the local population into acquiring Russian citizenship, abolishing the Ukrainian language, and revising history textbooks in schools.
“Re-education” of children
Legacy of Russia's totalitarian past
One of the methods used to expedite the assimilation of occupied territories is the voluntary-coercive passportization of the local population. However, despite the Russian protectorate over the “DNR” and “LNR,” initially, the Kremlin did not actively facilitate the process of residents obtaining Russian citizenship in the occupied part of Donbass. Displaced individuals could only apply for Russian passports based on general criteria, going through all the administrative procedures required for foreigners, including passing an examination to demonstrate good knowledge of the Russian language. Introducing any privileges would have resulted in a significant exodus of the pro-Russian segment of the population from the “DNR” and “LNR” territories. Consequently, Ukrainian citizens were offered the option to acquire passports from the “republics,” which were not recognized anywhere, even in Russia itself. Even local authorities were hesitant to accept them. By the beginning of 2019, out of the 3.8 million residents in the Russian-controlled Donbass enclave, there were only 250,000 holders of “republican passports.”
Ukrainian citizens were offered the option to acquire passports from the “republics,” which were not recognized anywhere, even in Russia itself
The situation dramatically changed in April 2019 during the Ukrainian presidential elections when Putin signed a decree that simplified the process of granting Russian citizenship to residents of the “DNR” and “LNR.” However, a prerequisite for obtaining a Russian passport still required acquiring “citizenship” from the unrecognized republics. The Kremlin's objective was to exert pressure on the new Ukrainian president to fulfill provisions in the Russia-brokered Minsk agreements that were advantageous for the Russian Federation. This strategy involved leveraging an increased presence in Donbass and the potential annexation of these territories.
As relations with the new Kyiv administration deteriorated, the privileges for obtaining Russian citizenship continued to expand. In 2021, residents of Donbass were aggressively encouraged to obtain the Russian Individual Insurance Account Number (SNILS) from the Pension Fund. This initiative was related to involving the “new citizens” in Russian elections. SNILS became necessary for registration in the remote electronic voting system. Approximately half of the holders of Russian passports from the unrecognized republics received these identification numbers for the elections.
Formally, the Russian passportization system was not mandatory. Among the residents of the “DNR” and “LNR,” there was even some excitement about obtaining documents that would allow them to break free from the “gray zone” or potentially qualify for Russian pensions in the future. However, over time, obtaining a Russian passport (or its substitute in the form of IDs (dubbed Ausweises”) issued by the “LNR” or “DNR”) became a compulsory requirement. For example, it became necessary for employment in public organizations, conducting business activities, or buying/selling real estate. According to testimonies from local residents, if someone only had a Ukrainian passport during a police ID check, they could be taken to the police station for “establishing identity” and a disciplinary conversation. Due to pressure on the region's inhabitants, there were 860,000 Russian citizens living there before the full-scale Russian invasion began. However, these numbers can only rely on opaque Russian statistics, which were referenced by Duma deputies when voting for the recognition of the “LNR” and “DNR.”
After the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine and the official annexation of Donbass, all these processes accelerated: obtaining Russian IDs became an unavoidable requirement. Passportization extended to newly occupied territories, such as the Kherson and Zaporizhia regions. In May 2022, Putin expanded the right to simplified citizenship to residents of southern Ukraine, and in July of the same year, it was extended to all residents of Ukraine regardless of region. According to the occupation administrations, as of March 2023, 134,000 people in the Zaporizhzhia region (about one-third of its occupied part's population) and 90,000 people in the Kherson region had obtained Russian passports.
After the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine obtaining Russian IDs became an unavoidable requirement
In March 2023, Putin approved a simplified procedure for renouncing Ukrainian citizenship, and in April, he legalized the deportation of Ukrainians who refused to accept Russian citizenship and were deemed a “national security threat” (the norm will take effect from the following year).
The Ukrainian government does not recognize Russian passports issued in the occupied territories after 2019. However, Putin's policy puts Kyiv in a difficult position. Dmitry Lubinets, the Human Rights Commissioner of the Verkhovna Rada, urges Ukrainians living in the occupied areas to take Russian passports if it is a matter of survival and personal security. Other officials consider such appeals as encouraging collaboration. Thus, in the future, despite the distribution of “simplified citizenship” being legally declared null and void according to Ukrainian laws, it may become a source of problems during the de-occupation of Ukrainian regions.
According to the local “constitutions” of the “LNR” and “DNR,” Ukrainian was recognized as the second official language. However, in practice, it was merely a propagandistic declaration. There has been a systematic reduction in the use of the Ukrainian language in the “republics,” including the renaming of city landmarks. For example, the central cinema in Luhansk, formerly known as “Ukraine” since Soviet times, is now called “Rus.”
