Putin Aims to Shape a New Generation of Supporters — Through Schools


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Beginning in the first grade, Russian students will be attending weekly classes with war movies and virtual tours through Crimea. They will be given a steady dose of lectures on topics like “the geopolitical situation” and “traditional values.” In addition to a regular flag-raising ceremony, they will be introduced to lessons celebrating Russia’s “rebirth” under President Vladimir V. Putin.

And, according to legislation signed into law by Mr. Putin on Thursday, all Russian children will be encouraged to join a new patriotic youth movement in the likeness of the Soviet Union’s red-cravatted “Pioneers” — presided over by the president himself.

Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian government’s attempts at imparting a state ideology to schoolchildren have proven unsuccessful, a senior Kremlin bureaucrat, Sergei Novikov, recently told thousands of Russian schoolteachers in an Online workshop. However, Putin made it clear, amid the conflict in Ukraine, that this had to change.

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

As the war in Ukraine reaches the five-month mark it is becoming clear that his vast ambitions for the home front are starting to come into focus. He wants a complete reprogramming Russian society. 30 years of Westwardness come to an end.

The Kremlin has already jailed or forced into exile just about all activists speaking out against the war; it has criminalized what remained of Russia’s independent journalism; it has cracked down on academics, bloggers and Even a hockey player can have suspicious loyalties.

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

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

While some experts are skeptical that the Kremlin’s grand plans will quickly bear fruit, even ahead of the new school year the potency of its propaganda in changing the minds of impressionable youngsters was already becoming apparent.

Irina, a ninth-grader, stated that a computer class held in Moscow in March was replaced by the watching of a report from state television on Ukrainian surrender to Russian troops. She also explained that only information that was official Russian sources could be trusted.

She noticed an immediate transformation in her friends, who had initially been scared or confused about the war.

“They suddenly started repeating everything after the television,” Irina said in a phone interview alongside her mother, Lyubov Ten. “They suddenly started saying that this is all deserved, that this had to happen. They couldn’t even attempt to explain this to me.”

Irina claimed that her friends were a challenge to her about Bucha: Russian war crimes, they shot back: “It’s all propaganda.”

Ms. Ms.

Teachers are also starting to notice a shift. Irina Milyutina an English teacher from Pskov near Estonia’s border said that her students initially vigorously debated whether Russia should invade Ukraine. They even got to the point where they were fighting.

However, soon enough the voices of discontent vanished. The children scrawled Z’s and V’s — symbols of support for the war, after the identifying markings on invading Russian armor — on chalkboards, desks and even the floors.

At recess, fifth and sixth graders pretended to be Russian soldiers, Ms. Milyutina said, “and those whom they don’t like very much they call Ukrainians.”

“The propaganda did its job here,” said Ms. Milyutina, 30, who was detained in February for protesting against the war but has been able to keep her teaching job.

In a telephone interview, she stated that pro-war propaganda classes were ordered by the government to her school within weeks of the invasion.

According to Russian news reports and activists, schools across the country received these orders. Daniil Ken, the head of an independent teachers’ union, shared with The New York Times some directives that he said teachers had passed along to him.

In one class, students are taught about “hybrid conflicts being carried out against Russia,” with a BBC report about a Russian attack in Ukraine and a statement by President Volodymyr Zelensky presented as examples of “fakes” meant to sow discord in Russian society. Students are taught to distrust all opposition activists in their communities by a quiz.

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

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

The new push represents an intensification of Mr. Putin’s yearslong effort to Militiaze Russian Society, building on officials’ ad hoc efforts after the invasion to convince young people that the war was justified.

“Patriotism should be the dominant value of our people,” another senior Kremlin official, Aleksandr Kharichev, said at last month’s workshop for teachers, which was hosted by the education ministry.

His presentation defined patriotism bluntly: “Readiness to give one’s life for the Motherland.”

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

“While everything is more or less controllable with the younger ones, the older students receive information through a wide variety of channels,” he said, acknowledging the government’s fears about the internet swaying young people’s views. A Poll last monthAccording to the Levada Center, 36% of Russians aged 18-24 opposed war in Ukraine. That compares with 20% for all adults.

The Kremlin is working on codifying its educational ambitions ahead of the next school-year. Proposed decree Published by the education ministry last month shows that Mr. Putin’s two decades in power are set to be enshrined in the standard curriculum as a historical turning point, while the teaching of history itself will become more doctrinal.

The decree says that Russian history classes will be required to include several new topics like “the rebirth of Russia as a great power in the 21st century,” “reunification with Crimea,” and “the special military operation in Ukraine.”

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

As government employees, teachers generally have little choice but to comply with the new demands — though there are signs of grass-roots resistance. Mr. Ken says the Alliance of Teachers, his union, has provided legal guidance to dozens of teachers who have refused to teach this spring’s propaganda classes, noting that political agitation in schools is technically illegal under Russian law. In some cases, he claims, the principals simply cancelled the classes knowing that they were not popular.

“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 has resisted promoting government propaganda, said in a phone interview. “If you can’t protest against it, at least don’t help it.”

Come September, such resistance could become more difficult, with schools directed to add an hour of class every Monday promoting the Kremlin’s version of patriotism. Ramzan Kadyrov (the brutal leader of Chechnya), will be a virtual guest speaker in these classes. Patriarch Kirill I the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church who has called the invasion a righteous fight, according to a presentation at last month’s workshop.

To mark the March anniversary of the annexation of Crimea, first through seventh graders will take part in “virtual excursions” through the Black Sea peninsula, according to a scheduleThese are the weekly classes that the education ministry posts. In October, fifth graders and up will have a session apparently meant to discourage emigration; its title: “Happiness is being happy at home.”

Also beginning in September is the Kremlin’s new youth movement, an idea endorsed by Mr. Putin in a televised meeting in April and enshrined in legislation he signed on Thursday.

A co-sponsor of the legislation, the lawmaker Artyom Metelev, said the creation of a new youth movement had long been in the works, but that the West’s online “information war” targeting young people amid the fighting in Ukraine made that measure more urgent.

“This would have also all appeared without the military operation,” Mr. Metelev, who is 28 and a member of Mr. Putin’s United Russia party, said in a phone interview. “It’s just that the military operation and those, let’s say, actions being carried out in relation to our country have accelerated it.”

Moscow’s propaganda infrastructure aimed at children remains far more limited than it was during the Soviet era — a time when young people actively sought out underground cultural exports smuggled in from the West. Mr. Chernyshov, the Novosibirsk school director, believes that the Kremlin’s attempts to sell its militarism to children will now also eventually run up against the young mind’s common sense.

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

Alina Lobzina contributed reporting.


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