“This initiative begins and ends with the state." How political propaganda is being introduced into Russian schools
“The main task is raising a patriot. We are rewriting all of our textbooks in all subjects.”
This was the newest directive from State Duma deputy Nina Ostanina, Chair of the Committee on Family, Women and Children to Sergey Kravtsov, the Minister of Education of Russia. The directive was seconded by her colleague, Oleg Smolin, the first deputy chair of the Committee on Science and Higher Education. Smolin added that “patriotism should not be the subject of individual lessons but rather the theme of the entire education system.”
It is unclear why Minister Kravtsov needed to be reminded of this. He constantly talks about patriotism and it is not only a matter of words. Today, Russian schools have turned into propaganda machines with the goal of “educating good citizens”. The ideology is specific. Russia has a loving president, the army and traditional family values must be honored and respected and these are the new tasks for teachers. However, not everyone is in favor of the new curriculum. The Barents Observer talked to several teachers and parents who oppose the introduction of military propaganda into the schools. Some of whom have even succeeded.
Courage instead of music
The classes are called “Discussions of Importance” (Разговоры о важном) and they have become the main tool of this new style of education. These extracurricular activities scandalously appeared in Russian schools in September. The first published manuals required that schoolchildren not only be instilled with “traditional spiritual and moral values” but also talked about NATO bases in Ukraine, the “Kiev regime” bullying the residents of the Donbass region, about the role of the “collective West” and other such points of view. The main conclusion of the literature was that high school students had to understand that they would be needed to defend the fatherland with weapons in hand should difficult times arrive. (Now, of course, we have exactly such a situation.)
After the scandal, the manuals were somewhat changed but the essence of “Discussions of Importance” and its main message still remains. A teacher from one of the schools in Northwest Russia had this description.
“The framework of “Discussions of Importance” is specifically to spread state propaganda at the schools. At first, the information was mostly about the “special military operation”. For example, instead of planned music lessons, we had to have a conversation about courage. Everything was urgently changed. They sent us a presentation where 40 percent was devoted to the Great Patriotic War and 60 percent to the situation in Ukraine. The point was that we had new heroes now…”
The Barents Observer has a copy of the presentation from this lesson. It is called “The Military Glory of the Heroes of the Russian Land”. Of the 18 slides, ten are dedicated to men who fought in Ukraine. Schoolchildren were to be taught that the ideology of Ukraine has been built on the “revival of Nazism” from the first days of its independence. This is followed by information about the creation of American biological laboratories in Ukraine (this despite Russian scientists speaking about the inconsistency of this propaganda myth) and about Kiev’s plans to build nuclear weapons. The slides also have maps of potential plans to attack Russia. The compilers of the manual claimed all of this as true because “It would otherwise have been impossible to break traditional ties with Russia or tear Ukraine away from Russian civilization and culture.”
After this, the presentation talks about heroism and self-sacrifice. A hero of the Great Patriotic War is mentioned as well as a hero of the Afghan War, both stories sharing the same slide. But then there are three slides of individual heroism for three Russian soldiers who distinguished themselves in the war in Ukraine. The Ukrainian military in the presentation is exclusively called neo-Nazis and militants.
One of the last slides has two poems: “Courage” by Anna Akhmatova is alongside “The Russian Sun” by a certain Nikolai Marinyan.
“The world now rides the rapids of the Dnieper
Boiling with a symphony of evil
You were once Kievan Russians to us,
Who has really betrayed you, Ukraine?”
“This presentation was given directly to teachers just before the first lessons started. To us, this meant that officials understood that we would not like it and so they acted covertly.” This quote was from yet another teacher who would only speak on the condition of anonymity:
The head of the Teachers’ Alliance, Daniil Ken, said that any lesson on any topic includes information about the war in Ukraine.
“The project has been implemented in all parallels from the 1st to 11th grades. There are scripts, presentations, videos and guidelines for teachers. For example, there is a lesson about the Day of the Elderly. Outwardly, it was supposed to be a lesson about valuing senior citizens. But then they use a program from Moscow called “Active Longevity” as an example and it is specifically about how Sergey Sobyanin, the mayor of Moscow, is opening new parks. This is not specifically military but it is direct political propaganda. “This is true for “Father’s Day” or “Russian Culture”. They always find at least two minutes to praise Putin or Sobyanin or to stuff in some war propaganda. We have a certain percentage of rabid supporters of the war amongst our teachers and their hands are untied. They can easily turn these two minutes into a whole lesson.”
Protests from parents
According to Ken, several of the parents have shared their dissatisfaction and asked how to free their children from these lessons.
For them, we have compiled a form they can fill out to excuse their children from attending a “Discussions of Importance” lesson. There are schools that simply accept these refusals but there are also those who send back letters justifying why these lessons are mandatory. Sometimes these letters come along with threats of expulsion or registration with the police. They send it all to us. Usually, they just ask for legal advice.”
