04.07.23 Ideologies Review

The War of Patriotism: Russia's extensive campaign of school militarism is designed to suppress the modern attitudes of Russian youth

Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Russian system of state education has been engulfed in a frenzy of militarism and patriotism. Twice as many military-patriotic events were held in May this year than in the same month last year, with ‘Novaya Gazeta Europe’ calculating a total of 1.5 million such events. The paranoid scale of this 'school brainwashing’ campaign resembles the practices of totalitarian regimes and has concrete reasons behind it. According to surveys, Russia’s young people hold significantly more modern views on patriotism than the older generation, which includes practically all of the Russian political elite, who perceive this generational shift as an existential threat. The imposition of paternalistic-militaristic patriotism may have some effect in the short-term, but it is highly likely to contribute to the politicisation of youth and the growth of protest sentiments in the future.

lthough Russian education law prohibits propaganda and agitation in educational institutions, since the beginning of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia, Russian schools, colleges, and kindergartens have held 1.5 million military-patriotic events, with 200,000 directly dedicated to the so-called ‘special military operation’, according to an investigation published last week by 'Novaya Gazeta Europe.' The fervour of militarism and patriotism has engulfed the entire system of state education and is continuing to gain momentum: twice as many war-related events were held in May this year than in May of last year. In schools, children are forced to write letters to the front, make trench candles, sew camouflage nets and hoodies for those who have been mobilised, and graduates are encouraged to sign contracts with the Ministry of Defence.

This 'brainwashing' takes on the character of state paranoia and resembles the practices of ideological campaigns in totalitarian states. ‘Novaya Gazeta’ has calculated that out of the 45,000 war-related events held by kindergartens, schools, and colleges since the full-scale invasion began, the majority involved letter-writing to the front (27,966 events), collecting humanitarian aid (14,039), celebrating the anniversary of the annexation of Crimea (4,877), lectures on the activities of Russian soldiers (4,554), making talismans for the military (4,075), and conversations with war veterans (3,520). Over 3,500 'hero desks' have been established in Russian schools in honour of graduates who died in the war.

The school curriculum is consistently saturated with state propaganda. Immediately after the war began, themed classes were held in schools, where the threat of NATO expansion was discussed and the military invasion of Ukraine was justified. Since September of last year, 'Conversations about Important Matters' have become a mandatory component of the school curriculum aimed at 'strengthening traditional Russian spiritual and moral values' and fostering patriotism. The Ministry of Education records a separate video for each lesson, which is broadcast on 'Channel One' on Mondays. Starting from September 1, 2024, a new subject called 'The Basics of Security and Defence of the Motherland' will be introduced, involving basic military training for students. History programs are being hastily revised and also become a tool of propaganda: high school students will now be taught about the 'state coup' in Ukraine in 2014, the 'reunification' of Crimea and Sevastopol with Russia, and the 'special military operation.'

Militaristic-patriotic youth organisations, aiming for 'universal coverage' and reminiscent of the practices of Maoist China, Stalinist USSR, and Nazi Germany, are multiplying. In addition to the 'Youth Army' movement created by the Ministry of Defence in 2016, a new organisation called the 'Movement of the First' emerged last year. One of the goals of the 'Youth Army' is to 'instil in young people readiness and practical ability for military service.' The movement covers 85 regions and has over a million participants aged 8 to 18, who are trained, among other things, in the use of weapons.

Clearly, this totalitarian campaign is driven by the fact that Russian youth, to a much greater extent than older generations, are integrated into global agendas and hold significantly more modern views on patriotism. Essentially, the gerontocratic political elite seeks to impose a militaristic-patrimonial concept of patriotism on the youth, which is largely alien to them. The difference and generational nature of the two perspectives on patriotism are clearly reflected in a recent survey conducted by FOM (Public Opinion Foundation) on this topic.

Despite the fact that the absolute majority of those surveyed from all generations consider themselves patriots, the difference between the two types of patriotism is most evident in several areas (see the table). Among people over 60, who belong to the same generation as almost all of the country’s political elite, only slightly over a third believe that criticism of their own country is compatible with patriotism, whereas among young people, more than half of respondents think so. Nearly 40% of young respondents do not believe that seeking to avoid military service is incompatible with patriotism, whereas among those over 45, 78% share the archaic concept of 'military duty' (military patriotism), while only 15% do not.

According to 52% of young Russians, a person who leaves to live and work abroad can still be a patriot; in the 45–60 age group, less than a third thought that this was compatible with patriotism, and among those over 60, this was fewer than a quarter of respondents. The cultural attitudes of young people are also much more cosmopolitan: 70% believe that a person who prefers foreign literature and art to artworks produced domestically can still be a patriot. Among those over 60, less than a third share this view.

The last two questions highlight the most totalitarian conceptions of patriotism. The opinion that people become patriots as a result of patriotic upbringing is shared by 60% of those over 45, while only 30% do not share this view. Among young people, opinions on this question were divided almost evenly. However, in responses to the subsequent question, the opinion of younger generations appeared to be completely consolidated: over 80% of young respondents believe that being a patriot is a matter of personal choice. Meanwhile, less than 20% of young people and over 40% of older generations share the totalitarian concept of patriotism as a compulsory characteristic of a full-fledged citizen.

The totalitarian campaign to promote old-school, patrimonial-militaristic patriotism may have some effect in the short term, however, it is highly likely to contribute to the politicisation of young people and the growth of protest sentiments in the future.

Patriotism in the Perceptions of Russians, 2023, percentage of those polled

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