Putin aims to train a new generation of supporters – through schools

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Starting in the first year, students across Russia will soon attend weekly classes featuring war films and virtual tours across Crimea. They will receive a regular dose of lectures on topics such as “the geopolitical situation” and “traditional values”. As well as a regular flag-raising ceremony, they will be introduced to lessons celebrating Russia’s “rebirth” under President Vladimir Putin.

And, under legislation Putin signed into law on Thursday, all Russian children will be encouraged to join a new patriotic youth movement modeled on the red-tie “pioneers” of the Soviet Union – chaired by the president himself.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, attempts by the Russian government to impart a state ideology to school children have proven unsuccessful, senior Kremlin official Sergei Novikov recently told thousands of Russian teachers at a an online workshop. But now, in the midst of the war in Ukraine, Putin has made it clear that has to change, he said.

“We have to know how to infect them with our ideology,” Novikov said. “Our ideological work aims to change consciousness.”

As the war in Ukraine nears the five-month mark, the broad ambitions of his plans for the home front are becoming clearer: a complete reprogramming of Russian society to end 30 years of openness to the West.

Visitors ride a model of a Soviet-era T-34 tank at the Tankodrom children’s adventure attraction at Patriot Park outside the Russian Armed Forces Cathedral in Kubinka, Russia, December 12 2021. The Russian government is scrambling to indoctrinate children with a militarized version of patriotism. (Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times)

The Kremlin has already imprisoned or forced into exile just about every activist speaking out against the war; he criminalized what was left of independent Russian journalism; he’s cracked down on academics, bloggers, and even a hockey player with suspicious loyalties.

But nowhere are those ambitions clearer than in the Kremlin’s race to overhaul the way children are taught in Russia’s 40,000 public schools.

The nationwide education initiatives, which begin in September, are part of the Russian government’s rush to indoctrinate children with the militarized, anti-Western version of Putin’s patriotism, illustrating the reach of his campaign to use the war to further mobilize Russian society and eliminate any potential protest.

While some pundits doubt that the Kremlin’s grand schemes will bear fruit quickly, even before the new school year, the power of its propaganda to change the minds of impressionable young people was already becoming apparent.

A ninth-grade student, Irina, said that a computer lesson in Moscow in March, for example, was replaced by watching a report on state television about Ukrainians surrendering to Russian troops and a lecture explaining that only information from official Russian sources should be reliable. .

She quickly noticed a transformation in some friends who had initially been frightened or confused by the war.

“They suddenly started repeating everything after TV,” Irina said in a phone interview alongside her mother, Lyubov Ten. “They suddenly started saying it was all deserved, it had to happen. They couldn’t even try to explain this to me.

Conflict Ukraine Russia, Russia, Ukraine, Putin Visitors at the Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces in Kubinka, Russia, December 12, 2021. While some experts doubt the Kremlin’s grand plans will soon bear fruit, its propaganda is already changing the minds of impressionable young people. (Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times)

Irina said that when she challenged her friends about Russian war crimes in Bucha, they replied, “It’s propaganda.”

Ten and her husband, driven in part by their refusal to raise their children in an increasingly militarized environment, left for Poland this spring.

Teachers are also seeing a change. In the town of Pskov, near the Estonian border, an English teacher, Irina Milyutina, said children at her school initially argued vigorously over whether or not Russia was right to invade Ukraine. , and sometimes even came to blows.

But soon the dissenting voices evaporated. Children scrawled Zs and Vs — symbols of support for the war, after the identifying marks on encroaching Russian armor — on blackboards, desks and even floors.

During recess, the fifth and sixth graders pretended to be Russian soldiers, Milyutina said, “and the ones they don’t like very much, they call them Ukrainians.”

“The propaganda has done its job here,” said Milyutina, 30, who was arrested in February for protesting the war but was able to keep her teaching job.

She said in a telephone interview that government directives to hold a series of pro-war propaganda lessons arrived at her school in the weeks following the invasion.

Schools across the country have received such orders, according to Russian activists and news reports. Daniil Ken, the head of an independent teachers’ union, shared with The New York Times some guidelines he said teachers passed on to him.

In one class, students learn about ‘hybrid conflicts against Russia’, with a BBC report on a Russian attack in Ukraine and a statement by President Volodymyr Zelensky presented as examples of ‘fakes’ intended to sow discord in Russian society. An accompanying quiz teaches students to be wary of opposition activists in their own communities.

Conflict Ukraine Russia, Russia, Ukraine, Putin Signs for Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-funded brutal ruler of Chechnya, on a road outside Grozny, Russia September 7, 2021. Virtual guest speakers in the Kremlin Patriotic Classes will include Ramzan Kadyrov, the brutal strongman from Chechnya region. (Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times)

“One of the effective measures of hybrid conflict is the promotion of agents of influence in the local population,” says a true or false challenge.

The correct answer, of course, is “true”.

The new push represents an intensification of Putin’s years-long effort to militarize Russian society, building on ad hoc efforts by officials after the invasion to convince young people that war was justified.

“Patriotism should be the dominant value of our people,” another senior Kremlin official, Alexander Khaharichev, said at last month’s workshop for teachers, organized by the Education Ministry.

His presentation clearly defined patriotism: “Ready to give his life for the fatherland.

Novikov, the head of the Kremlin’s “public projects” directorate, said that with the invasion of Ukraine in February, teachers were faced with “a rather urgent task”: “to carry out explanatory work” and answer students’ “tough questions”.

“While everything is more or less controllable with younger students, older students receive information through a wide variety of channels,” he said, acknowledging government fears about the internet’s influence on students. opinions of young people. A poll last month by the independent Levada Center found that 36% of Russians aged 18 to 24 oppose the war in Ukraine, compared to just 20% of all adults.

Ahead of the next school year, the Kremlin is working to codify its educational ambitions. A draft decree released by the Ministry of Education last month shows that Putin’s two decades in power should be enshrined in the standard curriculum as a historic turning point, while history teaching itself will become more doctrinal.

Conflict Ukraine Russia, Russia, Ukraine, Putin Children play football in the school yard in Verkny Ufaley, Russia, November 9, 2019. As government employees, teachers in Russia usually have no choice but to abide by new demands – although there are signs of resistance from below. (Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times)

The decree states that Russian history lessons should include several new topics such as “Russia’s revival as a great power in the 21st century”, “reunification with Crimea” and “special military operation in Ukraine”. .

And while Russia’s existing educational standard says students should be able to assess “different versions of history,” the new proposal says they should learn to “defend historical truth” and “uncover falsifications.” in the history of the country”.

As government employees, teachers generally have no choice but to comply with the new requirements – although there are signs of resistance from below. Ken says the Teachers Alliance, his union, has provided legal advice to dozens of teachers who refused to teach propaganda classes this spring, noting that political agitation in schools is technically illegal in under Russian law. In some cases, he says, principals simply canceled classes, knowing they were unpopular.

“You just need to find the moral strength not to facilitate evil,” Sergei Chernyshov, who runs a private high school in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk and resisted government propaganda promotion, said in an interview. telephone. “If you can’t protest it, at least don’t help it.”

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