LVOV, Soviet Union — Irene Kalynets went to prison 10 years ago for writing Ukrainian poetry books. Now an elected official of the local government and director of the Lvov educational department, she has finally won the freedom to teach Ukrainian children about their heritage.
"While in prison I vowed that when I got out, I would fight to free the Ukraine and teach our kids about their history, literature and culture," she said recently in her new office in Lvov's government district.
"When Westerners would come to our city and ask us questions about our writers or our history, and we didn't know what they were talking about, I knew something had to be done."
In an effort to purge the Ukraine's educational system of 70 years of Communist ideological teaching, the department of education in this western Ukrainian city has replaced the old with a radically different conceptual plan designed to begin de-Russifying the Ukraine, the second-largest republic in the Soviet Union.
The department has adopted a more nationally conscious agenda, whereby Ukrainian language, literature, history and even religious traditions take on a more central role in classroom instruction.
The overhaul of Lvov's educational system is on the cutting edge of changes in the Ukraine as the republic echoes its recent proclamation of sovereignty and the decision last year to make Ukrainian its official language.
"Our city is leading the movement," said Dana Bilyak, deputy director of the education department, which has in the last two months held several meetings with school representatives from all parts of the republic, including those from the eastern Ukraine, where the population is largely Russian-speaking.
"No one can believe that we've actually done it," Bilyak said, noting the department's difficulty in obtaining paper for printing the new books, currently available in the form of photocopied and stapled pamphlets. Sixteen-year-old Daryna Yakemovych, who this year began learning the history of the world's religions, said she envies the younger students in her school.
"They will be more culturally aware than those in my graduating class," she said, adding that "relearning history, literature and culture at age 16 is not easy, because your psychological outlook on life has already been formed."
A priority of the new program was to remove previously mandatory political and ideologically related clubs, such as the Communist Youth League--known in Russian as the Komsomol--from the classroom and to offer them instead in voluntary after-school activities. In addition, the bright red scarves and red pins bearing V. I. Lenin's image that are worn by students throughout the nation have been banned from Lvov's schools, because both are symbols of the old system.
Bilyak said some parents expressed concern when the October Pioneers Club and the Komsomol were thrown out of the classroom.
"When they asked us what will happen to their kids, we simply told them that they'll finally go back to being what they were always supposed to be: students and nothing more," she said. "Schools are supposed to teach and rear children and not serve as political training grounds."
In place of Communist Party ideology, the department is trying to expose students to religion, a subject previously considered taboo. As a result, it is not unusual to see local priests in the schools discussing religion with students.
According to Bilyak, the old atheistic system monitored students who attended churches, then subjected them to ostracism or subtle ridicule. Given such penalties, she added, many parents decided that church was too risky for their youngsters.
Oleg Hryniv, whose daughter attends one of the approximately 1,200 schools in the Lvov region, believes that the new emphasis on Ukrainian culture in the schools was long overdue. She adds: "The old system produced too many delinquents. I hope the new one will give us morally and culturally rich students who are not cosmopolitans, not national nihilists, but patriots who support their nation."
As part of the new program, the incentives previously given to teachers for choosing to teach Russian language and literature courses instead of the Ukrainian equivalent have been removed. The 15% pay increase for teachers who taught Russian instead of Ukrainian subjects is now being used to increase foreign language instruction. Similarly, Russian literature has been made part of a new course entitled "Literature of the Nations of the World."
Bilyak said the reduction of Russian language courses to the same level as other foreign languages has created a reaction she didn't expect. "People have come up to me and asked to have the hourly breakdown of Russian language courses cut even further so that more time can be given to teaching English," she said.