Written by Vera Akhalaya for OpenDemocracy, published on April 25th, 2023 under CC-BY-NC 4.0
Nationalistic propaganda in Russia has intensified noticeably since the invasion of Ukraine last year, and the country’s 17.7 million schoolchildren have not been spared.
That said, it’s impossible for the Kremlin to control every teacher – and some are risking prison and their careers to tell their students about the realities of the war.
One week after the 2022 invasion, Russia’s Education Ministry held an online lesson, aimed at children and open to anybody, called ‘Defenders of Peace’.
The lesson, hosted by 13-year-old TV presenter and musical prodigy, Sofia Khomenko, was dedicated to the “mission to liberate Ukraine” and “the danger posed by NATO”, according to the ministry’s official Telegram channel.
“At the moment, everyone is ready to discuss news reports from all sources, give value judgments, scream and cry. The space around us is filled with emotions. But the more people, the more opinions,” said Khomenko at the beginning of the video, echoing the Russian authorities’ favourite line that “things are not so simple” with the invasion of Ukraine.
At first, classroom discussions of the war were at the discretion of the teacher, school administration or regional authority – not Russia’s central government. But after some teachers criticised the military operation, weekly lessons promoting the Kremlin’s view on the war in Ukraine became mandatory in Russia.
Irina Gen, who taught English at a school in Penza, 500 kilometres south-east of Moscow, is one such teacher who condemned the Russian invasion. One of her students recorded Gen’s critical remarks, made during a lesson in March 2022, and gave the clip to their parents, who turned it over to Russian law enforcement. A criminal investigation was opened against the teacher for spreading false information, resulting in Gen receiving a five-year suspended sentence and being banned from teaching for three years.
In May, the authorities launched an initiative to encourage pupils to write letters to Russian servicemen ahead of the Kremlin’s favourite date – 9 May, Victory Day. Schoolchildren, including those at primary school, were urged to write a letter to soldiers who “perform combat duty outside our country” (with no direct mention of Ukraine). In WhatsApp chats, where teachers usually communicate with parents, calls to participate in the action began to appear, clearly copied from an internal chat for teachers.
Then, Russian education minister Sergey Kravtsov announced that a new lesson called ‘important conversations’, where teachers talk about “key aspects of human life in modern Russia”, would be introduced at the start of the next school year.
Details released in the summer stated these lessons would include topics such as caring for the elderly and the environment, stories about famous Russian scientists, composers and actors, the USSR or the Russian Empire. Separate lessons are devoted to military and patriotic topics – such as Defender of the Fatherland Day, state symbols of Russia, the constitution, and the annexation of Crimea, which the Russian authorities call ‘reunification’.
Now, every Russian school starts the week by raising the flag and listening to the national anthem, after which the ‘important conversations’ lesson begins. The education ministry prepares recommendations and lesson plans, which explain in detail what to say to children, depending on their age.
Freedom behind closed doors
The Kremlin’s efforts to introduce propaganda into the classroom faces a problem. Many teachers, while not openly speaking out against the war in Ukraine, try to avoid the topic during lessons. Instead, they focus on universal values, such as the importance of science and education, and respect for loved ones.
“A teacher’s freedom begins when the classroom door closes and the teacher is left alone with the children. That’s also where it ends,” a person working in education (who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons) told openDemocracy.
According to them, a teacher can do what they see fit with their pupils, “and sometimes even get approval, often unspoken, for their actions from the head teacher and head of school”.
But there are big risks for both the teacher and the school. “Once a student complains to their parents or records what has taken place, the teacher and the headteacher will not be laughing,” they continued.
This happened to Tatyana Chervenko, a maths teacher at Moscow School No. 1747. Last autumn, instead of ‘important conversations’, Chervenko taught maths to a class of 13-year-olds. After word got out, she was taken to the police station for interrogation and then fired.
Life is easier for teachers in primary schools, where official recommendations for the ‘important conversations’ lesson make little mention of the military campaign in Ukraine.
“My daughter’s teacher just talked all year about Russian writers and composers,” said Olga, the mother of a ten-year-old at a Moscow school.
