Putinism for kids:
How the Kremlin uses schools for ideological indoctrination
September 12, 2022
  • Ivan Fomin
    Non-resident fellow at the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies, the George Washington University.
Having analyzed the Kremlin’s intensified attempts to inculcate patriotism in younger Russians, Ivan Fomin outlines the limitations of Putin’s ideology, which draws on “rally-around-the-flag” sentiment but is unable to offer any big dream in exchange for the endurance it demands.
The Kremlin is concerned that the popularity of Putin and his policies tends to be significantly lower among younger people. The issue takes on added importance as a large cohort of Russians who were born in the era of Putin’s family-promotion policy is coming of age. As seen in Figure 1 below, there has been a slight demographic revival in the last two decades, which is reflected in the growing number of youth aged 5-23.
Fig 1. Russian population pyramid in 2022.
It is even more important that the youth is clearly less supportive of the war in Ukraine, as shown in Figure 2, which makes the Kremlin nervous about their loyalty.
Fig 2. Support for Russian operation in Ukraine (by age group), July 2022
"Talking of What Matters" open lesson by Vladimir Putin, September 1, 2022. Source: VK
Things to die for

In this context, the Kremlin has recently launched a number of initiatives aimed at a “patriotic” indoctrination of kids. In particular, recently a new state-organized movement for children was founded, which seems to be a version of the Soviet Pioneers. Moreover, legislation submitted by the Russian government would require every school in Russia to have a counselor who is supposed to facilitate the “civic” and ”patriotic” upbringing of the students. Furthermore, starting in September 2022 all schools are expected to conduct a flag-raising ceremony every week.

The ceremony is supposed to be followed by extracurricular lessons that are called “Conversations about Important Things.” They are expected to promote “traditional” and “patriotic” values, as well as boost national pride among kids of various ages. The first class in the year-long series of these “conversations” was symbolically taught by Putin himself on September 1, while they will be conducted by lead teachers of each class every Monday starting from September 5.

Recently, the Russian Ministry of Education started publishing recommendations for teachers responsible for the “conversations, which represent a list of themes for each week of the school year with suggested lesson plans, including videos and slides. In addition, there are a number of online lectures in which teachers are shown how to conduct the classes. Many of the speakers who appear in these lectures are affiliated with the Znanie Society, another recently revived Soviet institution in charge of mass education and propaganda.

The materials are quite helpful to make sense of the ideology that Putin promotes – among both children and adults. So what does the “kid version” of Putinism look like? Overall, the ideological message of the “Conversations about Important Things” boils down to national unity and social solidarity. Moreover, the lessons are designed to systematically emphasize the imagery of heroism and self-sacrifice, as well as “traditional family values.”

In particular, the new guidelines suggest that the teachers are expected to promote national unity by referring to historical narratives that illustrate the dangers of disunity and show that “national consolidation” is a key tradition of the Russian people. More specifically, the “tradition of unity” is supposed to be exemplified by the stories of consolidation around political leaders in different epochs, such as Alexander Nevsky, Dmitry Donskoy, Dmitry Pozharsky and Kuzma Minin, and Alexander I. Conversely, the Russian civil war of 1917-22 and “the collapse of a great country” in the 1990s are to be shown as the examples of “social catastrophes” caused by disunity.

The themes of self-sacrifice and heroism are emphasized in the “Conversations about Important Things.” Children are expected to learn that "the happiness of the Motherland is more precious than a human life" and that "dying for the Motherland isn’t to be feared.” The teachers are advised to promote these ideals by referring to a pantheon of heroes that include not only the war heroes of the Russian Empire and USSR but also the “heroes” of the “special military operation” in Ukraine. “Civil” versions of heroism are also on the menu. In particular, one of them is represented by the “Mother Heroine,” i.e. a mother that gave birth to more than nine children, in line with the idea of the “traditional family values.” Additionally, the values of self-sacrificial service and heroism are given an anti-Western spin as they are contrasted with the consumerist orientation of Western societies.

Another ideological construct that is central for the emergent program of “patriotic” upbringing is that of solidarity, which is declared as an important principle both domestically and internationally. In particular, the “social state” in Russia and “mutually respectful” partnerships with “friendly countries” are presented as vectors that should guide the nation. Importantly, the solidarity ideologemes also carry anti-Western connotations as they are opposed to the supposed egoism and the “competition without rules” of the West.

