Russian security chiefs militarize schoolchildren and censor textbooks

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RIGA, Latvia — As President Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine drags on, Russian teachers are being turned into frontline soldiers in an information war designed to turn children into stalwart militarized nationalists. The country’s powerful security chiefs, leading propagandists and hardliners in parliament are pushing for sweeping changes to the education system, as the education ministry takes a back seat.

Schools have been ordered to hold “patriotic” classes repeating the Kremlin line on war, and teachers who refuse to teach classes have been fired. School textbooks are purged of almost all references to Ukraine and its capital, Kyiv.

Russia’s parliament has dismissed as unsatisfactory the Education Ministry’s plan for how it would review history textbooks, calling it ‘national security’ and asking the head of Russia’s foreign spy service to take matters into their own hands. hand.

And the powerful head of the Russian Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, a close ally of Putin, has demanded sweeping changes in education, part of a whole-of-government effort to nurture loyal citizens from cradle to grave.

Anton Litvin, a father of two in Moscow, had a nice home and a good job, but when the government started using the schools for propaganda in the war against Ukraine, he resigned and left the country. He said he was revolted that his children could be brainwashed with lessons on “patriotism” and Putin’s view of history. The breaking point came when teachers sent home pamphlets urging him to enroll his 8-year-old son in a summer camp with the Young Army, a group of young soldiers launched by the Ministry of Defense in 2015.

“I don’t want my children to join the regime at this young age and be someone’s soldiers to fight against peaceful people,” said Litvin, who sacrificed his job at a major Moscow aircraft company and is now a homebody. dad in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, looking for a new job.

Since 2013, Putin has driven changes in history education as part of a campaign to build a national identity based on the Soviet Union’s role in defeating the Nazis in World War II. But after the invasion of Ukraine, the pace of change in schools was “like a waterfall”, Litvin said.

“Everything is going from bad to worse. It’s like it belongs to the Soviet Union,” he said. “Children learn that war is good, in fact, from our government’s point of view.”

Russia’s efforts to militarize students underscore the Kremlin’s long-term ambitions: not only to cement Russian support for the war, but also to build a generation of young people loyal to Russia’s increasingly totalitarian regime – unlike many many Russian millennials today who oppose the regime and the war.

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Putin constantly plays on Russian nostalgia for past Soviet power to justify war, but his “is not a new Soviet regime.” It’s much closer to a fascist regime and what they are doing now is another kind of propaganda,” said Grigory Yudin, professor of political philosophy at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences. “They are trying to actively weaponize children to engage them in this war, to engage them in supporting this war.”

Patrushev, the head of the Security Council, last month called for a major overhaul of Russia’s education system to nurture a new “patriotic” generation. He urged the adoption of a comprehensive system to “implement the program of the state at all stages of the maturation and formation of a person as a citizen”.

A key supporter of the invasion known for his anti-Western rhetoric, Patrushev said teachers were at the forefront of a “hybrid war being waged against Russia”. But many of them, he complained, “manipulated” children and twisted history. He criticized the history curriculum and lamented that the textbooks did not adequately cover Soviet heroism during World War II.

Then, amid complaints that the Education Ministry had fallen short, Russia’s upper house of parliament on Thursday demanded that Sergei Naryshkin, head of the foreign intelligence service and president of the Russian Historical Society, is in charge of the revision of history textbooks, because “the current situation requires a particular attitude” with regard to teaching.

“Today it is one of the components of the country’s national security,” said Ekaterina Altabayeva, deputy chair of the science, education and culture committee.

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The main impact of changes to textbooks and curricula is expected after the summer holidays.

“There is a whole revolution going on in the Russian education system, because it has changed rapidly since February,” Yudin said. He added, “They want to regain control over young minds, and they also need these people as cannon fodder.”

While the Education Ministry has ordered teachers to give patriotic lessons that reflect the Kremlin’s line on Ukraine, they have sometimes been a tough sell.

A history teacher at a Moscow high school, for example, failed to convince several students in his class, including a 17-year-old named Nikita.

“I don’t trust my history teacher. Rather, he is an overly patriotic propaganda man,” Nikita said, adding that the students paid no attention to the patriotic lessons. The student refused to give his last name to avoid problems at school. “I just got up and left the class. Two others did the same.

But many students were reluctant to openly oppose the war, he added. “My friends don’t support the war. We try to be careful. For example, I don’t want my classmates to know what my thoughts are.

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For some, the mandatory war sessions are an onerous but unavoidable duty.

“Teachers and students, I think, understand that this is not a real lesson. It’s not about learning. This is something else, a mandatory event, ”said a Moscow history teacher, Alexander. He said teachers have been given guidelines on teaching history, “but what we say is not officially regulated”.

But officials seem determined to restrict teachers’ freedom to decide how they teach history. Just days after the February invasion, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova summoned teachers to meetings where they were ordered to toe the government line on the war.

Some teachers who refused to teach the patriotic lessons were fired. Patrushev warned that authorities could target school leaders whose students did not have World War II books or could not name Russian war heroes from centuries past.

“History is a subject that the authorities always try to use for propaganda purposes,” said Dmitry, a teacher in the Russian province, where most people support the war. “History teachers are much more vulnerable than other teachers.”

Textbook publishers, meanwhile, are carrying out a Soviet-style purge of almost all references to Ukraine. After the invasion, the management of Russia’s main textbook publisher Prosveshchenie – which stands for Enlightenment – ordered publishers to remove references to Ukraine and Kyiv, according to a report by independent Russian outlet Mediazona in April, based on interviews with three publishers.

An editor said “we have the job of making it look like Ukraine just doesn’t exist,” the outlet reported.

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Russian textbooks contain just one page about the millions of people shot or illegally imprisoned during the Soviet era, according to Marina Agaltsova, a lawyer with Memorial, a renowned nonprofit organization dedicated to exposing Israel’s repression. Soviet era that was shut down by the authorities last year.

“If you had only one small speck on the great and glorious history of the Soviet Union, you would of course think that the Soviet Union is a great state, and we all have to return to that state,” he said. she declared.

Memorial historian Nikita Petrov said Russia’s insistence that students accept the Kremlin’s version of history wholeheartedly was “dangerous”.

In the late 1970s, Petrov, then a chemistry student, got his hands on a clandestine copy of British historian Robert Conquest’s “The Great Terror” about the Stalin-era purges. Contraband books on Soviet history were like gold to him, he recalls. He decided that becoming a historian was more important than being a chemist.

“In the Soviet Union, history did not exist as a science. The facts were hidden and not revealed. And people didn’t know the historical facts. They only knew what they were told,” he said.

He spent years discovering the execution of his great-grandfather during the Stalin era. The prosecution seeks to bury the evidence.

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