Digest of Russian media
Lessons in War: How the Kremlin is Aligning School Curriculum and its Agenda
March 27, 2024
Over the past few years, Russian authorities have significantly tightened control over what is taught in schools and how. For example, starting in September 2022 students have been attending a weekly flag-raising ceremony and listening to the national anthem before classes. They also attend mandatory lessons called “Conversations about Important Things,” where they learn about patriotism from the Kremlin’s viewpoint.

The curriculum for Conversations about Important Things is the same nationwide and is available on a dedicated website. In a recent lesson titled “Heroes of Our Time,” students of all ages watched an interview featuring a Russian soldier named Yuri Gagarin (apparently picked for his name). According to the lesson plan, teachers were to emphasize that Gagarin defended Mariupol and rescued children from the Ukrainian army.

“Gagarin defended Mariupol during the heaviest fighting there. Residents with children hid in basements for several months, while the Ukrainian Armed Forces and Azov [Brigade] militants took children and put them in windows as human shields,” is how teachers are instructed to present Gagarin.

The next week after the horrific terrorist attack on a suburban Moscow concert venue on March 22, the Conversation was titled “Unity of the Peoples of Russia.” Schoolchildren were to understand that though enemies may attempt to destabilize the country, Russia is a multiethnic nation that will overcome all challenges through its unity.

“The goal of the lesson: calm the children, provide support in a stressful situation and emphasize that Russia is a multinational country and the enemy's objective is to divide the Russian people. And now – whether intentionally or accidentally – any attempts to sow discord among people based on nationality are the enemy's work. Terrorism does not have a nationality. If we want to win, we must unite and support each other,” says the teacher’s guide for the lesson.

Promoting the government’s agenda goes beyond such Conversations. A project called “Not Normal” (Ne Norma), which fights military propaganda among children, noted that starting in March Russian schools must hold a game based on Vladimir Putin’s interview with Tucker Carlson, titled “From Rus to Russia.”

Students watch excerpts from the interview and answer questions grouped into categories such as: "the original meaning of the word 'Ukrainian,’" "the incorporation of current Ukrainian territories into Russia," “the background to the start of the Special Military Operation,” “the reasons for the Special Military Operation and the failure to realize the Minsk Agreements,” “US sanctions and Russian economic growth” and “reunion will happen.” And here, according to the Not Normal project, is one of the questions:

Which of the following was not an understanding of the word “Ukrainian” in the 13th century?
A) Border guard
B) Living on the edge
C) Resident of the borderland
D) Resident of the country Ukraine

Not Normal also reported on a military-patriotic festival called “Peaceful Warrior of the Russian Federation,” which was held at a technical college in the city of Tomsk. The organizers put up portraits of Joe Biden, Volodymyr Zelensky and Jens Stoltenberg for targets at the shooting range.

“The club that organized this [the festival] with us are very patriotic guys. They are trying to get across to people who might say ‘this is not our war’... what is happening and how it really is. Because, as you know, many people still misunderstand the current moment,” festival organizer Olga Ozhegova told the Russian news outlet RIA Novosti.

Ozhegova also told RIA Novosti that she considers that festival very successful and noted that many people came with families.

Starting from 2024, the Unified State Exam in history, taken by all high school seniors aspiring to study social sciences or humanities at Russian universities, now includes questions about the special military operation and annexed Ukrainian territory. In one of the tasks, students must match dates with historic events, such as signing of the agreement on the incorporation of the Donetsk and Lugansk people's republics (DNR and LNR, respectively) into Russia.

The geography exam now also includes maps where the DNR and LNR, as well as Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions, are shown as part of Russia.

Authorities have also introduced new history and geography textbooks that discuss the invasion of Ukraine, sparking much controversy among teachers and parents. During a December 2023 TV program recapping the year, Vladimir Putin emphasized the need for these new educational materials.

“We need a fundamental version of the textbook that should be made accessible for everyone. Today’s child is tomorrow’s citizen. But all the textbooks must correspond to the truth, they must be truthful, not serve the interests of other countries, as was the case in some Russian textbooks,” said Putin.

However, historian and teacher Sergei Chernyshov said in an interview with RFE/RL that the impact of propaganda on textbooks is exaggerated.

“I have no doubt that this propaganda will be countered by healthy teenage indifference. I really hope that eleventh graders, like all decent eleventh graders, will not read the textbooks. At this age, they have more important things to do. But speaking seriously, the importance of textbooks in school is greatly exaggerated. And whereas textbooks still play some role in elementary school, because children learn to read and count and teachers carefully monitor all this, the older the students get, the less textbooks are seen as authoritative. That’s the first thing. The second is that they read them less and less,” said Chernyshov.

Meanwhile, any dissent in schools is persecuted. In spring 2023, sixth-grader Masha Moskaleva drew an antiwar picture during a class, depicting the Ukrainian flag, the slogan “Glory to Ukraine” and Russian missiles.

“The teacher ran to the principal, who then called the police. The art teacher went and threatened my daughter, so when the officers arrived and waited for Masha at the entrance, asking all the children for their first and last names, my daughter immediately understood what was going on. She managed to slip away: she gave a false last name. She ran home, out of breath, and said, ‘dad, I was almost caught by the police, I drew a picture.’ My daughter was scared. I promised that the next day I would come to school and wait for her until the end of classes," Russian news outlet Meduza quoted Masha’s father, Alexei Moskalev.

Later, antiwar statements were found on social media belonging to Moskalev. He was sentenced to one year and 10 months in prison.
  • Sofia Sorochinskaia

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