By Kseniya Kirillova, for Jamestown Foundation
The Russian authorities have seriously embraced the ideological indoctrination of children through “patriotic propaganda” to guarantee their unwavering loyalty as adults. Meanwhile, psychologists point out that Russian society embraces numerous circumstances in which even those who do not wish to go to war do so anyways.
The 2022–2023 academic year was marked by several innovations in Russian schools. To begin with, from now on, the school week will start with the raising of the national flag and singing of the national anthem. In addition, on Mondays, teachers are required to conduct so-called “talks about what is important.” The authors of the program make no secret of the fact that students will be told, among other things, “about the special military operation as a manifestation of true patriotism.” The materials reflect the goals of the so-called “special military operation” repeatedly voiced by propaganda and emphasize that “truly patriotic people are ready to defend their homeland with weapons in hand” (Mel.fm, August 28).
This is not the first time the Russian authorities have planned to involve children in the war they unleashed against Ukraine. In 2021, a member of the Russian State Duma, previously imprisoned in the United States for acting as an unregistered foreign agent, Maria Butina, proposed “viewing all school education through the prism of the special military operation” and teaching schoolchildren “profiling” so they can be on the lookout for terrorists (Vk.com, August 18).
However, Russian propagandists themselves admit that attempts to rationally explain to children the necessity of this war has been met with little success. Thus, in the words of former spy Andrey Bezrukov, a sense of patriotism must be formed subconsciously before age 7 so as not to be shaken by any logical arguments (YouTube, August 30).
At the same time, psychologists note that the inhabitants of Russia, even without the Kremlin’s version of patriotism, possess a number of subconscious attitudes that make them susceptible to propaganda. On the one hand, statistics reveal that approximately 700,000 people left Russia in the two weeks following the mobilization announcement (Forbes.ru, October 4). On the other, even some of those who previously held dissident views or at least justified claims against the Russian authorities have agreed to go to war.
For example, Vyacheslav Murakhtaev, son of the tragically deceased Nizhny Novgorod–based opposition journalist Irina Slavina, announced his desire to volunteer for the front. Slavina, who was harassed by the Russian security services for years, set herself on fire in October 2020, blaming the “Russian Federation.” Afterward, her son, along with his sister, picketed the city center carrying a banner reading: “While my mother was burning alive, you were silent” (Bbc.com/russian, October 5, 2020).
Nevertheless, two years after his mother’s death, Murakhtaev declared that, despite his disagreement with the policies of Russian President Vladimir Putin, he still decided to go to combat as a volunteer because he believed it was necessary to fight for a just cause (Newsnn.ru, October 14). Another victim of the Putin regime who resignedly went to war was actor Pavel Ustinov, previously convicted for participating in the 2019 protest rallies in Moscow. Ustinov was sentenced to three and a half years in prison, but after a broad public campaign in his defense, the sentence was commuted to one year of probation. Upon receiving the summons, Ustinov announced that he was ready to go to the front, because “there is no other way out,” and “if the war comes to our house, it will be too late” (Meduza, October 28).
Those who follow Kremlin propaganda note that, in Russian history and culture, the predisposition to submit to “war psychosis” is quite pervasive. In particular, political scientist and analyst of Russian propaganda Vladimir Pastukhov suggests that Russian culture is receptive to “viruses” from the cult of raw power inasmuch as the country has experienced numerous periods plagued by rampant violence (YouTube, October 26). Thus, only four years ago, researchers noted that the state’s reliance on “traditional values” provokes a cult of violence and aggression in Russian society (Novaya gazeta, December 18, 2018).
Former political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky adds that the overwhelming majority of Russian society is infantile and accustomed to trusting their ultimate fate to the central ruler—in this case Putin (YouTube, October 19). In fact, studies conducted by the Higher School of Economics in 2017 showed that most Russians rely solely on the state. As part of the studies, 80 percent of Russians believed that the state should set food prices. 66 percent were ready to entrust healthcare only to the state and more than 50 percent trusted the state to carry out many other basic social functions (Gazeta.ru, June 28, 2017).
Russian culture is indeed characterized by the heightened role of the state and a cult of sacrifice for the sake of the country, which is actively used by Russian propagandists. Pro-government experts openly state that the key to victory is the Russian people’s sacrifice and idealization of the struggle (Expert.ru, 26 July). Additionally, the cult of self-sacrifice implanted throughout many generations gives rise to the phenomenon of the “ban on happiness,” in which people do not allow themselves to enjoy a normal life until they fulfill what they consider to be their civic duty. Thus, an individual psychological dependence on fulfilling the requirements of the state is born. Propaganda plays on this increased sense of duty as much as possible, convincing the population that, in the event of a defeat, Russia will be destroyed, and therefore, it has no other choice but an absolute military victory (RIA Novosti, October 6).
Infantilism in Russian society has been caused by objective circumstances. In a country where lawlessness prevails and protection mechanisms, such as the police, press or courts, do not function properly, the Russian people fully understand how much their lives depend on the state and other authorities capable of protecting them. Psychologists working with those who have been mobilized note that, even those who do not want to fight, are still going to war because they “were raised in a paternalistic culture.” In their words, at every stage it is hard for those mobilized to disobey the orders of those in authority and betray public opinion (Currenttime.tv, October 27).
Nevertheless, the hope remains that in Russian culture, in addition to the habit of relying on the state and obeying its orders, the tradition of resistance and partisan struggle will soon be reawakened and that eventually this historical archetype will soon find expression in today’s Russian Federation.
By Kseniya Kirillova, for Jamestown Foundation