“One doesn’t become a patriot by just proclaiming slogans,” runs the text of an upcoming mandatory lesson for upper-level children in Russian schools. “Genuinely patriotic people are prepared to defend their motherland with a weapon in their hands.”
“Patriotic education” has been a catchphrase in President Vladimir Putin’s Russia since at least 2005. But now, with Moscow’s unprovoked war against Ukraine grinding on and Russia caught up in a tense standoff with the West, the country is redoubling its emphasis on “patriotism” in the schools. With the new school year that opened on September 1, the Education Ministry is launching mandatory weekly lessons first thing every Monday with the title Important Conversations.
[The government] is always issuing new laws that you have to follow carefully in order to avoid trouble when discussing the ‘special military operation.’”-- Ksenya, a teacher in Moscow
To demonstrate just how important these new conversations are to the Kremlin, Putin kicked off the initiative himself by holding one with specially screened and pre-quarantined schoolchildren in the western exclave of Kaliningrad on the first day of school, an event that was transmitted to schools across the country.
Although none of the children asked Putin about the war in Ukraine, he made a point of raising the topic himself, repeating false Kremlin narratives about the so-called “special military operation” that Moscow launched against Ukraine on February 24.
“Everyone is saying that Russia is carrying out some sort of aggression today,” Putin said. “No one knows or understands that after the coup d’etat in Ukraine in 2014, the residents of [the eastern Ukrainian regions of] Donetsk and Luhansk, at least most of them, and of Crimea did not want to recognize the results of the coup. Our goal -- the mission of our soldiers and the militias of the Donbas -- is to end the war, defend the people, and, of course, defend Russia itself.”
A Moscow-friendly Ukrainian president fled the country after months of pro-Europe, anti-corruption protests known as the Maidan culminated in a violent crackdown and clashes in Kyiv in 2014, events that Russian officials inaccurately describe as a coup. Although it denies being an aggressor, Russia launched a massive military invasion of Ukraine in February involving hundreds of thousands of troops, who have been repeatedly accused of targeting civilians and other war crimes.
Putin and the children then sang the national anthem together.
Since April, Russian schools have been starting each day with a flag ceremony and the playing of the national anthem. This year, however, the ceremony has become more formal and institutionalized. Over the summer, the government allocated 1 billion rubles ($16.6 million) to equip the country’s schools with the necessary attributes, and in June the Education Ministry issued an official handbook to the proceedings.
Beginning September 5, the Important Conversations classes will be a regular, weekly feature of Russian schools at all levels, although the content of the lessons differs for each age group. The detailed lesson plans have been posted online. The ministry is preparing films and other materials for the classes.
The youngest children will be told about Russia’s natural wonders, while children in the third and fourth grades will be taught that one must support one’s country and work to enrich and beautify it. The lesson plan for this group includes discussion of expressions such as, “It's not scary to die for the motherland,” “Love your motherland, serve your motherland,” and, “The motherland’s happiness is worth more than life.”
The topic of the war against Ukraine will be presented to students in the fifth grade and older.
The instruction informs students that the soldiers fighting in Ukraine are providing “examples of genuine patriotism” and repeats Kremlin language about the “Kyiv regime” and its supposed “bullying and harassment” of the population of the Donbas, parts of which are controlled by Russia.
Other justifications for the war include “disarming Ukraine” and “preventing the placement of NATO military bases” in Ukraine, a step that the Western military alliance had no apparent plans to take before or after the invasion last winter.
The goal of the lesson is “to form an understanding of the cultural and historical unity of the Russian nation and the importance of preserving that unity, as well as inculcating love for the fatherland and pride in one’s country.”
At the end of the lesson, students will have to write down “what I would like to and am able to do for my motherland,” after which the students will attach their answers to a birch tree, “the traditional symbol of Russia.”
Ksenya, a teacher in Moscow who asked that her surname be withheld for fear of reprisals, said the new lessons put teachers in an awkward position because the government “is always issuing new laws that you have to follow carefully in order to avoid trouble when discussing the ‘special military operation.’”
“I would prefer not to discuss any political or politicized issues in school,” she said. “That’s my opinion. How am I supposed to reconcile my personal views with those of the school administration or with the views they foist upon the administration? I have no idea how I am going to do that.”
Another Moscow teacher, who specializes in Russian language and literature and also requested that his name be withheld, agreed: “If a teacher deviates from the plan of the ‘conversations,’ they could wind up in a very dangerous position.”
Technically, parents can request that their children be excused from the Important Conversations, but it remains to be seen whether this right can be exercised.
“We’ll have to see what would happen,” Ksenya said. “Maybe it would attract the attention of the school administration.”
In early 2021, it was announced that a new position of “adviser to the school director” was being created to oversee student organizations and the implementation of “patriotic education.” At the time, critics said the government was installing “political commissars” in Russian schools. The new position is part of a program called Navigators Of Childhood that is headed by a former activist of the pro-Putin youth movement Nashi.
The imposition of the Important Conversations lesson comes after previous years of trying to get schools to implement such lessons on an ad hoc basis, said former geography teacher Kyamran Manafly, who was fired over his anti-war statements.
“I was a class leader, and we were sent such lessons, films, and presentations,” Manafly recalled. “Half the teachers simply didn’t use them because the children just weren’t interested. The other half just turned on the film and the children watched and then left.”
The new classes could be just the beginning of a new conformity across Russian schools, said Novosibirsk historian and high school director Sergei Chernyshev.
“The people in the Education Ministry apparently dream of having all the schools in the country teaching identical lessons using identical materials and having all the teachers from Kamchatka to Kaliningrad telling the children exactly the same thing,” Chernyshev said. “Essentially, they want to turn the teachers into robots.”
In March, Margarita Simonyan, editor in chief of the RT state television network, met with a gathering of Moscow teachers, sources told Current Time. She said teachers can have their own opinions about Putin and the war in Ukraine, but they must never forget that they work for the state and are obligated to defend the interests of the government, the sources said.
At the end of his September 1 appearance with the schoolchildren in Kaliningrad, Putin recounted a conversation he claimed to have had in the 1990s with an elderly KGB agent with whom Putin said he shared an office some time shortly after he joined the dreaded security force. Putin said he asked the man if he wasn’t “offended” to now be sharing an office with a greenhorn after 25 years as an undercover foreign agent.
“‘My motherland trusted me in a way that not everyone is trusted,’” Putin quoted the old-timer as saying. “I was needed. And I am grateful to the motherland, and I don’t expect anything [in return] from it.’”