program of ‘patriotic education’ aims to create the next generation of Putin believers

As Russia shifts the focus of its “special military operation” in Ukraine to the Donbas region, there seems to be no end in sight to the fighting. Casualties on both sides are piling up. While Ukraine can call on its citizens to help defend their homeland against Russian aggression, Moscow’s ability to rally and maintain support for this war among ordinary Russians will be critical to sustaining its military efforts.

The Kremlin considers children and young people an essential part of this effort. The government has launched a series of patriotic education campaigns targeting Russian youth to encourage them to view the war in Ukraine as a continuation of World War II and to feel personally connected to the Russian soldiers fighting there.

Targeting propaganda at young people is not new to Russia. When the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917, they introduced patriotic-military education to prepare the next generation for war. During the Brezhnev period from 1964 to 1982, attention turned to the Soviet Union’s victory over the Nazis in what Russia still calls the “Great Patriotic War.”

There was a strong psychological dimension to the patriotic-military education of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Heroic tales of self-sacrifice during the Great Patriotic War were used to develop children’s devotion to the motherland. Whether through youth group activities or in a more formal educational setting, a clear message was conveyed to young people: they had a responsibility to preserve the memory of the victory won by their parents and grandparents.

Since the collapse of the USSR, the memory of the Great Patriotic War has become even more important for education in Russia. Young people are not only tasked with preserving the state version of history, they are also expected to be vigilant and denounce attempts by others to “falsify” and “minimize” Russia’s historical role in the world .

The memory of the Great Patriotic War is also central to Moscow’s justification for its war in Ukraine to Russian society. The unfounded claim that Russia was forced to intervene to combat growing Nazi sentiment in Ukraine is now being woven into the messages targeting Russia’s youth.

One aspect of this campaign was the launch of the ‘power is in the truth’ initiative. The opening ceremony in Moscow was attended by schoolchildren from regions across Russia, including members of the national Young Army Movement founded in 2015. In his remarks at the ceremony, Russian Education Minister Sergey Kravtsov said that a situation like the one in Ukraine will never happen again because “we have great young people… because you believe in Russia, in our country, in our teachers, in our victories, and that you are right! Thank you, guys, for your position, to speak up directly about this and not twist history.”

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu with members of the Young Army Military Patriotic Movement.
Every army needs new recruits: young members of the All-Russian Young Army Forum with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in 2021.
Mikhail Tereshchenko/TASS/Alamy Live News

Another part of this campaign is the use of Holocaust memories to bring Nazi atrocities to the forefront of youth consciousness and make connections to the war in Ukraine. On April 19, the Victory Museum in Moscow opened an exhibition titled Ordinary Nazism. The exhibition highlights “the atrocities committed by Ukrainian nationalists during World War II, as well as the massive crimes and terror of modern neo-Nazis against the people of Ukraine in 2014-2022”.

The same day was also marked as the Day of the United Action in Russia in memory of the genocide of the Soviet people that began in Russia by the Nazis and their accomplices. The event included concerts, exhibitions, meetings and performances at schools and universities across Russia.

Generation ‘Z’

In schools across Russia, teachers are trying to find age-appropriate ways to connect children and young people with the soldiers fighting in Ukraine. The youngest children are given simple tasks such as drawing and coloring the “Z” ribbon or standing in formations to make the shape of that letter. The (non-Cyrillic) letter “Z” has turned into a symbol of war and has become a badge of sorts for those who support it.

Older children write letters to soldiers serving in Ukraine, especially soldiers coming from their cities or regions, and make care packages to send to them. Schools are now provided with desks with [images and biographical details] of distinguished soldiers engraved on it, a vivid reminder of the proud history of Russian military heroism to which young people are invited.

These efforts to convey carefully constructed messages about the war in Ukraine to children and young people serve several purposes. There are short-term benefits, such as encouraging positive attitudes toward military service among older teenage boys who will be eligible for conscription in the near future. Given the number of Russian soldiers killed in this conflict so far, recruitment will remain a crucial part of the war effort.

Reaching young people with these messages also makes more Russian adults complicit in supporting the Kremlin’s story. Some teachers may be genuinely supportive of the war, but for many, this will just be another way to show their bosses that they are doing their job well — and perhaps show the state that they are loyal citizens. The consequences for those who refuse can be serious: there is evidence that students are reporting their teachers for making unfaithful remarks.

In the longer term, patriotic education aims to instill a deep and abiding sense of patriotism, duty and love for the country in the next generation of Russian citizens, along with great respect for the military as an institution. The key to this is Russia’s systematic presentation of its history to new youth groups, while cutting them off from opposing worldviews. The creation of future generations that can be easily molded to believe the Kremlin’s messages and fulfill its agendas is a key feature of Putin’s toy soldiers.

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