Prague, 21 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's President Vladimir Putin, speaking in Moscow this week at the launch of his new Internet site for
children, said the site aims "to help young citizens of the country understand state structures in Russia; to guide them in life; to [help them] make the right choices [for a] future career and their position in society and [this] is the main target. It's not meant to be a propaganda tool for the president's personal power."
Putin, who like most of the world's leaders already has a website for adults, frequently emphasizes the need for Russia to educate a new generation of knowledgeable, patriotic citizens.
"Politicians want children just as marketers want children, because they're the voters of the future."
He said on 19 January that the presidential site would be a place for Russia's children to learn about their country's history and its institutions, while fostering an appreciation for democracy.
Designed by famous Russian children's writer Grigory Oster, the website is divided into four parts: the President, the State, Democracy Lessons, and the Kremlin. Children can click on each section and, accompanied by on-screen cartoon characters, obtain answers to basic questions on the president and his duties, learn facts about history and geography and even play an interactive game set in medieval Russia. The goal is to build a city, cultivate relations with neighboring tribes, and -- most importantly -- defend your native soil.
Putin pre-empted any criticism that he might be feeding a growing presidential personality cult, noting that the new website is above all educational and devotes comparatively little space to personal matters -- although curious kids can find out that Putin, as a child, sometimes got caught up in neighborhood fights, on occasion came late to school, and liked to study history.
The "Democracy Lessons" section, in a series of questions and answers, even tells children they don't have to love the president -- although some would say it assumes they might want to, given the choice of questions. One of them asks: "What's the difference between Santa Claus and the president?" The answer: "The president works all year round." On the other hand, the website tells Russian children democracy means sometimes disagreeing with politicians and it reassures them that their own mothers are still more important than the president.
Mostly absent are any references to the Soviet period. The interactive game draws on Russia's medieval past, with fairy-tale-like animation of fortresses and knights in shining armor.
Experts praise the website for its design. Anton Nosik, editor in chief of Lenta.ru, a leading Russian news and information server, also likes the content. He tells RFE/RL Putin is merely following a tradition set by other world leaders.
"On the White House's website there is also a page for children. The president of Israel also has a children's education program, so that kids know who the president of Israel is and what he does. This happens all over the world. The presidency is a state function. It's not a secret service, whose duties have to be kept hidden. It's accepted, civilized practice that there is a budget [dedicated to publicizing the duties of the executive]," Nosik said.
Indeed, a quick surf on the Internet shows that French President Jacques Chirac has a site where children can take a virtual tour of the Elysee Palace in Paris. They can also gain a healthy respect for the law by finding out that even the chief executive couldn't build himself a swimming pool on the palace grounds if he wanted to -- that would be breaking regulations on the protection of historical monuments.
In the United States, many government departments have webpages for children. The top-secret National Security Agency (NSA) even features a cryptography game for kids. And the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives -- another government agency one might not expect to be concerned with children -- has an article on a bomb-sniffing dog named Truman, written just for kids.
What is prompting the sudden proliferation of government websites for kids? Why are politicians the world over becoming interested in children who can't even vote? RFE/RL asked Joseph Turow, a media specialist and professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communication.
Turow doubts many young children and teenagers are going to spend their free time looking at political websites. But at school, they might. "It's unlikely that kids in any great number are going to these sites. You know when it will come up? It'll come up when kids are doing homework. And I suspect that the real hope here is that when kids do homework, they will be led to the particular agencies that have, for example, material about firearms or material about stamps, material about this or that. And so, the governments are probably expecting that teachers will be sending kids to the site. It's unlikely that kids would go looking for sites like this on their own," Turow said.
Government departments, by putting out child-friendly information in an accessible format on the web, practically guarantee that anyone trawling through a search engine such as Google will find it. And that can shape young minds. "If an institution gets its stuff out there and you 'Google' a particular topic, you're getting the government perspective on it. And from the government's standpoint, that's good," Turow said.
Ultimately, says Turow, the government and individual politicians -- like corporations -- seek to build "brand loyalty" -- the earlier, the better. The main thing is for parents and teachers to be aware of the pitfalls.
"Politicians want children just as marketers want children, because they're the voters of the future. So clearly, in any kind of political website for children, there is some sense that you're cultivating the future. And anybody has to be concerned that if there's just one point of view, that may be a problem. At the same time, parents and teachers should encourage children to go to multiple places," Turow said.
In Moscow, Nosik does not fear Russian children will be brainwashed by the Internet. For one, only 12.5 million Russians -- less than 10 percent of the population -- has regular access to the web. He sees the new Putin website as a useful additional resource and state money well-spent.
"When school textbooks start talking about little Volodya Putin, when this becomes part of the obligatory curriculum, when school notebooks are printed with official portraits -- that is all bad. That is a personality cult, because it comes out of the Education Ministry's budget. This is propaganda, this is a personality cult. But when a website is created that a child can go to if he or she wants -- and if they don't want to, they don't have to; it's on a purely voluntary basis, according to interest -- this is perfectly fine," Nosik says.
As long as the web remains a tool and not an exclusive source of information, educators say there is not too much danger of warping impressionable youngsters. But urow says the Internet has become so pervasive in the United States that he sometimes has to remind his university students "that there is something called a book. And you can go to a library to find it."
(Note: The Putin website for children can be found at htttp://www.uznay-prezidenta.ru)