Putin Aims To Shape A New Generation Of Supporters Through Schools

Sweeping changes in the curriculum will soon cast the Russian president as a pivotal historical figure and mark an end of openness to the West.

Starting in first grade, students across Russia will soon sit through weekly classes featuring 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. But now, amid the war in Ukraine, Mr. Putin has made it clear that this needed to change, he said.

“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 approaches the five-month mark, the vast ambitions of his plans for the home front are coming into focus: a wholesale reprogramming of Russian society to end 30 years of openness to the West.

Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

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 with suspect 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.

A ninth-grader, Irina, said that a computer class in Moscow in March, for instance, was replaced by the viewing of a state television report on Ukrainians surrendering to Russian troops and a lecture explaining that only information from official Russian sources was to be trusted.

She soon noticed a transformation among some friends who had been initially scared or confused by the war.

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“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 said that when she challenged her friends about Russian war crimes in Bucha, they shot back: “It’s all propaganda.”

Ms. Ten and her husband, driven in part by their refusal to raise their children in an increasingly militarized environment, left for Poland this spring.

Teachers are also noticing a change. In the city of Pskov near the Estonian border, an English teacher, Irina Milyutina, said that the children at her school at first vigorously argued about whether Russia was right or wrong to invade Ukraine, and sometimes even came to blows.

But soon the voices of dissent evaporated. 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.

She said in a phone interview that government directives to hold a series of pro-war propaganda classes arrived at her school in the weeks after the invasion.

Schools across the country received such orders, according to activists and Russian news reports. 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. An 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 in the local population,” a true-or-false challenge says.

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

Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

The new push represents an intensification of Mr. Putin’s yearslong effort to militarize 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 month by the independent Levada Center found that 36 percent of Russians aged 18 to 24 opposed the war in Ukraine, compared with just 20 percent of all adults.

Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

Ahead of the next school year, the Kremlin is working to codify its educational ambitions. A 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 says, principals have simply canceled the classes, knowing they were unpopular.

“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. Virtual guest speakers in those classes will include Ramzan Kadyrov, the brutal strongman leader of the Chechnya region, and 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 schedule of the weekly classes posted by the education ministry. 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.

Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

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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