A new version of the ABC’s in Russia’s far east starts with “A is for Army, B is for Brotherhood” — and injects a snappy phrase with every letter, like, “Love your Army.”
A swim meet in the southern city of Magnitogorsk featured adolescents diving into the pool wearing camouflage uniforms, while other competitors slung model Kalashnikov rifles across their backs.
“Snipers” was the theme adopted for math classes at an elementary school in central Russia, with paper stars enumerating would-be bullet holes on a target drawn on the chalkboard.
As the war in Ukraine rolls into its 16th month, educational programs across Russia are awash in lessons and extracurricular activities built around military themes and patriotism.
These efforts are part of an expansive Kremlin campaign to militarize Russian society, to train future generations to revere the army and to further entrench President Vladimir V. Putin’s narrative that “a real war has once again been unleashed on our motherland,” as he declared in a sober address at a ceremony last month.
The drumbeat of indoctrination essentially started with Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, but the full-scale invasion of Ukraine has accelerated it. The Ministry of Education and Science releases a constant stream of material, including step-by-step lesson plans and real-life examples — like a video of a student concert that used poetry, dance and theater to explain the history of Russian foreign intelligence.
“It includes all levels, from kindergarten to university,” said Daniil Ken, the head of the Alliance of Teachers, an independent Russian union, who works from voluntary exile. “They are trying to involve all these children, all students, directly in supporting the war.”
For years, Russia’s leaders sought to condition its citizens to accept Moscow’s leadership, partly by barring politics from schools. Now the Kremlin hopes to persuade the public to actively back the war effort, and when it comes to younger males, to fight.
Yet it also wants to avoid fanning too high a patriotic flame, lest it push Russians to start questioning the purpose of the war. Much the way Mr. Putin has refrained from enacting multiple conscriptions of soldiers to avert prompting antiwar sentiment, the Kremlin has left parents some leeway to avoid propaganda lessons.
In that, they may be hoping to avoid the disconnect that emerged in the Soviet era, when the education system portrayed the country as the land of Communist plenty, even as ordinary Russians could see that the shelves were bare.
“They want enthusiasm, but they realize if they push too hard it could galvanize an organized opposition,” said Alexandra Arkhipova, a social anthropologist who studies public reactions to the war. “They do not want people to protest.”
Interviews over the past month with sociologists, educators, parents and students, and a review of extensive material online posted by the schools themselves and by local news outlets, show a comprehensive government effort to bolster military-patriotic content through all 40,000 public schools in Russia.
The cornerstone of the initiative is a program called “Important Conversations,” started last September. Every Monday at 8 a.m., schools are supposed to hold an assembly to raise the Russian flag while the national anthem is played, and then convene an hourlong classroom session on topics like important milestones in Russian history.
The minister of education, Sergei Kravtsov, did not respond to written questions. When the program was introduced last fall, he told the official Tass news outlet, “We want the current generation of schoolchildren to grow up in completely different traditions, proud of their homeland.” Both an official Telegram channel and a website disseminate materials for the classroom.
“Important Conversations” has been supplemented by programs with names like “Lessons in Courage” or “Heroes Among Us.” Students have been encouraged to write poetry extolling the Motherland and the feats of Russian soldiers. Myriad videos show elementary school children reciting lines like, “All the crooks are fleeing Russia; they have a place to live in the West; gangsters, sodomites.”
Lessons draw heavily on earlier conflicts, particularly the Soviet Union’s success defeating Nazi Germany. Suggestions based on that earlier time sometimes seem antiquated, like encouraging students to knit socks for the troops.
“It is very theatrical,” said Ms. Arkhipova, the social anthropologist. “It serves as a kind of proof that the entire war is the right thing to do because it mirrors World War II.”
Countless schools have been renamed to honor dead soldiers, and memorials are rife. They include a “Hero’s Desk” in classrooms that often displays the picture of an alumnus who is supposed to be honored.
Veterans are trotted into classrooms frequently to detail their experiences. In late April in Dmitrov, a small city near Moscow, three soldiers addressed a roomful of students aged 10 to 15, some waving small Russian flags. A video of the session shows one fighter talking about wanting to protect his homeland against “fascist filth.”
Overall, however, there is no monolithic propaganda machine because the decision on how to implement “Important Conversations” has largely been left to local school administrators.
Some teachers take a hard ideological approach. A video posted by the Doxa news outlet showed a teacher demanding that students pump their fists in the air while singing a popular song called, “I Am Russian.” The teacher barks: “The thrust should be to the sky, to NATO.”
Other teachers do not even mention the war, particularly in places like Moscow, where many parents disapprove of attempts to indoctrinate their children.
Yuri Lapshin, formerly the student psychologist at an elite Moscow high school, said in an interview that while researching a paper, he found examples of unique interpretations of the program. One math teacher, for example, told students that the most important conversation in the world was about algebra, so he dedicated the class to that. On a day supposedly focused on the concept of “fatherland,” a biology teacher lectured about salmon spawning in the rivers where they hatched.
Even when the war lessons occur, they sometimes fall flat. At an assembly with two fighters, students from a St. Petersburg technical college basically mocked them. They questioned why fighting in another country meant they were defending Russia, and how God might view murdering others, according to a recording of the assembly. Administrators rebuked at least five students for their questions, local reports said.
Sasha Boychenko, 17, a high school senior, attended four “Important Conversations” sessions in Vladivostok last fall before her family left Russia. Bored students laughed at the historic displays, she recalled. “After the class, we wondered why we had come,” she said in an interview.
Alexander Kondrashev, a history teacher in Russia for 10 years, said he was awaiting a revised version of the textbooks this fall. An early copy obtained by the Mediazona news organization found one fundamental change; all references to Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, as the springboard for Russia as a Christian nation have been expunged.
“Nobody perceives ‘Important Conversations’ as learning something that will come in handy in life, like physics, math, geography or the knowledge from history lessons,” Mr. Kondrashev said in an interview.
Noncompliance takes various forms. The Alliance of Teachers advised parents that they can formally opt out of the classes, while some have their children show up late or call in sick on Mondays. Defiance makes certain parents nervous, experts said, especially given about a dozen cases where school officials reported on unenthusiastic parents or students.
A woman named Zarema, 47, said she worried about her three sons in school in Dagestan. While she sends her youngest son, a sixth grader, to the “Important Conversations” class, she told him never to engage politically. “We are all scared of everything here now,” she said, asking that her full name not be used while criticizing the war.
Russia has largely presented the war as an economic opportunity in poorer areas, while being far less aggressive in major cities.
“They are trying to target the people who have fewer resources,” Greg Yudin, a Russian sociologist doing research at Princeton University, said in an interview “They give you an option that promises money, status, benefits and in addition to that you will be a hero.” Even if they persuade only 20 percent of the youth to join the army, that is still a lot of brigades, he noted.
Toward that end, the Ministries of Education and Defense have announced that military training will be mandatory next year for 10th-grade students. Girls will learn battlefield first aid, while the boys will be instructed in drill formation and handling a Kalashnikov, among other skills.
At universities, the curriculum in the fall will include a mandatory course called “The Fundamentals of Russian Statehood.”
The course is still in development, Mr. Yudin noted, but he said that what details have emerged tended to echo Mr. Putin’s worldview of Russian exceptionalism and the idea that the battle waged against Western dominance for the past 1,000 years would continue for another 1,000.
“The single best possible way for them to get this society mobilized is to brainwash the young,” Mr. Yudin said.