How Russia is molding the minds of schoolkids to support its brutal invasion of Ukraine
- Russia is running a campaign of propaganda lessons to rally support for its invasion of Ukraine.
- Insider reviewed troves of lesson materials posted online as part of the nationwide program.
Russia is targeting schoolkids with propaganda meant to underpin its invasion of Ukraine, preparing children as young as 7 to be ready to die for their country.
The campaign takes the form of compulsory patriotic lessons, rolled out by the Kremlin in late 2022.
Officials uploaded a slew of approved lesson plans and talking points to a government website, which Insider reviewed and translated.
Although clearly a response to the invasion of Ukraine, the materials avoid naming the conflict and instead take a more subtle route.
The series is euphemistically called "Conversations about important things", with the stated aim of "strengthening traditional Russian spiritual and moral values."
The first lessons were taught in September 2022, just as Russia was drafting 300,000 military reservists to fight in Ukraine.
Many of them would have been waved off by their school-age children, and some are undoubtedly now among Russia's vast number of war dead.
According to the Teachers' Alliance independent trade union, the program was originally explicit in its mission to sell kids on the war in Ukraine.
But, the union said, "huge internal resistance" from Russia's teachers forced officials to edit out most references to the "special military operation" and achieve its aims less directly.
Lessons are given themes like "Day of Knowledge" and "Day of National Unity," with teachers provided with Kremlin-approved presentations, videos and full lesson scripts.
A scripted introductory speech for one lesson was a eulogy to Russia's claimed annexation of Ukrainian territory just days before at the end of September.
(In reality, the votes were widely dismissed as a sham, and much of its ostensibly annexed territory is controlled by Ukraine.)
But children as young as 11 were told the annexation was justice overdue. "For eight years, the population of these regions was subjected to constant shelling and ill-treatment by the Kyiv regime," the script reads, leaning into the debunked Russian refrain that Ukraine is a Nazi regime oppressing its own people.
Russia, the script continues, provided a refuge: "The inhabitants of these regions turned to us," it said, and "almost unanimously voted for joining the Russian Federation," it said, citing the heavily disputed voting totals.
The script also repeated the claim, advanced elsewhere by Russia's President Vladimir Putin, that it also righted a centuries-old wrong and "restored historical justice, returning the original Russian lands" to rule from Moscow.
Elsewhere, a lesson ostensibly celebrating Russia's World War II veterans glides into praising "our fathers, brothers [...] defending the freedom of their compatriots, their fellow citizens" in Ukraine's occupied east.
At times the lessons prompt the children to imagine themselves fighting in a war for Russia — something which for the older children could become a reality within years.
The penultimate class of 2022, marking Heroes of the Fatherland Day, includes an address by Dmitry Perminov, a Russian politician and former army officer celebrated for his role in the Dagestan War in the '90s.
Amid tales of heroic deeds, including honouring doctors who saved the life of a young Russian soldier fighting in Ukraine, Perminov has a simple message for children: this could be you.
Unlike in the West, he says, where their heroes are "fictional characters", in Russia their heroes are "simple people" fighting on the battlefield, and even "schoolkids".
Another lesson script has an even clearer message: "You can't become a patriot if you only declare slogans," it said. "Truly patriotic people are ready to defend their Motherland with weapons in hand."
As well as reaching young Russian minds, the program is also being delivered to children in occupied Ukraine, part of Moscow's push to replace the language and culture there with its own.
Proof of this is contained in the Kremlin's supplementary lesson materials, including competition entries where schools seek to outdo each other in dedication to Russia.
Among these is a striking piece of pageantry from Donetsk, which shows a group of teenagers stiffly singing the Russian national anthem before the camera turns to the front of the classroom: nine girls in silky dresses matching the white, blue, and red of the Russian flag.
"The people of the Donbas are proud of their national symbols and love their motherland, Russia," the teacher says, using the joint name for the Luhansk and Donetsk regions of Ukraine that have seen the worst fighting.
The children then dance for the camera.
Despite the risks, anti-war activists have called for a mass boycott of the program.
With the rollout of the curriculum, the Teachers' Alliance published template statements of resistance for teachers and parents to send to schools, calling on local leaders to "free children from propaganda lessons."
Speaking to the independent Russian news outlet Meduza, which now reports in exile from Latvia, union spokesperson Daniil Kent said there was "massive sabotage" of the lessons.
Swathes of teachers, he said, had decided "to ignore these manuals and conduct the lesson in their own way".
Despite such movements, one elementary-school teacher told Insider she was still worried about the lessons. The teacher spoke to Insider on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
"For the teenagers, these classes will not be enough to brainwash them," she said.
"They have access to the world via the internet. It's the effect on young children, whose whole world is their school and family, that scares me."
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