As Moscow’s war against Ukraine rages on, children at schools across Russia can expect to see significant changes to the academic curriculum starting in September — alterations with a militaristic bent.
At a discussion in the lower house of parliament late last month, State Duma Deputy Andrei Kartapolov lamented what he said was the unpreparedness of young volunteers and conscripts joining the Russian military.
“They are infantile youths,” said Kartapolov, a member of the Kremlin-controlled United Russia party who chairs the Duma Defense Committee, “who in many respects are not prepared for real life.”
Over the next two years, Russian schools will address this purported issue by scrapping its long-standing program called Fundamentals Of Safe Living and replacing it with a block of lectures with the working title Fundamentals Of Safety And Defense Of The Homeland.
It is the latest intensification of the thread of “patriotic education” that has run through Russia in Vladimir Putin’s more than two decades as president or prime minister — and that many critics say prioritizes the goals of the government over the interests of children.
Beginning with the new school year in September, students in 10th grade will be taught the “elements of basic military preparedness.” In addition to drills and instruction in basic military skills, it will also include lectures on the “career prospects” of military service, according to textbooks and teacher’s manuals that have been officially posted online.
In 11th grade, such lessons will continue with “the formation of Russian civic identity, patriotism, and a sense of responsibility toward one’s homeland,” as well as the development of “conviction and readiness for service and defense of the Fatherland and a sense of responsibility about its fate.”
Other lecture topics to be covered include “the danger of being lured into illegal and antisocial activity” and “the use of young people as a tool for destabilization.”
Students will also be warned about what the documents call the danger of “fakes as an element of information warfare.” Instructors will tell students that “it is illegal to violate norms about the distribution of information about the role of the U.S.S.R. during World War II or to commit public acts aimed at discrediting the armed forces of the Russian Federation.”
In the wake of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the government hastily adopted a series of laws criminalizing the knowing distribution of “false information” about Russian military operations and “discrediting” the Russian armed forces. In February, 18-year-old Maksim Lypkan was sentenced to two months in jail for repeated anti-war statements and actions, becoming the youngest Russian convicted under the new laws.
Two Types Of Hand Grenades
The new block of lectures replaces a Soviet-era innovation called Fundamentals Of Safe Living that was introduced in the 1980s following a spate of accidents, most notably the Chernobyl nuclear-plant disaster in 1986. Over the years, the course of weekly lectures — 68 hours per academic year — was modified to include sections on emerging threats such as terrorism and cybercrime.
The current version includes lectures on reducing the risk of terrorist attacks, ways of remaining safe in large crowds, and fundamentals of online safety. It also includes a lecture on the “symbols and traditions” of the Russian military.
The new course will also include basic first aid, but other topics will be replaced by “basic military preparedness,” including the maintenance and operation of the Kalashnikov automatic rifle and two types of hand grenades. The program is similar to the basic military training taught in schools during the Soviet period that was canceled in 1993.
In comments to the state news agency TASS last month, Education Minister Sergei Kravtsov said the changes will be introduced “gradually.”
In January, Kravtsov said the new courses could be taught by veterans of the “special military operation” in Ukraine, using the Kremlin’s mandatory euphemism for the war of aggression against Kyiv. Former soldiers would undergo three months of pedagogical training before being assigned to classrooms, he said.
The Fundamentals Of Safety And Defense Of The Homeland program is the latest in a series of similar developments in Russian schools under Putin. Since 2014, the Education Ministry has recommended that schools organize five-day military camps for all 10th-grade boys — and girls, on a voluntary basis — to be held, if possible, at a nearby military base.
The purpose of the camps is “to form the moral, psychological, and physical qualities necessary for service in the armed forces.” Students learn how to dig trenches, march in formation, shoot, throw grenades, move around a battlefield, and cope with battlefield injuries.
The idea for such camps was originally proposed jointly by the Defense and Education ministries in 2010. This past February, as the full-scale war against Ukraine entered its second year with no sign of a quick resolution on the horizon, parents of children in many schools were informed that participation in the camps was now mandatory.
Beginning in September, the Defense and Education ministries have proposed the camps be conducted by Avangard, a lavishly funded Defense Ministry “center for the military-patriotic education of young people” after many schools complained that no military bases were available.
Avangard runs a large, modern campus outside of Moscow, where military veterans, including many fresh from the war in Ukraine, serve as instructors. It conducts five-day camps similar to those mandated for schools, but on a commercial basis.
The center has already opened similar facilities in the Perm region, in Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s home region of Chuvashia, and outside St. Petersburg. The regional government of the Chelyabinsk region in the Ural Mountains, has allocated more than $7 million over two years to build an Avangard training center there.
‘It’s Not Scary To Die For The Motherland’
For the 2022-23 academic year, Russian schools introduced weekly lectures for students of all levels called “Important Conversations.” The program, which was launched by Putin during a visit to a school in Kaliningrad, was designed to inculcate patriotism and to present to students the Kremlin’s version of events in Ukraine and other political matters. Children at the lower levels get lessons on Russia’s natural wonders, interspersed with patriotic messages such as, “Love your motherland” and, “It’s not scary to die for the motherland.”
In 2024, the Education Ministry will introduce a new social-studies textbook, Kravtsov said at a forum in May.
“The current textbook was, to say the least, liberal or pseudo-liberal,” Kravtsov said. “Now we will stress the real and immutable values of society.”
He added that mathematics, physics, and geography textbooks would also be reworked with the new ethos in mind. Earlier, he said that new history textbooks for the 11th grade would include a chapter on the war in Ukraine.
In April, the Duma quietly and unanimously adopted in all three readings amendments to the law on military service that would allow people as young as 18 to sign contracts to serve in the military. Previously, volunteers had to complete a technical education or academic degree to sign up, meaning that contract soldiers younger than 20 were rare, even though Putin reduced the minimum age to 18 in May 2022.
When Duma Deputy Kartapolov, who described Russian school graduates as “infantile,” first proposed the amendments in 2022, Deputy Nina Ostanina, head of the Committee on Families, Women, and Children, expressed her opposition, saying the proposal left “schoolchildren who want to make money immediately simply defenseless.”
According to Russian media reports, the government has set the goal of signing up 400,000 new volunteer soldiers.
“The goal has been set and now they are purging the law of all obstacles to concluding contracts on military service,” human rights activist Sergei Krivenko told the BBC’s Russian Service.