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'The Future Of The Country': Russian Activist Creates Database Of Schools That Use Children In Pro-War Demonstrations

"I would not want to see today's fifth-graders and other schoolchildren in a few years marching off to the next war because of things they were told in school," Dmitry Tsibiryov says.

On May 5, students at school No. 40 in the city of Tula, about 70 kilometers south of Moscow, showed their support for the Russian military by creating a formation in the shape of the Latin letter "Z," which along with the letter "V" has become the Russian government's symbol for its war in Ukraine.

Video of the self-proclaimed "flash mob" was posted by local news outlets and the school's social-media accounts.

A few days later, the name, work contact information, and photograph of the school's director, Svetlana Gnidina, appeared on a Telegram channel that an activist has set up to collect and publish information about schools he says use children to "propagandize the war."

The same thing happened to Aleksandra Pasechnik, director of school No. 18 in the Moscow suburb of Orekhovo-Zuyevo. In mid-April, she posted on social media photographs of her students holding a ribbon in the colors of the Russian flag in the now-familiar "Z" shape and attached hashtags that translated to "For the Donbas," "For truth," and "For the president."

The Telegram channel, Oni Za Voinu! (They Are For The War!), is the brainchild of 36-year-old Dmitry Tsibiryov, a former coordinator for imprisoned opposition politician Aleksei Navalny from the Saratov region, on the Volga River. Tsibiryov left Russia in 2021, shortly after the organizations connected with Navalny were banned as "extremist" and law enforcement began opening criminal cases against people who had worked for them.


Compelling children to engage in demonstrations of support for the war in Ukraine is an "outrageous moral crime," Tsibiryov told RFE/RL's Idel.Realities. Moreover, he contends, it violates a Russian law against compelling people to participate in demonstrations, marches, or pickets as well as the law on education, which prohibits the abuse of schools for political purposes.

"Personally, as the founder of this project, I would like at the very least to see administrative punishments for these directors -- removal from their positions and a ban on working further with children," Tsibiryov said. "Most likely, that is not realistic now, but changes could come to this country -- including some rather unexpected ones. And this database would be useful in that case."

Dmitry Tsibiryov fled Russia after other opposition activists started getting rounded up.
Dmitry Tsibiryov fled Russia after other opposition activists started getting rounded up.

Shortly after President Vladimir Putin launched the invasion on February 24, when the apparent objective of toppling Ukraine's government or forcing it to make major concessions was not achieved, the Russian leadership began to work actively to drum up manifestations of public support for the war. Local administrations and local branches of the ruling United Russia party announced various campaigns for flash mobs, letter-writing campaigns, and other shows of patriotism and political loyalty, many involving state-sector workers and schoolchildren.

Tsibiryov hesitates to use the word "lustration" in connection with his project, since that entails restrictions on the public activity of people connected with a previous, discredited regime. "I understand that these directors are not acting on their own initiative," he said. "They are not free people and are carrying out the orders of regional and city governments and the Education Ministry."

"I don't think this merits lustration," he added, "but it definitely says something about them as a person, about their competence, and their morality."

He describes the use of children -- who generally are not able to understand or make free choices about such political statements -- as "trafficking" in children. "When they resort to using children in these activities, it is not just immoral, but a literal violation of existing law," he insisted.

Putin's Pupils

The parents of schoolchildren are rarely informed of such demonstrations in advance, Tsibiryov said. Even after the fact, they are often reluctant to complain "because they are afraid of causing problems for their children."

Tsibiryov once taught for a year in a state school for children with poor vision and developmental difficulties, and he followed the fate of that school after he left.

"After about five years, that school with very satisfactory management that cared about the children turned into a nest of these propagandists who are even willing to exploit such children," he said. "Like all children, they don't understand what their teacher is forcing them to do. This really bothered me. I don't have children of my own, but I know that they are the future of our country."

He added that the Russian soldiers now fighting in Ukraine were once "children who went to school under Putin," who has been president or prime minister since 1999. "For years they were raised on military propaganda and now these conscripts are fighting and dying in Ukraine," he said.

"I would not want to see today's fifth-graders and other schoolchildren in a few years marching off to the next war because of things they were told in school."

Russia's education system, Tsibiryov argued, must ultimately be "completely reformed, beginning with politically subservient and unprincipled directors and teachers."

Written by Robert Coalson based on reporting by RFE/RL's Idel.Realities