Children’s culture trip to Russia triggers Ukrainian security service probe

Children’s culture trip to Russia triggers Ukrainian security service probe
A summer trip to Moscow and St. Petersburg by a group of schoolchildren from Kiev has caused a massive outcry in Ukraine, resulting in the involvement of the Ukrainian Education Ministry and the Security Service, who are now looking into Russian “spy hubs.”

Some 70 students, who are winners of various international academic competitions, have been awarded with a visit to Russia’s historic architectural sites and museums, accompanied by their Ukrainian teachers.

“The children were eagerly awaiting this trip… as they would see world-famous historical sites firsthand, would attend numerous museums and exhibitions,” Anna Novikova, a Ukrainian teacher who organized the trip, commented on the issue, adding that the Ukrainian students would have an opportunity to meet with their peers from Russia and other countries and particularly tell them about Ukraine.

The trip that made it to Ukrainian media headlines was organized by Russia’s science and culture center in Kiev, which is part of Russia’s Rossotrudnichestvo federal agency.

Aimed at implementing international humanitarian cooperation and promoting an image of Russia abroad, the agency has 95 offices in 80 countries worldwide.However, it's not a culture program that's now in the focus in Ukraine. The cultural center has now been accused of being used by Moscow for "spying" by Ukrainian officials.

Saying that she has been "outraged" by the work of the culture center, which has organized the trip for the children, Ukrainian MP Natalia Veselova has called on a number of Ukrainian government departments to investigate it.

"I am sure that today it is necessary to check the activity of these [Russian] organizations, and the Russian science and culture center in Kiev in the first place, and their possible affiliation with Russian secret services," the Ukrainian deputy wrote on Facebook.

Ukrainian news agency, Ukrinform, also quoted Ukrainian diplomat and poet Sergey Borshchevsky, who called Russian culture centers abroad "spy hubs" and "propaganda weapons."

The calls of the Ukrainian officials did not go unnoticed and, on August 18, the Ukrainian security service (SBU) said it would “look into the issue.”“The SBU chief [Vasily Gritsak] has ordered [his agency] to look into it,” an SBU spokeswoman told the Ukrainian media.

In the meantime, the Ukrainian Education Ministry admitted that it “has no authority” to ban such trips.

"It is vacations time, teachers are on holiday too... As our border with Russia is not closed, we cannot and have no authority to ban such trips, as they happen outside the education system. It happens with the parents' consent, who make the final decision," Ukraine's deputy education and science minister, Pavel Hobzey, told reporters.

However, he expressed the hope that “there are no more trips like this one” and said that his ministry also appealed to the SBU, asking it to make a legal assessment of the children’s visit to the “aggressor state.”

The Rossotrudnichestvo officials called such a reaction “inadequate.”

“These are just the people who look for some nonsense in everything,” the agency spokesman, Sergey Shatunov, told journalists, commenting on the statements of the Ukrainian officials.

He also said that the program involving students’ trips to Russia is annual and has been conducted for many years not only in Ukraine but also in many other countries. Shatunov added that the agency would continue to conduct the program despite the outrage of the Ukrainian officials.

Meanwhile, Ukraine's concern with children visiting Russia shows no signs of abatement, as it emerged that a group of young artists has reportedly traveled to a picturesque site in the Russian city of Novgorod, to practice plain air painting. "Are there no means to stop this plague of 'cultural Russification'?" the Ukrinform news agency wrote.