Generation Z: propaganda in Russian schools and the militarization of memory
“Study, study and study!”. This famous quote, with which Lenin hoped to encourage the illiterate masses of peasants to become self-conscious socialists, seems to have made a comeback in Russia, this time for other reasons.
At the beginning of the 2022 school year, September 1st, the Russian Ministry of Education implemented a project called Razgovory o vazhnom, i.e. “Important discussions”. The aim is to make sure that all students are informed “correctly” about the current “special military operation”, the values of patriotism and the grandeur of Russian history. Courses take place every Monday in every school of the country, targeting students from 6 to 16 years old.
If mass media repression and propaganda have been widely discussed in the West, little is known about the exposure of the young generation to the Kremlin’s narrative.
In March 2022, the Kremlin launched a preemptive campaign in schools to make sure children were informed about the “truth”. On a popular video on Russian social media VK, a man is filmed explaining that “the Government of Ukraine, even back in 2016, prepared the invasion: initially they planned to bomb Donbass and then to invade Russia”. Children were later asked to write letters to the soldiers fighting in Ukraine. Some of these letters, as reported by opposition channel Rain Tv, give a full account of the surreal court circuit generated by propaganda: a little girl thanks soldiers “for defending our motherland Russia” as they were invading Ukrainian territory.
School directors and teachers organized drawings sessions with children to celebrate Russia’s army. Most drawings depict the well-known Z symbol – from Russian “Za”, meaning “for”, in support of the war. Others show tanks, soldiers and Russian flags. Opposition journalists ironically talk about the Z generation. According to the German data company Statista, around 17 million students are currently enrolled in basic education in Russia. With the “Important Discussion” project, propaganda has officially entered the school program. For instance, the lesson “Our Country Russia” targeting teenagers, justifies the special military operation, and blames the “collective West” for the massive death toll in Ukraine.
Expressions of dissent are starting to appear on social media, with some parents and teachers refusing the indoctrination of children. However, they face harsh consequences: threats, job loss and law prosecution. According to data published by OVD Info relative to the first six months of the war, a total of 212 people including seven teachers have been sued for “anti-war” positions.
On September 1st, Putin inaugurated the Important Discussion project with a lecture in Kaliningrad presenting it as a promotion of historical truth. During the opening, the Russian President criticized Kiev for hiding reality from Ukrainian children: “Yesterday I had a conversation with the Minister of Education Sergey Sergeivich [Kravtsov], he was in Donetsk and other territories, then he came back and told me what he saw and, forgive me, I could not believe my ears. Children in school don’t even know that there is a Crimean Bridge, they think it’s fake news. [laughs] Yes. They didn’t even know that Ukraine and Russia have been part of a single state during Soviet times. That’s how they are taught. And I believe, not just children buy many adults don’t even know that Ukraine as a state never existed.”
Children are a fundamental priority of state policy in Russia. The state shall create conditions leading to the all-round spiritual, moral, intellectual and physical development of children and reinforce in them patriotism, citizenship and respect for elders. The State, ensuring the priority of family upbringing, assumes their responsibilities with regard to children without parental care.
Article 67.4 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation – 2020 Amendment
At the same time, the regime’s master of propaganda Vladimir Solov’ev held a long speech to an audience of teenagers in Moscow saying that Russia is “a wonderful country. Not because we live better than everyone else, no[…] We are a wonderful country because we have a grandiose destiny. We stand still and we cover with our own body the bodies of children killed by Ukro-nazis. We fight on the side of Good.”
To understand the current propaganda, which is a mix of historic amnesia and hypermnesia, revisionism and censorship, it is necessary to go back to World War II and the myth of the Soviet victory against Nazism.
The Great Patriotic War
What for the West is “World War II”, in Russia is called the “Great Patriotic War”, stressing its national character. Dates are also different: Russian students learn that the war took place from 1941, when Hitler launched the military operation against the USSR, to 1945, when Germany signed its capitulation. Furthermore, silence hovers on the events prior to 1941: the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the partition of today’s Poland and the Baltic states and all references to Russia being an imperialistic power. Similarly, it is forbidden to discuss the violence of the Soviet Army against civilians in occupied territories, as well as Stalin’s political crimes.
