“Teacher, I joined the Ukrainian armed forces “

Valentyn Dolhochub Patrick Le Tréhondat
April 18, 2023

Can you introduce yourself to our readers?

My name is Valentyn Dolhochub. I am a doctor in history and archaeology. I was born in Odessa in 1993, but in 2018 my wife Alyona and I moved to a small village 80 km from Odessa choosing to live more modestly. In 2020-2023 I worked as a history, geography and law teacher in a local school. In March 2023, I joined the Ukrainian armed forces as a soldier.

How did you experience the first year of the war?

I was preparing a bit for the war (I had prepared an "emergency kit"), making plans with my friends just in case. However, just before the war started, I started to doubt that it would actually happen. At first I took part in night patrols in Odessa as part of volunteer units for several days, then I went to a checkpoint near my village. However, after the defeat of the invaders near the town of Voznesensk (70 km from our village), I stopped actively participating in the resistance movement. My friend and I were not accepted into the territorial defence because we were teachers. After that I resumed a normal life, occasionally sending money to the army. I was going through a serious psychological crisis because I was not participating in the events, but at the same time I did not dare to leave my family.

At the time of 24 February 2022, my eldest son was two and a half years old and the youngest one and a half months old. I think this excuse is weak, but this is how I explained my choice.

Until late autumn, the war had almost no impact on my life. After the first two weeks, when there were problems with food deliveries to the shops, the situation returned to normal. In November, regular power cuts began. They lasted until mid-December and then stopped for some reason I don't know, although in Odessa the electricity continued to be cut off. Of course we were concerned about the news and followed closely the information from the front. Several of my friends were killed in action and others were captured.

How did your students experience this situation?

People in rural areas are somewhat less mobile than those in urban areas, and they generally have less money to travel to another country or region, which explains why only 2-3 out of 80 students left the school, whereas in Odessa schools 50% or more of the students went abroad.

Children often passed on the moods and words of their parents. Some said they were afraid, but fear was certainly not the backdrop of their lives. They enthusiastically discussed the moments when a military plane, a helicopter (Ukrainian), a missile or a drone (Russian) flew over the village. They could only hear two powerful explosions when the occupants hit the former military airfield 15 km from the village, as well as fire from anti-aircraft systems. The fathers of a dozen students went to war. As far as I know, fortunately there were no deaths among the relatives of my pupils. In addition, several displaced students, whose families left the areas where the fighting was taking place, have arrived at our school. I cannot say that they are psychologically different from their peers. The vast majority of students have taken to Ukrainian symbols and patriotic songs and believe that Ukraine will win.

How did you organise your teaching in this situation?

We had experienced distance learning during the coronavirus quarantine. When I started working in 2020, this learning was very difficult. Most of the students did not have internet access. But after two and a half weeks, the lessons resumed in a distance form. Today, students feel more responsible for their studies. The participation in the courses via Zoom reaches 50% of the class and even more (as far as I know, the situation was similar in the schools in the cities). Some of the lessons were held via Zoom, while other assignments are sent via Viber [messaging platform]. In my opinion, the quality of teaching has deteriorated, but not as much as during the coronavirus quarantine. In December 2022, our school resumed face- to-face teaching, except on days when the occupiers were launching massive rocket attacks or when the village was without electricity. The walls of the school were reinforced with sandbags and some windows were blocked. The basement of the school was supposed to be a bomb shelter, but I never saw anyone go down there. The probability of a bombing on our village is minimal, although in Odessa such a danger is real.

I read that teachers have many problems: delay in payment of salaries, having to take leave to reduce costs, etc. It is the local authorities that have to pay the teachers because of budget cuts. What do you think about this?

In the less than three years that I have been working as a teacher, I have never experienced a delay in the payment of my salary. Nor have I ever heard my teacher friends in other schools complain about "late payment of salary". I must add that other public institutions where I have worked, such as regional and national libraries, have never experienced late payment of salaries either. However, it is quite likely that such cases exist. The main problem is different: our salaries are very low. With a doctorate and the title of "professor of the highest category", I was receiving about 190 euros per month. To support my family (my wife and two children) I had to take another job (in a library) and give private lessons. In this way I managed to achieve an income of about 420 euros per month. In my school, working hours were reduced to cut costs only for maintenance staff (cleaners, stokers) and kindergarten teachers (the kindergarten has not been opened since the beginning of the war).