The final motive that emanates from the new pedagogical guidelines is that the state is the most authoritative source of information. Teachers are supposed to broadcast this to the students and set an example themselves. In particular, in the lessons about “Important Things” students are supposed to be informed about important political events that happen in Russia and around the world (including the “special military operation”), so the teachers are advised to exclusively use information from official Russian government sources or official religious institutions, which are positioned as remedies against “fake news” and information overload.

Ideology without a future

At first glance, the constellation of ideologemes that emerges from the new recommendations for teachers in some respect resembles Umberto Eco’s famous account of fascist ideology. In particular, Eco lists the cults of tradition and heroism among the properties of fascism. The emphasis on national consolidation and dangers of disunity, as well as distrust toward alternative sources of information, also makes Putinism similar to Eco’s “ur-fascism.”

However, what is lacking in contemporary Putinism is a clear image of national rebirth, which, according to Roger Griffin, is essential for the fascist worldview.
“When it comes to the image of the desired future, Putinism generally tends to be rather cautious if not sterile."
For example, the guidelines for the “Important Things” suggest that when talking about the future of Russia the teachers should focus on objectives like driving economic growth and maintaining the independence, sovereignty and security of the country – without references to any big ideological myths. 

The bureaucrats who are in charge of designing the Russian patriotic upbringing program seem to be well aware of this ideological deficiency as they try to fill the gap with phrases like “the outlines of the future emerge today” or by arguing that it is in fact a global problem that today humanity doesn’t have any “big dream.”

There also seems to be an attempt to resolve this issue by positioning the “social state” as the domestic ideological endpoint and the “multipolar world” as the main ideologeme of foreign policy. However, these constructs aren’t particularly suitable to be cornerstones of a full-fledged ideology, primarily due to the fact that neither the “social state” nor the “multipolar world” can translate into any specific mobilizing calls, at least in the way they are used in Russian state propaganda today. For the most part, they represent the Russian people as passive recipients of social benefits in the “social state” and equally passive proud admirers of the country’s position in the “multipolar world.”

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the ideology of Putinism isn’t important. In fact, the increasing ideologization of the Russian regime is probably one of the main trends of recent years. It is largely associated with the war in Ukraine but actually can be traced back at least to the constitutional reform of 2020 and the adoption of the Russian National Security Strategy of 2021, both of which codified some version of “traditional values.”

At the same time, it is crucial to understand the limitations of Putin’s ideology. Putinism is quite far from being a full-fledged ideological worldview, as it mostly just uses a bricolage of vague right-wing and left-wing illiberal concepts. It promotes national consolidation, solidarity, heroic self-sacrifice and statism as self-contained “traditional values,” which aren’t supported by any complex ideological doctrines. 
“In essence, Putinism today looks like an attempt to build a whole ideological framework from a simple 'rally-around-the-flag' effect."
The overall legitimacy of the regime thus seems primarily based on the confrontation against Ukraine and more broadly the West, while the ideological concepts that accompany this confrontation serve merely as supplements. Thus, short, ad hoc mobilizations are possible, but there are no strong ideological commitments.

This limitation is especially significant for the evolution of the Russian political regime. In particular, it is important that Putin today just doesn’t have ideational resources that are necessary to transform the authoritarian system that he built into a totalitarian one. Moreover, the political passivity of the country is one of the main assets for Putin, so it isn’t evident that a full-fledged ideological mobilization is what he seeks to achieve. Instead, the government is likely trying to merely indoctrinate the young generation of Russians so they’ll be similar to the generation of their grandparents, meaning being generally passive but ideologized enough to “heroically” endure the consequences of any bad political decisions and share vague anti-Western sentiment.

However, this more modest task is far from a guaranteed success as the regime is simply unable to propose any big dream in exchange for the endurance it demands. In fact, it can’t even propose an empty shell of a big dream like the one their “grandparents” had. If anything, Putin’s ideology of today looks more like a pale shadow of the empty shell that was communist ideology in the 1970-80s.

This doesn’t mean, however, that those who oppose Putin shouldn’t be concerned with the ideologization of Russian schools. Moreover, a lot can still be done to prevent Putin from poisoning the minds of young Russians. In particular, his opponents should make special efforts to keep the younger generation of Russians as integrated into the global educational, cultural and informational spaces as possible, as the Kremlin systematically introduces new barriers to isolate them.

Engaging young Russians is especially challenging today, as some of the restrictions against Russia – from Netflix’s pullout and the demonetization by YouTube to the EU visa bans and suspension of higher education opportunities in Europe – look set to have completely the opposite effect. Thus, for now, while Putin is clearly fighting for the minds of younger Russians, some of his opponents seem to be failing even to acknowledge that this battlefield exists.
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