She continued: “The children listened to Tchaikovsky’s music. She talked about the life of [famous scientist Mikhail] Lomonosov, about the importance of studying, working, loving your country. Some kids sleep (like my daughter); others listen or chat with their neighbour – it’s generally a meaningless lesson but without propaganda.”
According to the mother, the teacher doesn’t mind that many children often skip the lesson.
It’s more difficult for teachers at middle schools and high schools, where the pupils are aged between 10 and 17, to avoid political issues. Recommendations for high-school students include phrases about threats posed by NATO countries and the ‘anti-Russian’ policies of the Ukrainian authorities in Crimea. Older students also use smartphones more and can record lessons.
Some teachers do try to protect older children from propaganda. “The teacher initially tried not to touch on politics at all – he talked about the beauty of nature, about space exploration,” says Yana, mother of a 13-year-old from the Moscow region.
“But recently, he has started mentioning some new topics. Ukraine is still not being discussed, but he’s started to compare Russia to the US. He said that on our coat of arms the eagle opens its wings proudly while [America’s] sits modestly, like a pitiful bird.”
Political topics are often discussed in other lessons too. It all depends on the mood and views of the teacher.
“The history and geography teachers [at our school] are actively expressing their position, supporting [the invasion of Ukraine],” says Alexander, the father of a 14-year-old from Moscow.
“They tend to say the Americans were always our enemies, so it couldn’t be otherwise, and that historically, these lands [Ukraine] have always been Russian. This last point was made by the history teacher.”
It’s a similar story at the school attended by Yana’s daughter, where some teachers use their own lessons to talk about the war in Ukraine.
“The music teacher played the [popular propaganda] song ‘I am Russian’ to the children several times,” says Yana. “But she did not force the children to perform it, and she herself complained she was very afraid for her brother who was fighting – she added that he was a patriot.”
On and on about the Great Rus’
Ultimately, the inept moralising tone of the propaganda lessons is doing little to entice children.
“The Russian language teacher constantly tells the children about the greatness of Russia, what a great and big country it is,” says Olga.
“My daughter says she can’t bear to hear about Great Rus’,” she continues, referring to a term used to describe the ‘historical unity’ of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine.
But this is not the case for all children. Some believe that “the Nazis [in Ukraine] wanted to attack us and destroy everyone, but that, thank God, Putin protected everyone”, says Yana.
According to Alexander, teenagers willingly pick up radical moods, adopt derogatory terms used on TV and by older relatives to describe Ukrainians or Americans and draw the Z symbol – the letter used to refer to the war in Russia. But this isn’t succeeding in encouraging them to become soldiers when they’re older, he says, explaining that no one wants to join the army: “There is talk about how to avoid the draft.”
Darkness is everywhere’
Schools in Russia have long tried to live up to the myth that they are independent of politics.
At least three Russian laws prohibit ideological propaganda and political agitation in schools, but in practice these laws are frequently violated and the pressure on schools, teachers and pupils is mounting.
This is especially true at lower-ranking schools, where children are more actively encouraged to participate in activities connected to the military campaign in Ukraine – such as writing letters and drawing postcards to send to frontline Russian soldiers, or collecting clothing and medicine for military hospitals.
In some such schools, skipping ‘important conversations’ is frowned on, and children who refuse to write letters to Russian soldiers are given low grades in Russian or in literature.
Meanwhile, in top-level schools, whose pupils take first place in the All-Russian School Olympiad, an annual contest for Russian schoolchildren, the number of propaganda events is reduced to a minimum.
“My son hasn’t attended ‘important conversations’ once. The school treats it with understanding,” says Oksana, whose 17-year-old attends a well-known Moscow secondary school. “Almost none of the boys are going to stay in Russia. After 24 February, about a third of the class and a lot of teachers left.”
But even these top-ranking schools – which Oksana says were thought to have a layer of “insulation” to protect children from propaganda and political agitation due to their high grades – are feeling the pressure.
Speaking to openDemocracy, she compared the current situation with her prestigious school in Moscow to how life in the Russian capital used to be comfortable before the war.
“For many years, our school was a kind of space unto itself. Terrible things were happening outside the school, but inside we were making our own space, bringing up talented children, teaching them really well. But you can’t close your eyes to the darkness anymore, it’s everywhere.”
The names of parents and children throughout this article have been changed at their request and for security reasons.