The work of the teachers is indeed paid by the local budget, but this is not due to the war, but to the decentralisation reform. This started even before the Russian invasion. In recent months, teachers' salaries have indeed been reduced. In my school the changes have been insignificant: 200-400 hryvnias (5-10 euros), but some of my friends in Odessa have had their salaries cut by almost 50 euros. I don't know the reason for this difference. It is clear that salaries are being cut to pay for the work of the military and other war expenses.

Are there teachers' unions and, if so, what are they doing about it?

In the Soviet Union, trade unions were completely atrophied and turned into an insignificant appendage of the state system. Everywhere, teachers' unions were content to offer vouchers for sanatoriums (and not always), to offer packages of sweets for the New Year and flowers for women on 8 March. The unions were never in conflict with school administrations and district education departments. It seems that union members often do not even realise why they are needed. Over the years of neo-liberal education reforms, the existing unions have proven to be totally incapable of fighting for teachers' rights. Attempts to create alternative and independent unions have been very weak. Shortly before the war started, my friends and I considered, among other things, the creation of an independent teachers' union. Of course, after 24 February 2022, there was no need for this.

You were recently mobilised into the armed forces. Can you tell us why and how this happened?

In Ukraine, teachers are not officially subject to mobilisation. At the beginning of the war, volunteer teachers were even dismissed from the territorial defence units and the armed forces. A military deferment has to be documented, but no one was interested in it until February 2022. At the mobilisation office, no one denied my right to a deferment and promised to confirm it in early April. As I have already written, it was very difficult for me not to participate in the war. I had always been interested in the existential experience of war (mainly under the influence of Nietzsche, Saint-Exupéry and Ernst Jünger). At the same time, I was psychologically incapable of leaving my family. Moreover, if one judges objectively, I am not a very good warrior. At the end of March, a friend who had been fighting for a year and had become a sergeant contacted me and invited me to join his unit, the reconnaissance department of a new mechanised brigade. I thought it was the perfect opportunity. My wife supported my interest, for which I am very grateful. The school administration and the other teachers were also very supportive, although it is probably not easy to return to the subjects I used to teach. Part of my job is still to send homework to students and check the work they send me.

So I quickly gathered the necessary documents and voluntarily presented myself at the military police station. Fortunately, there was the possibility of being mobilised in a specific unit. Formally, my status is no different from those who were forcibly mobilised.

What is your life like in the army? Do you have any particular problems?

I joined the military unit later than the other soldiers, so I did not go through the first stages of training. After all, I don't serve in a combat section, but rather in the unit office. I think this is how I can be really effective in the army: working with documents, plans, maps. Sometimes we also do base protection tasks, shooting, and individually and collectively improve our training (in this case, it is not a truism).

It is likely that in the near future our brigade will be given some very interesting tasks. However, we currently live and work in very good conditions (as far as I know, such conditions are not typical in the army). I have adapted to my new life quite easily and I am very satisfied with the team I have joined.

The problems in the army are well known and I don't think it's worth talking about them. The Ukrainian army has changed a lot in recent years and especially in 2022, but there are still many elements inherited from the Soviet army. The only overall problem that is actively discussed by the Ukrainian public and which I would like to emphasise is the inappropriate cruelty of forms of forced mobilisation that discredit the struggle of Ukrainian soldiers and the near impossibility of voluntary demobilisation.

Are your teaching skills used in the military?

So far, no, but it's only been two weeks since my mobilisation. What I need above all is the ability to learn quickly and to adapt to these new conditions.

How do you see your future?

It depends on the future of my people and my country. At the moment, I am concentrating on the present moment and am reluctant to project myself into the future. Assuming that the war does not end in the total devastation of Ukraine, I would like to be demobilised and try my hand at data analysis, which I have been studying for a year. I don't intend to have a military career. Taras Shevchenko expressed the Ukrainian national idea very well in his poem "A Cherry Orchard by the House". I hope that after gaining the experience I want, I will also be able to return to a peaceful life in the village, just as the Cossacks returned to their steppe farms after wars and military campaigns. However, I am aware that life in Ukraine will never be synonymous with 'stability and peace' - that is why we have built ourselves as a free and armed people.