Similar destructive changes occurred in the education system. Despite the traditional dominance of the Russian language in major cities in Donbass, processes were underway to expand the sphere of the Ukrainian language until 2014. For example, at the time of the separatists' seizure of power in Donetsk in May 2014, there were 750 Ukrainian-language classes, in which 30% of students received education in the official language. From 2015, the process of Russification began, with teaching shifting to Russian-style textbooks, and in September 2016, all Ukrainian-language classes were closed, allegedly due to a lack of students interested in attending them.
In September 2016, all Ukrainian-language classes were closed, allegedly due to a lack of students interested in attending them
In 2017, the Ukrainian language was officially removed from the list of mandatory subjects. Library collections were systematically purged, with “Bandera literature” being confiscated. In Luhansk, the Ukrainian-Canadian Cultural Center, established in the 1990s with funds from the Ukrainian diaspora, was vandalized. Its unique library was destroyed as a supposed “collection of neo-Nazi books.”
In March 2020, the “DNR” openly declared the removal of Ukrainian language status as an official language and the implementation of Russification measures in the education system. Denis Pushilin, the leader of the “DNR,” justified this decision by claiming that “the practical implementation of the Ukrainian language as an official language has not been achieved since May 14, 2014 to date.” In June 2020, a similar decision was made by the self-proclaimed “parliament” of the “LNR.” Subsequently, in August of the same year, the Ukrainian language was removed from the mandatory school curriculum (although it could still be studied as an elective subject).
After the start of the full-scale aggression, these processes spread to newly occupied territories. As of September 1, 2022, all schools were brought under Russian education standards. Language norms of the “DNR” and “LNR” are now used in the seized parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions. However, on the occupied territories of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, authorities have declared official bilingualism, with Crimean Tatar being added alongside Russian and Ukrainian languages in the Kherson region. Nevertheless, in practice, as previously in Donbass, a gradual but systematic Russification is taking place in the captured southern regions of Ukraine. Starting from September 1, 2023, mandatory Ukrainian language learning will be abolished in schools in the occupied part of the Zaporizhzhia region.
Starting from September 1, 2023, mandatory Ukrainian language learning will be abolished in schools in the occupied part of the Zaporizhzhia region
In July 2022, the Minister of Education of the Russian Federation, Sergey Kravtsov, announced a mass retraining program for teachers from the occupied territories. The Ministry of Education sent 15,000 education professionals for “professional development.” However, due to the shortage of “retrained” personnel, there is an active recruitment of teachers from various regions of Russia to work in Donbass. Schools in the occupied regions are also awaiting new history textbooks that describe the “neo-Nazi coup” in Ukraine and promote Russian SMO propaganda.
Ideological purges of libraries are also planned in the occupied territories. The director of the M. Gorky Luhansk Republican Universal Scientific Library, Natalya Rastorgueva, says, “The 'Decommunization Law' in Ukraine has yielded its bitter fruits: for eight years, the majority of public library collections had been actively accumulating neo-Nazi, pseudo-historical, and Russophobic literature, the removal of which requires a legal resolution.”
Russian propaganda in Kherson
Systematic destruction of monuments to Ukrainian figures is taking place. In Mariupol, the Memorial to the Defenders of Ukraine and the monument to Hetman Sahaidachny were dismantled. In Melitopol, the monument to Taras Shevchenko and the memorial plaque to Ukrainian nationalist ideologist Dmytro Dontsov (who was born in the city) were also removed. Simultaneously, monuments to Lenin that had been demolished during the decommunization period were being restored, old Soviet names of settlements and streets were reinstated, and new monuments to “socially-friendly” heroes were erected. For example, monuments to Pavel Sudoplatov, a Cheka officer involved in the killings of leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist resistance, appeared in Melitopol and Donetsk.
Destruction of the Memorial to the Defenders of Ukraine in Mariupol
The attempts at forced Russification and erasure of Ukrainian presence in the symbolic space align with Putin's views on Ukraine as an artificial state. The Kremlin is willing to tolerate certain elements of Ukrainian culture in the form of ethnographic decorations, similar to how simulated multi-ethnicity is encouraged in Russia itself. Hatred towards post-Maidan Ukrainian politics takes absurd forms, especially in the case of toponymic decommunization. For example, in Melitopol, the occupation authorities renamed Yaroslav the Wise Street back to Rosa Luxemburg Street, which even caused outrage among Z-patriots.
“Re-education” of children
Another aspect of Putin's occupation is the desire to erase Ukrainian identity among children. In the Kherson region, it was announced that all children born after February 24, 2022, would automatically become Russian citizens. In May 2022, Putin signed a decree simplifying the procedure for granting Russian citizenship to orphaned children from Ukraine, “DNR,” and “LNR.” International organizations see this as a gross violation of international law. On January 27, 2023, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, stated: “Granting [Russian] citizenship to [children from Ukraine] or their adoption contradicts the fundamental principles of protecting children in situations of war.”
