Written by Matt Wickham & Volodymyr Solovian HWAG/UCMC
Since the full-scale invasion began, Russia has wasted no time rolling out a series of controversial legislative changes that were once mere talking points pushed by Russian propaganda, however back then, never taken seriously.
UCMC analysts recently took a closer look at one such change – the ‘revamped’ 11th-grade Russian history textbook. With its factual inaccuracies, the textbook distorts the events of the 21st century, Putin’s presidency, and the events leading up to the “Special Military Operation,” (what every other international law-abiding state calls a full-scale and genocidal war against Ukraine). To further the analysis of how Russia uses education as a means of indoctrination of the youth to the government’s agenda, we examined the revival of the “НВП” (Начальная военная подготовка – Initial Military Training, IMT)
With the re-introduction of the IMT in schools it is clear that Russia has returned to Soviet era methods to create uniformity, control and early integration of the state’s values among the most vulnerable of minds – the youth. The aim – to mold school children into obedient Russian subjects and future soldiers who will, without resistance, willingly go to the frontlines of future Russia-created conflicts as cannon-fodder.
This article examines the issue of the militarization of school education in Russia, framing it as a significant experiment conducted by the Putin regime to influence the minds of children.
Russia’s Youth Initiatives to Hitler’s Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth)
Russia’s youth indoctrination is not unique. It is a method used by all dictatorial regimes. For example, Mao Zedong’s Red Guards in China sought to eliminate “counter-revolutionaries” and to eradicate traditional Chinese culture. North Korea’s Kimilsungist-Kimjongilist Youth League was instrumental in shaping the state’s ideology and cultivating a personality cult centered on the ruling Kim family. And in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge brutally enslaved children, subjecting them to arduous labor, indoctrination, and propaganda in order to eradicate traditional culture and impose radical communist beliefs.
Russia’s approach to shaping youth values carries many resemblances to Hitlerjugend – Germany’s Nazi Party youth organization. The Hitlerjugend, founded on July 4, 1926, main goal was to indoctrinate German youth with Nazi ideology, instill loyalty to the Führer and the government’s values, and prepare them for future military service. Hitler Youth members attended mass rallies, listened to Hitler’s speeches, and consumed Nazi literature and media in schools…sound familiar?
Like Hitlerjugend, Russia’s youth initiatives aim to shape the beliefs and values of the younger generation. Additionally, Western critics have dubbed the organization “Putinjugend” (meaning “Putin Youth”) due to their intentional likeness to the Soviet Komsomol or the Hitler Youth.
Both Russia’s and Hitler’s youth movements involve: attending rallies of a specific political nature, fostering loyalty to the leadership, and absorbing propaganda as a means of education.
Putinjugend: from pro-government activism to an army of schoolchildren
Like the Hitler Youth, Russia previously launched several youth initiatives. ‘Nashi,’ (Ours – Russian) and the ‘Young Army’ (Юнармия) were created to promote national pride and loyalty to the Russian state, with loyalty being the main focus.
The initiative of ideological work with youth was the Kremlin’s response to the 2004-05 Orange Revolution in Ukraine. “Nashi” was founded in 2005 by ex-“gray cardinal” of the Kremlin, Vladyslav Surkov, who held the positions of the first deputy head of the administration and Putin’s assistant in 2000-12, and later became the curator of the occupied territories of Ukraine’s Donbas. The movement is best-known for its ‘anti-orange’ campaigns against opposition.However, against the backdrop of the protest movement in Russia in 2010-13, the Kremlin lost interest in Nashi. The regime relied on forceful suppression of dissent and depoliticization of public consciousness, so the ideologists of the authorities shut down the project.
In terms of military and political education, Putin’s regime became “interested” in the younger generation again around the turn of 2015-16. Domestic political competition had been completely suppressed by that point, and the Russian leadership began to focus more on creating the myth of the ‘second army in the world’ in order to demonstrate its geopolitical ambitions. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu created the youth army (Юнармия) movement. This member of Putin’s royal family has always been known for his penchant for self-promotion and praising his own department.
One of the minister’s facade projects has become the youth army. “We really want you to be proud of the exploits of your fathers and grandfathers, so that you can be ready to complete a big serious step in your life – serving our country,” Shoigu said at the Youth Army’s first congress in 2016. One of the organization’s goals, according to its official website, is to “develop the readiness and practical ability of young people to serve in the military.”
The Main Intelligence Directorate of Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense reported in March 2022 that youth army members could be involved in hostilities against Ukraine. It has now been established that members of the movement are involved in the assembly of UAVs for the Russian army’s needs, as well as in propaganda activities in support of the so-called “SMO.”
Last year, specialized detachments, Unavia (Юнавиа) and Unflot (Юнфлот), were established to recruit children for the air force and navy, respectively. Thousands of members of the youth army are taking part in the aggression against Ukraine, and tens of thousands from today will be recruited for the Kremlin regime’s current and future wars.
It is worth noting that, more than 500,000 children aged 8 to 18 are currently members of the youth army. Only total control, however, can satisfy the Kremlin’s appetite. As a result, Putin’s Russia’s ideologues have adopted the concept of producing tomorrow’s recruits on an industrial scale – namely, at a school desk.
The concept of “IMT” was a cornerstone of the Soviet educational system, primarily aimed at preparing young citizens for military service. However Russia scrapped the subject in 1993, two years after the collapse of the USSR.
Now, after Russia’s full-scale invasion and military failures in Ukraine, this discipline has returned to post full-scale-invasion-of-Ukraine Russia. It places an emphasis on the physical, practical and ideological components of military training in order to prepare the youth as rookie-soldiers, ready to, when called up, go to war. This method is the Russia states’ response to recruitment challenges, catastrophic military losses in Ukraine, and a likely protracted war.
It’s worth noting, however, that this subject in schools is not exclusive only to Russia. Many countries, particularly post-soviet states, have implemented similar programs in response to regional security threats. For instance, Kyrgyzstan offers “Аскердик Тақырыби” (Military Studies) and Azerbaijan’s, “Hərbi-patriotik təhsil” (Military-Patriotic Education), and the subject “Defence of Ukraine” was introduced in in 2023 Ukraine.
However, the fundamental distinctions between Russia’s military subject and Ukraine’s are rooted in both intent and participation. Ukraine’s approach centers on educating students about Ukrainian history, culture, and democratic values. This subject was reinterpreted to the Ukrainian curriculum after Russia’s invasion of Donbas and Crimea in 2014. It carries a defensive nature with the primary objective to reinforce national identity, resilience, and unity, particularly in response to combat the influence of Russian propaganda.
In contrast, Russia’s updated curriculum is designed to prepare youth for practical military service, focusing on the pragmatic aspects of warfare: Weapon handling, Shooting Skills, First Aid Training, Drone Flying and Nuclear Catastrophe Response.
Moreover, Armen Martoyan, Puppet Deputy of the State Council of (Occupied) Crimea, underscored the urgency of the reintroduction of these military disciplines, telling how, “Our kids now being sent to fight are practically unprepared. But in the Soviet era, there was military training, and the soldiers knew how to shoot.” This statement, along with the contents of the course confirms its real intent – to mitigate the loss on the front lines, creating an army which will have very basic skills of an infantry soldier that can be sent to war.
The Revival of Military Training
In 2008, to address the Russian armed forces’ deficiencies highlighted during the Russo-Georgian War, Russia began its reform to modernize. It involved the transition from a conscript-based force to one of a more professional (they hoped) nature, as well as the upgrading of outdated equipment. Therefore, while opting for a different route, calls for the reintroduction of IMT into schools faded.
After the harsh realization that this method failed (after colossal personnel and equipment losses, etc,) Russian politicians, embarrassed by the state and failure of its armed forces, resorted back to the only alternative it knew – its pre-21st century, soviet-era method of youth military education (IMT).
This renewed program is Russia’s answer to the current challenges, a proactive measure to prepare a significant portion of the coming-of-military-age population for military service. However, it remains unclear how much genuine military competence these courses then provided and now can provide to future (unknown to them and their parents) draftees.
Moreover, State Duma Deputy and Russian Propagandist Andrey Gurulev suggested modernizing the IMT’s practical component – teaching children how to operate drones, was approved. The government aims to train 40 thousand students by 2025 and 180 thousand by 2030.
Anna Timofeeva, Deputy Director of the Department of State Policy and Management in the Ministry of Education and Science, told of the initial steps which strengthened the state’s control over the curriculum and its reform. This included the formation of a ‘working group’ composed of representatives from the Ministries of Defense and Emergency Situations. Sergey Kravsov, Russia’s Minister of Education, confirmed that so-called SMO soldiers would also play a significant role in this process, telling how their participation can “provide unique insights into what’s really going on.” Direct involvement of military personnel and government bodies are now, therefore, systematically used to manipulate the youths’ worldview to align with the state’s agenda as part of the IMT subject.
Russian state officials present the new curriculum as a response to contemporary challenges. They emphasize its importance for national defense and countering perceived “western propaganda” which ‘influences’ the youth. However, beneath this façade lies a more insidious agenda, drawing upon classic indoctrination techniques seen in the tactics of past authoritarian regimes.
The deployment of Russian propaganda methods, including fear-mongering and appeals to patriotism, is evident as propagandists seek to silence dissent and impose compliance with the curriculum changes. This approach underlines a sense of vulnerability within the Russian state following its military setbacks in Ukraine.
One noteworthy aspect of this development is the Russian Federation’s inability to introduce new and inspiring elements to its educational approach, instead, it relies on recycled ideologies. This shift reveals the Kremlin’s determination to mold young minds into obedient subjects and fast-tracked soldiers, as well as a recognition of its past military failures. The broader objective is to further consolidate the government’s control over society, utilizing pro-government military-patriotic organizations to permeate the entire educational system and shape the values and loyalties of the younger generation.