Emilia Slabunova, a deputy of the Legislative Assembly of Karelia, is a former teacher and school principal. She has tried several times to find out whether it is obligatory for students to attend “Discussions of Importance”. She arranged a genuine interrogation of an official of the Ministry of Education during one of the parliamentary committee meetings. The final wording said that there is to be a “mandatory hour of extracurricular activities”. This did not suit Slabunova who is convinced that “extracurricular classes” are elective and attended only at the request of a student and their parents.
Anastasia Manenkova, a resident of Petrozavodsk, was one of the more vocal parents who openly opposed “Discussions of Importance”. Doing this however forced her into a conflict with the school leadership.
“From the very beginning, I didn’t want my son going to these “Discussions” lessons. I tried quietly discussing this topic with the class teacher but she said that there was nothing she could do about it. The rules were very strict about reporting on these “lessons”. But after this conversation, the school’s director called me and started yelling at me! He said that if I was so smart, I should take my child and study elsewhere. After this, I wrote a statement that my child would not be attending “Discussions of Importance” and sent it by registered mail.
Shortly after that, things got dicey. While I was away, my son’s homeroom teacher wrote me an e-mail, informing me that the school wanted to respond to my application. They needed to know my home address. I wrote back that my “application” was a notification and therefore did not require an answer. If they wanted to say anything, they had my email address. I did not receive any response.
So far, it is not clear if there have been any consequences for my child. He got a two in computer science for the quarter. Allegedly, it was for not doing an assignment even though this was when he was ill. I don’t know if this is related to our position. I know there are at least two other people whose children also do not attend “Discussions of Importance” but they did not write any statements. They just don’t go and that’s all.”.
An anonymous teacher from one of the north-west schools said that the Slabunova case is rather an isolated one.
“The parents with whom I interact are usually rather indifferent. I told them from the very beginning that I would not say anything about Ukraine. I said that if anyone objected, they could come and talk to me but no one did.”
“It all depends on the people”
“Great ideas dropped from above have a way of getting sabotaged.” This is the opinion of several of the teachers interviewed and not only about “Discussions of Importance”. A former teacher of one of the schools in the region had this to say:
“I came to this school a few years ago and at that time, there wasn’t so much about politics. Then there were the rallies in defense of Alexei Navalny in 2021. Since then, it seems to me that the state has begun to actively place themselves into the schools. It started with telling us not to let the children go to any demonstrations on the square. At least that directive was submitted under the pretext of security concerns. But then the war began and of course everything has changed.
I remember one specific moment the most. I was in the staff room with the history teachers. They all received messages on their school emails at the same time and were petrified. They couldn’t believe it. The messages had instructions on how to describe the situation in Ukraine. Literally every step teachers should take was laid out for them. The messages even prescribed what conclusions the children had to arrive at. The head teacher here is a historian and she said, “What kind of crazy nonsense is this? We will not follow it.” Another teacher noted that as history teachers, we generally have no right to comment on or evaluate events that occur in the present. She said it contradicts historical science and is therefore impossible to talk about in the classroom.”
Daniil Ken remains pragmatic. “Judging by the letters we receive, I can say that tens of thousands of teachers are against the propaganda. But in a practical sense, it is dangerous for them to criticize the state openly. However, if a person does not show up at school and announce themselves as an opposition activist, if they do not write anything “forbidden” in the social networks, there is almost no control over their lessons. I am sure a lot of teachers just ignore all this nonsense when they are alone with their classes. And most importantly, even if someone finds out about such “sabotage”, it is very difficult to bring anyone to justice for it by law. There are very few such cases.
“I initially believed that there would be more critical-minded teachers in Moscow and tighter control from the administration than out in the provinces but it turned out to be just the opposite. In Moscow, some school directors were pretty open about allowing their teachers to conduct lessons as they wanted. The opinion was that the manuals were just recommendations. Letters from the provinces however reported that school administrations were requiring strict execution of the program. In most cases though, the teachers agreed amongst themselves whether or not they wanted to speak about political topics in front of schoolchildren.“
Ken went on to say that it is difficult to estimate how much resistance there really is but it is probably more than the Russian authorities expected.
A teacher from one of the schools in Karelia said, “It all depends on the school and specific people. I heard from colleagues from other cities that in certain places, they reacted quite zealously. They enjoyed taking control and monitoring others. Now there is a new position at all of the schools called the “education advisor”. They are supervised and the patriotic manuals are sent to them separately, including those related to the war in Ukraine.”
Another teacher from one of the schools in Petrozavodsk said, “We believe that we have the right to say anything we want at these lessons. It’s a class hour that no one has canceled. There is no strict accountability. Maybe someone will take a couple of pictures but that’s it. No one is recording how many minutes are devoted to the topic of patriotism.”
