SAKMARA, Russia -- One day, Mikhail Saleichuk’s young son, Kirill, came to him with an odd-sounding question: “Papa, what is a special operation?”
Next, Kirill wanted to know if his father had ever been to war.
“‘Is it true that someone might attack us?’” Saleichuk recalls his son asking.
Kirill attends lessons at the House of Children’s Creativity in Sakmara, a town in the Orenburg region. And, together with his classmates and children across the country, he had attended lectures about Russia’s war against neighboring Ukraine and been roped into participating in a national art competition -- called "Z Patriot" -- promoting the Kremlin’s narrative about the war.
“The institute’s director, [Svetlana] Maltseva, came to his class and told them that people in Ukraine are suffering from fascists and that civilians there need to be saved and that the children’s art can inspire our soldiers…and more such stuff like that,” Saleichuk told RFE/RL’s Idel.Realities. “They are competing in categories called stuff like ‘Z For Victory’ and ‘Strength Is In The Truth.’”
The names of the competition and its categories play on the Latin letters Z and V that have become the symbols of the Russian government’s false narratives that Russian forces in Ukraine are rooting out “neo-Nazis” and “criminals.”
The "Z Patriot" competition is one of a number of organized initiatives -- including flash mobs, demonstrations, letter-writing campaigns, and others being promoted by local administrations and branches of the ruling United Russia party -- involving the use of children to demonstrate support for the war, the military, and President Vladimir Putin.
Saleichuk said Kirill’s instructors did not “require” children to participate in the project, but that they “asked, as they say, very insistently.” Maltseva reportedly told the children that doing so was “a very important and necessary task” and that it was intended to “support” Russian soldiers from the Orenburg region.
Saleichuk said he told his son that “it was too early” for him to learn about such things.
“It is his job to work hard in school, to participate in sports, and to play games,” he said. “It is best he doesn’t know anything about war. That is my opinion. Life is hard enough. Why add the burden of this madness, blood, death, and violence?”
Nonetheless, Saleichuk said he didn’t forbid Kirill from participating in "Z Patriot." Objecting, he said, would just “end up costing me more.”
Viktoria Gerasimova, whose daughter Maria attends the same program as Kirill and was also pressed to participate in "Z Patriot," said she doesn’t understand the point of the project.
“Why do children need to draw fighter planes and tanks?” she told Idel.Realities. “They should be drawing butterflies and flowers.”
Gerasimova’s older daughter is in the ninth grade and was also recruited into "Z Patriot" at her school.
“She understands a lot and can tell good from bad by herself,” Gerasimova said. “But my younger child is only in fourth grade and can’t think critically.”
She recalled how her daughter brought home her incomplete drawing on the theme of patriotism.
“She said the teacher gave her permission to finish it at home together with her parents,” Gerasimova said. “So you can see that they don’t really care about educating the children, and they don’t care if the kids drew it themselves. The only important thing is to produce a picture that they can include in their report. That’s the way it seems to me.”
“I helped my daughter finish her picture so that she wouldn’t stand out,” Gerasimova confessed. “So that she would be like all the others and fit in.”
She said the entire entrance corridor of the House of Children’s Creativity is decorated with “patriotic works on the theme of this 'Z' war,” adding that propagandizing the war in Ukraine even overshadowed commemorating the Soviet contribution to victory in World War II during this year’s Victory Day events on May 9.
Many local residents applauded the "Z Patriot" initiative and the flood of pro-war events in their town.
“It is all correct,” said local resident Dmitry Syrovatov, expressing commonly held views. “They should know everything from childhood. Just look at how many young men from Orenburg are coming back in coffins…. That is why these events are necessary -- so that the children know what fascists are and so that there won’t be any more war. From childhood, they need to know not to be fooled by propaganda.”
As of May 22, at least 80 soldiers from the Orenburg region, on Russia’s border with Kazakhstan, had been officially acknowledged as having been killed in Ukraine.
Syrovatov compared supporting the troops to supporting one’s national team in soccer or hockey.
“When your team is on its home ground and you are supporting them, they play better and they win,” he said. “War is just the same.”
The "Z Patriot" competition is open to all children between the ages of 7 and 18.