In addition to administrative measures and Russification of education, special measures are also applied to children and adolescents from the occupied territories to change their identities. A report by the Human Rights Laboratory (HRL) of the Yale School of Public Health (YSPH) describes the system of “re-education” of children from Ukraine in detail. The report mentions a network of 43 institutions, spanning from annexed Crimea to the Russian Far East, where approximately 6,000 children underwent ideological indoctrination between 2022 and 2023.
“At least 32 (78%) of the camps identified by Yale HRL appear to conduct systematic educational work to re-educate children, subjecting children from Ukraine to education oriented towards Russia in terms of curriculum, cultural, patriotic, and/or military upbringing. Many camps, established by the Russian Federation, are referred to as 'integration programs' and have an obvious goal of integrating children from Ukraine into an environment that aligns with the views of the Russian state on national culture, history, and society.”
Head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, has stated that “troubled teenagers” from the Luhansk region are being sent to Chechnya for “military-patriotic upbringing.” According to the Ukrainian portal “Children of War,” the number of Ukrainian children deported to Russia may reach 19,500. On May 31, 2023, Volodymyr Zelensky announced that only 371 children deported by Russia had been successfully returned to Ukraine.
Nikolai Kuleba, the head of the Save Ukraine organization and former Ukrainian ombudsman for children (2014-2021), points out the consequences of such deportation and subsequent “re-education”:
“Boys who were in the Donbas in 2014 are now fighting in the Russian army against Ukraine, and they claim they are fighting against Nazis. The aim is deportation, reprogramming (of minds), re-education, and further use for Russia's own purposes. It's very simple. And in the past hundred years, this strategy has not changed; Lenin did it, Stalin did it, all leaders of the Soviet Union did it, and Putin is doing it today.”
It is these criminal actions that prompted the International Criminal Court to issue arrest warrants for Vladimir Putin and Russia's Commissioner for children, Maria Lvova-Belova.
Legacy of Russia's totalitarian past
Throughout history, we have witnessed numerous instances where the ethnocultural identity of occupied territories was forcibly altered. Examples include the Holocaust, ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia, and the policy of “Sovietization” implemented by Stalin's regime in regions such as Western Ukraine and the Baltic countries. These policies involved repression of national elites, suppression of insurgent movements, mass deportations, and the imposition of a new ideology.
Even before the full-scale invasion, Vladimir Putin articulated the Russian regime's perspective on Ukraine. In his article on the “Ukrainian question,” he portrayed Ukraine as an artificial state that laid claim to historically Russian territories following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. According to Putin, “Modern Ukraine is entirely a product of the Soviet era. It was largely constructed at the expense of historical Russia. By comparing the territories that reunited with the Russian state in the 17th century with those that Ukraine retained after leaving the Soviet Union, the historical injustice becomes evident.” From this historical analysis, Putin drew the practical conclusion that Russia had been robbed and needed to restore historical justice by reclaiming what it considered its rightful territories, including the population influenced by hostile propaganda.
Later on, various interpreters and commentators of Putin's wisdom further developed this fundamental approach, creatively justifying cultural genocide and the erasure of previous identities. For example, the state-owned RIA Novosti published a column by a certain “political technologist” named Timofey Sergeitsev, who wrote about the collective guilt of Ukrainians who supported the anti-Russian government:
“The further denazification of this population involves re-education, which is achieved through ideological repression (suppression) of Nazi sentiments and strict censorship, not only in the political sphere but also in the realms of culture and education... The Bandera leadership must be eliminated; their re-education is impossible. The social 'quagmire,' which actively and passively supported them through action and inaction, must endure the hardships of war and assimilate the experience as a historical lesson and redemption for their guilt.”
In an interview with The Insider, Russian ethnologist and candidate of historical sciences, Sergey Abashin, notes that Russia attempts to pursue a “hybrid policy” towards the occupied territories, combining different approaches:
“The imperial approach is based on the notion of 'these are historically our lands,' the Russification approach asserts 'Ukrainians and Russians are one people,' and the Sovietization approach emphasizes 'what matters is not ethnicity but ideological unity, a shared fate, including victory in the Great Patriotic War.' The current regime tries to utilize all these policies depending on the audience in Russia and Ukraine, as well as local regional and social conditions.”
Another interviewee of The Insider, historian and translator from Kharkiv, Sergey Lunin, sees the main task of the occupation regime as erasing the boundary between the local Russian-speaking Ukrainian population and actual Russians:
“The Russian-speaking voter of the Party of Regions (a typical resident of the occupied territories) is by no means a Russian. I even doubt their pro-Russian sentiments, especially now. There are profound differences: firstly, passive knowledge of the Ukrainian language; secondly, some connection to the all-Ukrainian context, at least on the level of the national football team; thirdly, a shared history of the past thirty years. As an illustration, I remember that at rallies of the Party of Regions in mainland Ukraine, there were always Ukrainian flags present—rarely did you see a Russian flag... But now they want to prevent people from even holding a Ukrainian flag in their hands.”