Putin seeks to shape a new generation of supporters – through schools

Beginning in first grade, students across Russia will soon be attending weekly classes with war films and virtual tours of Crimea. They will be given a regular dose of lectures on topics such as the “geopolitical situation” and “traditional values”. In addition to the usual flag-raising ceremony, they will be introduced to lessons on the “revival” of Russia under President Vladimir Putin.

And, under a law signed by Mr. Putin, all Russian children will be invited to join a new patriotic youth movement in the likeness of red-tie Soviet pioneers, led by the president himself.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, attempts by the Russian government to instill the state ideology in schoolchildren have been unsuccessful, a senior Kremlin official, Sergei Novikov, recently told thousands of Russian schoolteachers during a online seminar. But now, in the midst of the war in Ukraine, Mr. Putin, he says, has made it clear that this needs to change.

“We need to know how to infect them with our ideology,” he said. Novikov said. “Our ideological work is aimed at changing consciousness.”

As the war in Ukraine approaches the five-month mark, the vast ambitions of his plans for the home front come into focus: the complete reprogramming of Russian society for end of 30 years of openness to the West.

The Kremlin has already imprisoned or sent into exile almost all anti-war activists; it criminalized what was left of independent journalism in Russia; he dealt with scientists, bloggers and even a hockey player with dubious loyalty.

But nowhere is this ambition more evident than in the Kremlin’s race to overhaul the way children are taught in Russia’s 40,000 public schools.

The nationwide educational initiatives, which kick off in September, are part of the Russian government’s efforts to instill in children Mr. Putin’s militarized and anti-Western version of patriotism, illustrating the scope of his campaign to use the war to further mobilize Russian society and eliminate any potential dissent.

Although some experts are skeptical that the Kremlin’s grandiose plans will quickly bear fruit, already before the new school year, the ability of its propaganda to change the minds of impressionable youth was already becoming apparent.

Ninth-grader Irina said that a computer lab in Moscow, for example, was replaced in March by watching a report on state television about the surrender of Ukrainians to Russian forces and a lecture explaining that only information from official Russian sources should be used. trusted.

She soon noticed a change among some of her friends, who at first were frightened or confused by the war.

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

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

RS. That spring, Teng and her husband, partly out of refusal to raise their children in an increasingly militarized environment, left for Poland.

Teachers also notice the changes. In the city of Pskov, near the border with Estonia, English teacher Irina Milyutina said that the children at her school initially argued violently about whether Russia was right to invade Ukraine, and sometimes even came to blows.

But soon the voices of dissent evaporated. Children scribbled Z and V – symbols of support for the war after the insignia on the Russian invasion armor – on blackboards, tables and even on the floor.

At recess, fifth and sixth graders pretended to be Russian soldiers. Milyutina said, “and those whom they really dislike are called Ukrainians.”

“Propaganda has done its job here. Milyutina, 30, who was detained in February for protesting the war but was able to keep her teaching job.

In a telephone interview, she said that a few weeks after the invasion, her school was instructed by the government to conduct a series of war propaganda classes.

According to activists and Russian media, schools across the country received such orders. Daniel Ken, head of the independent teachers’ union, shared with The New York Times some of the directives he says were given to him by teachers.

In one class, students are taught about “hybrid conflicts waged against Russia,” and the BBC report on the Russian attack on Ukraine and the statement by President Vladimir Zelensky are presented as examples of “fakes” designed to sow discord in Russian society. The accompanying quiz teaches students to distrust any opposition activists in their own communities.

“One of the effective measures of hybrid conflict is the promotion of agents of influence among the local population,” the truth-false challenge says.

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

The new push is an intensification of Mr. Putin’s years of attempts militarize Russian societyrelying on special attempts by officials after the invasion to convince the youth of the justification of the war.

“Patriotism should be the main value of our people,” said another senior Kremlin official, Alexander Kharichev, at a seminar for teachers organized last month by the education ministry.

In his speech, patriotism is defined directly: “Readiness to give one’s life for the Motherland.”

mr. Novikov, head of the Kremlin’s department of “public projects,” said that with the February invasion of Ukraine, teachers were faced with a “rather pressing task” to “do outreach work” and answer “difficult questions” from students.

“While the younger ones are more or less under control, high school students are getting information through a wide variety of channels,” he said, acknowledging government concerns about the influence of the Internet on youth views. BUT survey last month The independent Levada Center found that 36 percent of Russians aged 18 to 24 oppose the war in Ukraine, compared with 20 percent of all adults.

As the next academic year approaches, the Kremlin is working to codify its educational ambitions. Proposed Decree published Ministry of Education last month shows that Mr. Putin’s two decades in power should be included in the standard curriculum as a historical turning point, and the teaching of history itself will become more doctrinal.

The decree says that Russian history lessons will have to include several new topics, such as “Russia’s re-emergence as a great power in the 21st century”, “reunification with Crimea”, and “special military operation in Ukraine”.

And while the current Russian educational standard requires students to be able to evaluate “different versions of history,” the new proposal says that they must learn to “defend historical truth” and “detect falsifications in the history of the Fatherland.”

As civil servants, teachers generally have no choice but to bow to the new demands, although there are signs of grassroots resistance. mr. Ken says his Alliance of Teachers union provided legal assistance to dozens of teachers who refused to teach propaganda classes this spring, noting that political campaigning in schools is technically illegal under Russian law. In some cases, he said, directors simply canceled classes, knowing they were unpopular.

“You just need to find the moral strength in yourself so as not to contribute to evil,” Sergei Chernyshov, head of a private high school in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, who has resisted state propaganda, said in a telephone interview. “If you can’t protest it, at least don’t help him.”

In September, such resistance may become more difficult, as schools will be ordered to add an hour each Monday to promote the Kremlin’s version of patriotism. The virtual guest speakers for these classes will be Ramzan Kadyrov, the brutal leader of the Chechen region, and Patriarch Kirill I, a leader of the Russian Orthodox Church who called the invasion a righteous struggle, according to a presentation at a seminar last month.

On the occasion of the March anniversary of the annexation of Crimea, schoolchildren from grades 1 to 7 will take part in “virtual excursions” around the Black Sea peninsula. timetable weekly classes sent by the Ministry of Education. In October, fifth graders and older will hold a session, apparently designed to discourage emigration; its title: “Happiness is being happy at home.”

Also in September, a new Kremlin youth movement begins, the idea of ​​which was supported by Mr. Putin. Putin at a televised meeting in April, enshrined in a law he signed on Thursday.

The co-author of the bill, deputy Artem Metelev, said that the creation of a new youth movement has long been in development, but the “information war” of the West, directed against young people in the conditions of hostilities in Ukraine, makes this measure more urgent. .

“All this would also have appeared without a military operation,” he said. Metelev, 28, member of Mr. Putin’s United Russia party, said in a telephone interview. “It’s just a military operation and those, let’s say, actions that are being carried out against our country, have accelerated it.”

Moscow’s propaganda infrastructure aimed at children remains far more limited than during the Soviet era, a time when young people actively sought out underground cultural exports smuggled in from the West. mr. Chernyshov, headmaster of a Novosibirsk school, believes that the Kremlin’s attempts to impress children with its militarism will now also eventually run into the common sense of a young mind.

“A 10-year-old child is much more of a humanist than a typical Russian citizen,” he said. “It is simply impossible to explain to a child in simple terms why right now some people are killing others.”

Alina Lobzina provided the report.