A whip around a boy’s neck
Other elements of state and military propaganda have also been introduced into Russian schools. For example, starting from September 1, each academic week had to begin with the raising of the flag and a performance of the Russian national anthem. However, this new directive is not always treated quite so formally. A teacher from one of the Karelian schools had this to say:
“The director decided that we should just sing half of the anthem and go to our homerooms. It is clear that no one needs a mocking attitude even from the administration. This initiative begins and ends with the state.”
In their attempts to cultivate patriotism, the state program also encourages invitations for special guest speakers. According to Daniil Ken, guest military lessons with soldiers returning from Ukraine as well as veterans of the Chechen and Afghan wars have become common. These guest lecturers also include those specialists who most openly love the fatherland - the Cossacks. A teacher from a northern city told this story:
In the spring, we had an event that I will probably remember for many years. The students were taken out of lessons and called to the assembly hall. The teachers were instructed to make sure that the children behaved themselves. The guest was the ataman of the Cossack society. First of all, I was amazed that there are Cossacks in our region. But then he started making this crazy conspiracy theory speech about America and about Soviet soldiers. After this, he showed us some videos with artillery shelling and started quizzing the children about military ranks. After about 15 minutes, the children began to stick their heads into their phones but I couldn’t even stop it. It was just the ravings of a madman.
Later, I asked my class what they thought about the demonstration. The children replied that it was all a bunch of nonsense. I was thinking that if we have to be involved in spreading propaganda, why do we have to use such disgusting examples?”
A resident of Petrozavodsk also talked about the experience of having Cossacks giving talks to the schoolchildren.
A Cossack came to a children’s lesson and showed them how to strangle somebody with a whip. He demonstrated this technique on a student. He clarified that a whip is needed in order to beat a horse or a wife. I managed to find out that our guest was the acting ataman of the city Cossack society.”
Judging by the description, the whip handling was taught to children by Petrozavodsk Cossack, Alexander Farutin. He showed the same technique to a journalist a few years ago and also boasted that he could cut a water bottle with a souvenir saber. Farutin is an associate of the city ataman, Naura Gokinaev. Gokinaev is also active in spreading patriotic propaganda. He has spoken at least twice to students of Petrozavodsk universities. Currently, he is fighting in Ukraine.
On November 15, the so-called Military-Patriotic Dictation was held in Russia for the first time. A dictation is a multiple choice test with a specific time limit. According to TASS, over one hundred thousand people took part on the first day. The test was organized by the Russian “Knowledge” society, DOSAAF, “Yunarmia” and the “Avangard” military-patriotic youth education methodological center. The objectives of the test were formulated to help the children properly learn about Russian military history. The goal was “not to rewrite history but to educate patriots and instill a sense of devotion to the fatherland.” Daniil Ken explained it this way:
“”Yunarmia” is one of the main state youth movements. According to law, student participation is strictly voluntary but in practice, it often turns out differently. For example, parents are given applications for their children to enter this movement but without any explanation that joining is just a right and not a duty. There is a large element of paramilitary propaganda among schoolchildren. There are other youth organizations such as “The Russian Schoolchildren’s Movement”, which Putin personally heads, and the “Eaglets” movement, which is the same thing but for the lower grades.”
Ken pointed out that there are many militarized children’s camps and they usually play “Zarnitsa” war games there. In addition to capturing the enemy flag, they are also taught how to handle real weapons and there are a lot of them, too.
Another element of patriotic education are the five-day military training camps. These are held annually for tenth graders and college students and are organized all over Russia. According to auctions on the Public Procurement website, fees for these games cost the state tens of millions of rubles. The purpose of the events is not only to teach teenagers the basics of military affairs but also to explain why you need to be able to kill.
In the Arkhangelsk region, training camp participants will be taken to the main base of the “Avangard” educational and methodological center, which is located on the grounds of a state institution called “Patriot”. The Avangard website contains a list of fees dated October 2022. The goals and objectives of the military-patriotic education are the formation of the moral, psychological and physical qualities needed to prepare themselves for military service. The task is to install a proper education about pride, having a deep sense of patriotism and a respect for the historical and cultural past of Russia and its Armed Forces.
So, the militarization of Russian education will continue. The officials themselves say this. Starting from the next academic year, they intend to return primary military training to schools, allocating 140 hours a year, 11% of the total school time. According to officials, participants of the war in Ukraine will be invited to work with children. However, schoolchildren are already actively being taught to handle weapons. For example, Murmansk recently held competitions for school children, pupils from patriotic clubs and “Yunarmy” cadets in high-speed disassembly and assembly of AK-47 machine guns. Both boys and girls participated. They said that the participants’ well-developed motor skills would help them cope with disassembling the machine guns faster.
Local schoolgirl, Vlada Sharipova, is quoted in a local newspaper about the competition.
“You never know what will come in handy in life or how life will wrap you up. But in general, everyone likes our school and the fifth graders are happy when they are given a machine gun to hold.”
Translated from Russian by Adam Goodman