Inside Putin’s attempts to indoctrinate Russia’s youth by encouraging ‘self-sacrifice’

In September, Russia rolled out new history textbooks in which it is claimed that Ukraine is an ‘ultranationalist state’  (Reuters)
In September, Russia rolled out new history textbooks in which it is claimed that Ukraine is an ‘ultranationalist state’ (Reuters)

Russian textbooks praising Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine are an attempt to encourage “self-sacrifice” among schoolchildren, experts have warned.

In September, Russia rolled out new history textbooks to schools that claim Ukraine is an “ultranationalist state” being used as a “battering ram” by the United States to “destroy Russia”.

One chapter claims that Ukrainian membership of Nato could have led to a catastrophic war and “possibly the end of civilisation”, an outcome it says Russia had to prevent.

Jaroslava Barbieri, an academic and the author of dozens of articles on Russian affairs, says the textbooks and lessons instructing children on how to use drones (UAVs) are all part of a wider plan.

“Patriotic education is nothing new,” Barbieri, a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham, tells The Independent. “But it has acquired new momentum under Putin. It is an attempt to indoctrinate the next generation, by equating patriotism to self-sacrifice.”

The textbook, which devotes 28 pages to Russia’s war in Ukraine, is also intended to convince children that Russia has “always been surrounded by enemies”, Barbieri says.

“It is about militarising the youth, making them believe they have always been surrounded by constant enemies and that they should serve the needs of the state,” she says.

In July, the Russian defence ministry approved plans for new lessons instructing schoolchildren on how to operate combat drones, assault rifles and hand grenades.

Deputy minister of defence Ruslan Tsalikov said the programme will include basic operating information and methods to counter enemy weapons, including UAVs.

The textbook is also intended to convince children that Russia has ‘always been surrounded by enemies’ (Reuters)
The textbook is also intended to convince children that Russia has ‘always been surrounded by enemies’ (Reuters)

Barbieri says this is evidence that the Kremlin has recognised the changing nature of warfare and Ukraine’s extensive use of commercial drones – and that such an approach contributes to the militarisation of society.

Katie Stallard, a global fellow at the Wilson Center think tank, says Putin has always been obsessed with history, and that the textbooks reflect his desire to have a firmer grip on Russia’s historical narrative.

“Mr Putin has poured government money into patriotic education and other so-called patriotic initiatives during his two decades in power,” she tells The Independent. “It has long been clear he was not just seeking to promote a glorious, idealised version of the Russian past, but to limit challenges to the official narratives so he can consolidate power.”

Between 2016 and 2020, Russia’s federal budget allocated about £18.5m to military-patriotic education, research shows.

Russian president Vladimir Putin signs autographs for schoolchildren earlier this month (EPA)
Russian president Vladimir Putin signs autographs for schoolchildren earlier this month (EPA)

The implementation of military-patriotic education is guided by the military, schools and clubs, research suggests.

“Control of the past has become a political priority as Mr Putin attempts to consolidate power in the present, particularly since his full-scale invasion of Ukraine,” Stallard adds.

But so far, the Kremlin’s indoctrination tactics have not led to “queues of would-be soldiers lining up outside recruitment offices”, she says.

“In fact, the opposite has happened, with the authorities tightening controls to make it harder for citizens to avoid military service. There is little evidence that this will make much difference to the Russian war effort in the short term by generating an outpouring of public support.”

In February 2022, an estimated 300,000 people fled Russia when its military invaded Ukraine. This number had increased to about 700,000 by the end of the year, some estimates suggest.

“Tighter education doesn’t mean Mr Putin will succeed and people will unquestionably believe what they read in their school history books.

“The Soviet approach did not succeed either. It was a population skilled in understanding the correct sentiments to voice in public, while voicing their dissatisfaction in private,” Stallard says.