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What Russia’s schoolchildren are being taught about Ukraine

Jamie Dettmer is Opinion Editor at POLITICO Europe. 

Vladimir Lenin once bragged: “Give me four years to teach the children and the seed I have sown will never be uprooted.” And Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin appears determined to imitate the Soviet Union’s founder.  

“You are at the forefront of the information war,” Maria Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s abrasive spokesperson, lectured history and social science teachers in Moscow earlier this year, giving them their marching orders. 

Via video link, over the course of an hour-and-a-half, she told them that Putin had launched a “peacekeeping operation” to protect Russians in Donetsk and Luhansk, saying the West had imposed the “will of a minority” on Ukraine, by ousting Viktor Yanukovych from power in 2014 with “armed militants trained in Polish camps.” 

The gathering, which was called by the Moscow Pedagogical Council, was convened by officials to start instructing teachers on the content of future “history” lessons, and came only four days after Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. 

Since then, much has been written in the West about the crackdown in Russia on political dissent, of websites being blocked and the dying embers of what’s left of independent media being snuffed out. But less attention has been paid to what’s happening in Russia’s classrooms as the Kremlin intensifies its indoctrination — some say militarization — of the country’s youngsters.   

Zakharova’s speech had come right as Russian tanks were threatening the Ukrainian capital and terrified families were huddled in Kyiv metro stations or had taken to sleeping in underground parking garages for the sake of safety. She was speaking as Ukrainians foraged for gas and food and water alongside roads clogged with hundreds of thousands fleeing the crash and thump of Russian ordnance — their cars creaking under the weight of stacked luggage, bags spilling over with hastily gathered essentials and cherished keepsakes, and treasured toys clutched by frightened children bewildered by the events buffeting them. 

She made no mention of any of this, of the sheer terror visited on Ukraine by Russia’s so-called peacekeeping operation.  

Instead, she trotted out a highly distorted version of Ukraine’s history, one in keeping with Putin’s own perverse take as outlined in his 5,000-word tract, “On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” denying the existence of Ukraine as an independent nation. 

No time was wasted in enlisting the country’s schoolteachers in the effort to teach Putin’s version of history — and tightening the Kremlin’s already regimented grip on schools and teachers, many fearful of being sacked if they speak out of turn. 

Some parents fear that the questionnaires their children have to complete, testing their level of support for the war on Ukraine with questions like, “Do you support the decision of the President of the Russian Federation to conduct a special military operation in Ukraine?” will be used against them — and rightly so. 

In May, a teenage girl in Dagestan spoke out against the war in Ukraine and the video went viral. Reportedly, officials then forced both her and her mother to publicly apologize. Soon after, she posted a recanting video, saying: “I was worried about exams and, against the background of all this, had a fight with my mother. I admit my mistake and apologize for ruining everyone’s holiday.” Her mother, too, apologized, saying: “I overlooked, missed something important in raising my daughter.”  

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with schoolchildren at a school in the far eastern Russian city of Vladivostok in 2016 | Alexei Druzhinin/AFP via Getty Images

A month later, Russia’s Ministry of Education announced plans to educate the parents of schoolchildren. 

The deputy head of the ministry, Denis Gribov, noted that families “should share the values that the education system forms,” adding that “the current situation has shown an urgent need for educational work with parents.” One parent I spoke with told me she was terrified. “I worry what my child may say in class about our views and how that can be used against us.” 

Many of the teaching plans and materials put into effect in the immediate wake of the February invasion had clearly been assembled weeks before, paralleling the buildup of Russian forces on Ukraine’s borders. 

This so-called “My Country” curriculum offers a highly selective and colored historical narrative — one overlooking the Holodomor, the Soviet-engineered terror-famine in the 1930s, which left millions of Ukrainians dead. In fact, a version for 15- to 17-year-olds starts off by announcing: “Ukraine and Russia are two parts of a single, historical, spiritual and cultural space.” 

Offering an eight-stage chronology, the curriculum starts with the Baptism of Russia — the mass baptism ordered by Vladimir the Great in 988 of Kyivan Rus, a state in Eastern and Northern Europe from the late-9th to the mid-13th century — and concludes with Russia’s recognition of the “independent republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk this year. 

The curriculum claims the USSR helped develop Ukraine; highlights the Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany; portrays NATO as a menace to Russia, with its enlargement forcing Putin’s hand; and dubs the popular Maidan uprising that toppled Putin satrap Yanukovych a coup d’état, stating: “The radicals, with the powerful support of the West, captured power in 2014, organized terror against those who opposed unconstitutional actions. Ukrainian cities were swept by a wave of pogroms and violence, a series of high-profile and unpunished murders.” 

Reporting from Ukraine in 2014, I didn’t witness pogroms, and the only unpunished murders directly connected to Maidan were those committed by elite units and riot police loyal to Yanukovych.   

Since the invasion, Russian authorities have further added to their authorized lessons, expanding them to all of Russia’s schoolchildren, including to first graders — 7-year-olds who, this summer, started to learn what Russian Minister of Education Sergei Kravtsov dubbed “historical enlightenment.”  

Russian cultural luminaries have been recruited to assist. Nikita Mikhalkov, the Oscar-winning director of “Burnt by the Sun” and a staunch Putin supporter who last week called for the eradication of the Ukrainian language, made a highly contentious 48-minute film for Russian schoolchildren on the “origins of fascism.”  

Starting from this academic year, which began this week, a new series of lessons have also been introduced. Dubbed “Conversations about the important,” students will be taught about patriotism, and teachers are now required to talk about how the war on Ukraine is “an example of true love for the country and the Russian people.”  

The lessons are tailored for each age group: Those teaching the two youngest grades are to talk about love for nature as “a manifestation of love for the Fatherland,” while authorized lessons for other grades are to be built around slogans such as “It’s not scary to die for Russia,” “Happiness of the Motherland is more precious than life,” and “Love the Motherland — Serve the Motherland.” Teachers will also play videos explaining that Russians must “stand up for the defense of the Motherland at a dangerous time,” and explain how the “special military operation” is protecting people in Ukraine’s Donbas from fascists and preventing a perfidious NATO from deploying bases in Ukraine.  

As is so often the case with authoritarian governments, fear is now being manufactured and weaponized in Russia’s classrooms. Lenin would, indeed, be proud.

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