The crystallization of historic propaganda is so fundamental to the Kremlin that in 2020 the Constitution was amended. Article 67.1 indicates that “[t]he Russian Federation honors the memory of the Country’s defenders and guarantees the protection of the historic truth. It is forbidden to discuss the fundamental role of the people in the defense of the Motherland.”
As a result, in September 2020, historian Yuri Dimitriev, whose works focus on Stalin’s purges during the Great Terror, was condemned to fifteen years in a labor camp on the grounds of a made-up crime allegation. The logic is well known among political criminals in Russia: discredit the man to discredit his works. More recently, in December 2021, the Russian Human Rights Association Memorial, which aimed at inquiring on Soviet political crimes to rehabilitate its victims, has been shut down. The Supreme Court accused the NGO of spreading a “false image of the USSR as a terrorist state” and of criticizing “the memory of the great Patriotic War.” In 2022, no counterpower in historic memory remains in Russia.
Read also: La fine di Memorial e l’uso politico della storia
The celebration of the Great Patriotic War has progressively taken on more belligerent traits under Putin. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russians still celebrated Victory Day on May 9th in a spontaneous way, with no military parades. Moscow progressively took control of some popular initiatives to its own advantage.
A good example is the Immortal Regiment, created by a group of activists from the city of Tomsk in 2012: on Victory Day people marched with a portrait of a family member who fought in the Great Patriotic War. The Kremlin integrated the ceremony into its May 9th commemoration in major Russian cities, forcing people to carry portraits of unknown veterans, transforming an intimate ceremony into a tool to support the current power. Not only the living, but also the dead had to express their consensus for the Kremlin’s policy. To speak with scholar Anna Colin Lebedev, “it’s especially from 2008, in a context of raising tensions with the West and growing Russian military power that the commemoration started to militarize itself and take on vindicative intonations.” In fact, the 2022 Victory Day on the Red Square looked a lot more like North Korea than Russia just twenty years ago.
The obsession with Ukrainian Nazism
If on the one hand Moscow bans critical analysis of its own history, on the other hand it welcomes a caricatural reinterpretation of Ukraine’s history. The use of the term “de-Nazification” used by Putin is a perfect example: not only Zelensky is of Jewish origin, but the actual far right elements of Ukrainian society, such as Pravy sector and the Azov battalion, are a sheer minority in the country and have literally no political representation in the Ukrainian Parliament.
Read also: The invasion of Ukraine as a tragic self-fulfilling prophecy based on policy mistakes
The collaboration of Ukrainians with Nazi Germany has been widely assessed by historians. However, the narrative over Stepan Bandera is partial. The Ukrainian far right leader was, in fact, a prisoner of the German Reich from 1941 to 1944 for his attempt to build a Ukrainian state from the city of Lviv, then occupied by German troops. It is a complex historical period, in which some Ukrainians hoped to build their statehood, rid of both German and Soviet domination. If 200,000 Ukrainians joined the ranks of the German forces, four million fought in the Red Army against them. There is no space for complexity in the Kremlin’s narrative, just a simplified grid to bring Russians to accept a new militarized state.
As an old student of the USSR recalled, “we used to start the school year with the slogan Miru Mir, “Peace to the world” and now children learn to love war and tanks.” An old joke from Soviet times comes to mind: history is rewritten so fast, that you never know what will happen yesterday.
 Aubin Lukas, «Géopolitique de la Russie», La Découverte, 2022 – p. 51.
 Colin Lebedev Anna, «Jamais Frères Ukraine et Russie: une tragédie post-soviétique», Seuil 2022 p. 45.
 Himka John Paul, «Ukrainian nationalists and the Holocaust: OUN and UPA’s participation of Ukrainian Jewry», 1941-1944, Stuttgard, Ibidem Verlag, 2021.
 Shankovsky Lev, «Soviet Army» Internet Encyclopedia of Ukraine, Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies.