Moscow’s war against neighboring Ukraine is increasingly finding its way into Russian schools, as schoolchildren and preschoolers have been recruited to publicly demonstrate support for the invasion.
In March, kindergartens and schools began posting various pro-war activities on social media in a mass campaign that gave every appearance of having been coordinated. The Latin letter Z, which has become the Kremlin’s unofficial symbol of support for the war and which has been lambasted by war critics as a “zwastika,” has appeared on school doors and windows. Photographs of letters written by students to Russian soldiers in Ukraine dotted social media.
In mid-March, students in the Karelian town of Elinsenvaara stood in the snow in the form of the Z symbol to mark the eighth anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region, many of them holding paper Russian flags.
“If the kids stand with the flag is that really bad?” the director of the school told RFE/RL. “It isn’t a fascist swastika…. Yes, it is supporting the army, but I think we have to support the army. We have to raise patriots.”
On March 31, the ruling United Russia party in Yoshkar-Ola, the capital of the Mari El Republic, posted that a national demonstration called For The Defenders Of The Fatherland was under way.
On March 23, students and preschoolers in the Irkutsk region village of Maisk were photographed marching in the snow in a “flash mob” called We Don’t Abandon Our Own.
The administration of the village of Glinkino in Siberia’s Omsk region wrote on March 29 that “inculcating patriotism is one of the most pressing problems of the present day.”
“In such a complicated time, the main thing for residents of our entire country is to be a united and steadfast people, to be together, to not abandon one’s fellow countrymen and our soldiers, who every day are demonstrating heroism and strength,” the administration wrote on the VK social media site. “Under the leadership of educator N.G. Poltavtseva, our kindergarteners drew pictures and created a newspaper called We Are For Russia!, and they also decorated the windows of their classroom.”
The posts are typically accompanied by a variety of hashtags featuring the Latin Z and the pro-war slogans promoted by Russian state media.
They also often tag the local branches of United Russia. In a school in St. Petersburg, a local United Russia deputy lectured students about “support for the actions of the president and the Russian Army” and “about the information war against Russia,” among other topics.
In the Baltic Sea port city of Kaliningrad, capital of Russia’s western Kaliningrad exclave, one of the largest Z logos appeared in recent days. The building of the Yunost sports center in the middle of the city was adorned by a two-story-high Z in the black-and-orange stripes of the St. George ribbon, a symbol that President Vladimir Putin’s government has promoted heavily in connection with the commemorations of the Soviet contributions to victory in World War II.
Students at School No. 3 in the same city were being taught a song that laid out the geographic boundaries of “the Russian land” as including such places as the Ukrainian cities of Odesa, Luhansk, and Donetsk; the Moldovan region of Transdniester; and the U.S. state of Alaska.
What should I write? ‘I’m really glad that you went off to kill people’?” one ninth-grader told RFE/RL.
“We don’t take foreign things, but we are taking back our own,” the lyrics run. “We know, we remember, we don’t forget, and we will defend our country from Alaska to the Kremlin.”
“I found the lyrics by chance,” said the mother of one student, who posted the song online. “My son didn’t say anything about it. To be honest, except for Moscow and Kaliningrad, he’d have a hard time naming any cities in Russia…. The children have been learning the song for a week. I think they are going to sing it as part of the Victory Day celebrations [on May 9].”
Some analysts have said Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to achieve an “announceable success” in Ukraine for the country’s traditional Victory Day parade on May 9.
Students in schools throughout the city have been pressed into the project of writing letters to Russian soldiers in Ukraine.
“What should I write? ‘I’m really glad that you went off to kill people’?” one ninth-grader told RFE/RL. “I asked what others were writing. They wrote what they had to write so that the teacher wouldn’t yell at them. They just found some similar texts on the Internet and copied them…. One girl just looked up synonyms for ‘heroic’ and used them all.”
I support the ‘special operation.’ I support my country. But I won’t give these assignments to my students. I don’t like hypocrisy, and that is exactly what this is.”
One teacher who works in the Kaliningrad region city of Baltiisk and who asked not to be identified said that she refused to ask her students to participate in the project.
“I support the ‘special operation,’” she said, using the Kremlin’s euphemism for the invasion of Ukraine. “I support my country. But I won’t give these assignments to my students. I don’t like hypocrisy, and that is exactly what this is. I don’t think children are capable of judging properly about such complicated matters. In fact, not all adults are either.”
Aleksandr Solomko’s 6-year-old son attends a school in St. Petersburg. Last week, Solomko said, the boy came home in tears and asked if Solomko and his wife, who are both in the military reserves, might be called up to fight in Ukraine.
“The next day, we went to the school and I saw that all the doors and windows were covered with propaganda images with the letter Z and various patriotic slogans,” Solomko said. “But the parents are silent, as if nothing is happening.”
“We decided to talk to the school director, who turned out to be quite a normal person,” he added. “She said she herself doesn’t really support the idea of giving propaganda to children. We had a normal conversation without scandal…. She promised to get rid of all the propaganda in a few days…. When we came back two days later, it was all gone.”
WATCH: A Current Time correspondent asked people on the streets of Moscow and Arkhangelsk what Russia had achieved after six weeks of war in Ukraine. Most repeated the Kremlin line, as they hear it on Russian media, but a few offered radically different answers.
St. Petersburg municipal deputy Valery Bovar has distributed a draft letter for parents to use to ask school directors to excuse their children from “participation in events aimed at supporting the armed forces…during the special military operation on the territory of the sovereign state of Ukraine.” The text of the letter details the provisions of the constitution and of the law on education and protection of personal information that such demonstrations violate.
In the western city of Pskov, local ambulance medic Ivan Vasilyev has asked the regional governor to introduce mandatory “basic military training” for students in the fifth through 10th grades. In his letter, Vasilyev noted that the Pskov region borders on “two NATO countries” — Estonia and Latvia — and that the region is “Russia’s outpost on the border with NATO.”
Pskov Oblast Governor Mikhail Vedernikov has promised to study Vasilyev’s proposal.
Written by Robert Coalson based on reporting by RFE/RL’s North.Realities.