In Russian School, Read Your ABCs and 'Love Your Soldier'

The new version of ABC in the Russian Far East starts with “A for Army, B for Brotherhood” — and inserts sharp phrases into each letterlike, “Love Your Squad”.

A swim meet in the southern city of Magnitogorsk features teenagers diving into a pool wearing a camouflage uniformwhile other competitors sling Kalashnikov-style rifles on their backs.

“Snipers” was the theme adopted for a math class at an elementary school in central Russia, with a paper star listing potential bullet holes in targets drawn on it. whiteboard.

As the war in Ukraine enters its 16th month, education programs across Russia are awash with lessons and extracurricular activities built around military and patriotic themes.

The effort is part of a far-reaching Kremlin campaign to militarize Russian society, to train future generations to honor soldiers and to further reinforce President Vladimir V. Putin's narrative that “a real war has once again been waged on our motherland,” as he stated in a quiet speech at last month's ceremony.

The indoctrination essentially started with Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014, but the massive invasion of Ukraine has sped it up. The Ministry of Education and Science releases a constant stream of material, including step-by-step lesson plans and real-life examples — such as videos of student concerts using poetry, dance, and theater to explain the history of Russian foreign intelligence.

“This covers all levels, from kindergarten to university,” said Daniil Ken, head of the Alliance of Teachers, an independent Russian union, working from voluntary exile. “They're trying to get all these kids, all the students, directly into supporting the war.”

For years, Russian leaders tried to condition their citizens to accept Moscow's leadership, in part by banning political schools. Now the Kremlin hopes to persuade the public to actively support the war effort, and for younger men, to fight.

But he also wanted to avoid fanning the patriotic flames too high, lest he encourage Russia to start questioning the aims of the war. Just as Putin refrained from imposing large amounts of conscription to stave off antiwar sentiment, the Kremlin has given parents leeway to avoid propaganda lessons.

In that respect, they may have hoped to avoid the disconnect that emerged in the Soviet era, when the education system portrayed the country as a Communist-rich land, as even ordinary Russians could tell the shelves were empty.

“They wanted enthusiasm, but they realized that if they pushed too hard it could stir up organized opposition,” says Alexandra Arkhipova, a social anthropologist who studies public reactions to war. “They don't want people to protest.”

Interviews over the past month with sociologists, educators, parents and students, and extensive online material reviews posted by the schools themselves and by local news outlets, demonstrate the government's comprehensive efforts to support military-patriotic content through Russia's 40,000 public schools. .

The cornerstone of the initiative is a program called “Important Conversations,” started last September. Every Monday at 8:00 a.m., schools are supposed to hold a meeting to raise the Russian flag while the national anthem is played, and then hold an hour-long class session on topics such as milestones in Russian history.

The Minister of Education, Sergei Kravtsov, did not answer written questions. When the program was introduced last fall, he notified official news outlet Tass, “We want today's generation of schoolchildren to grow up in a completely different tradition, proud of their homeland.” Both are official Telegram channel fund website Distribute materials to class.

“Important Conversations” has been supplemented by programs with names such as “Lessons of Courage” or “Heroes Among Us”. Students are encouraged to write poems praising the Motherland and the feats of Russian soldiers. A myriad of videos featuring elementary school children read sentences like, “All the criminals fled Russia; they have a residence in the West; gangsters, sodomites.”

Many lessons were taken from previous conflicts, especially the success of the Soviet Union in defeating Nazi Germany. Proposals based on the past can sometimes seem old-fashioned, such as encouraging students to knit socks for the troops.

“It's very theatrical,” said Ms. Arkhipova, social anthropologist. “It serves as a kind of proof that the whole war was the right thing to do because it mirrored World War II.”

Countless schools have been renamed in honor of the soldiers who died, and memorials are widespread. Among them is the “Heroes Table” in the classroom which often displays the image of an alumni who is supposed to be honored.

Veterans often run into classrooms to detail their experiences. At the end of April in Dmitrov, a small town near Moscow, three people soldier addressing a group of students aged 10 to 15, some waving tiny Russian flags. A video from the session shows one fighter speaking of wanting to protect his homeland from “fascist filth.”

But overall, there is no monolithic propaganda machine as decisions about how to implement “Significant Conversations” are largely left to local school administrators.

Some teachers take a hard ideological approach. A video posted by news outlet Doxa shows a teacher asking her students to raise their fists in the air while singing a popular song called, “I Am Russian.” The teacher barks: “The push must be to the sky, to NATO.”

Other teachers don't even mention war, especially in places like Moscow, where many parents disapprove of attempts to indoctrinate their children.

Yuri Lapshin, a former student psychologist at an elite Moscow high school, said in an interview that while researching a paper, he came across an example of a unique interpretation of the program. A math teacher, for example, tells her students that the most important conversation in the world is about algebra, so she dedicates a class to it. On a day purportedly focused on the concept of “homeland,” a biology teacher gives a lecture on salmon spawning in the rivers where they hatch.

Even when war lessons happen, they sometimes fail. At a meeting with two fighters, students of the St. Petersburg technical college. Petersburg basically mocks them. They questioned why fighting in another country meant they were defending Russia, and how God views killing others, according to assembly recordings. Administrators reprimanded at least five students for their questions, local reports said.

Sasha Boychenko, 17, a high school student, attended four “Important Conversations” sessions in Vladivostok last fall before his family left Russia. Bored students laughed at the historic displays, he recalls. “After class, we wondered why we had come,” he said in an interview.

Alexander Kondrashev, a history teacher in Russia for 10 years, said he was waiting for a revised version of the textbook this fall. Initial copy obtained by Mediazone news organizations found one fundamental change; all references to Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, as a stepping stone to Russia as a Christian nation have been removed.

“No one considers ‘Important Conversations' to be learning something useful in life, such as physics, mathematics, geography, or knowledge from history lessons,” says Mr. Kondrashev in an interview.

Non-compliance takes many forms. The Teachers' Alliance is advising parents that they can officially opt out of class, while some of their children show up late or call in sick on Mondays. Insubordination makes certain parents nervous, experts say, especially considering the roughly a dozen cases in which school officials reported unenthusiastic parents or students.

A woman named Zarema, 47, said she was worried about her three sons who study in Dagestan. When he sent his youngest son, a sixth grader, to his “Important Conversation” class, he told him not to get involved in politics. “We are all afraid of everything here now,” he said, asking that his full name not be used when criticizing the war.

Russia largely presented the war as an economic opportunity in poorer areas, while being less aggressive in larger cities.

“They are trying to target people who have fewer resources,” said Greg Yudin, a Russian sociologist who conducted research at Princeton University, in an interview. “They give you options that promise money, status, benefits, and besides that you will become a hero.” Even if they get only 20 percent of the youth to join the army, that's still a lot of brigades, he said.

Toward that end, the Ministry of Education and Defense has announced that military training will become mandatory next year for Grade 10 students. Girls will learn first aid on the battlefield, while boys will be instructed in drill formation and handling of Kalashnikovs, among other skills. other.

At universities, the fall curriculum will include a mandatory course called “Fundamentals of Russian Statehood”.

The course is still under development, Yudin said, but he said the details that have emerged are likely to echo Putin's worldview of Russian privilege and the idea that the battle waged against Western domination over the last 1,000 years will continue for another 1,000. .

“The only best way for them to mobilize this society is to brainwash young people,” said Pak Yudin.