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The Return Of Groupthink In Russian Classrooms

For years, Vladimir Putin’s regime has been pushing its agenda into schools. With the start of the invasion of Ukraine, the pressure on the education system has intensified on a massive scale. Here's a peek inside the means of control over students' minds.

Photo of a student facing a whiteboard in a classroom

Secondary school student in a classroom in Ivanovo, Russia

Pavel Lokshin

MOSCOW — In Vladimir Putin’s Russia, even a 12-year-old can become a dissident. That’s what happened to one Moscow sixth-grader named Kirill. During a history lesson in early March, he asked his teacher why Putin started the war and when it would end.

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It would end with the surrender of Ukraine, the teacher said, because fascism ruled in Kyiv. Kirill expressed doubts about the response; and a few days later, police officers knocked on the family’s apartment door to issue a summons. The case was reported by independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta.

In the Russian republic of Dagestan, a schoolgirl shouted “No to war” into the microphone at her graduation ceremony and called Putin a “devil.” Within hours, under pressure from authorities, she released an apology video and retracted her statements.

Patriotic education

In Penza, students sued a teacher who had criticized the war in a private conversation, calling Russia “a rogue state, a North Korea.” The teacher is now accused of “spreading fakes about Russia’s armed forces” and faces up to 10 years in prison.

The three cases exemplify the changes that the war has brought to Russia’s education system. It is not just a matter of the atmosphere of mistrust when pupils and students, teachers and lecturer snitch on each other, but of structural changes to the entire system.

For years, the Putin regime has been pressing its agenda into schools. Until now, there have been gaps; now, those gaps are obliged to disappear.

“Patriotism” can be used to explain that Russia’s new war in Ukraine has no alternative.

In the latest version of the Russian educational standard FGOS, which prescribes the content of textbooks and teaching programs, the item “patriotic education” appeared for the first time. The new version was already adopted last summer and is now convenient for the Russian state: “patriotism” can be used to explain that Russia’s new war in Ukraine has no alternative.

Diktats for teachers

The Ministry of Education showed how this can be done at the beginning of March, just a few days after the war began. A lesson was held in all schools in the country in which teachers justified the war in Ukraine for their students. They were given a manual of questions and answers in advance, which discussed the alleged "fascism and Nazism" in Ukraine and the hostile West – a manual for propaganda in the classroom. Such handouts for subjects such as history, social studies or literature are now commonplace, more than three months after the start of the war.

At the same time, there is a clear message to any principals or teachers who might have fought for freedom or taught their students to be free and think for themselves: Your obstinacy borders on treason. Russia’s independent teachers’ union “Teachers” has registered more and more cases of political pressure on colleagues in recent months.

Editors at the traditional publishing house ‘Enlightenment’, which has been active since the Soviet era, have received instructions from their bosses to keep mentions of Kyiv and Ukraine in textbooks to a minimum, the online magazine “Mediazona” reported. “We are faced with the task of pretending that Ukraine is not even there,” an editor was quoted as saying anonymously.

Secondary school graduates celebrate end of school in Stavropol

Secondary school graduates celebrate end of school in Stavropol, Russia

Ivan Vysochinsky/TASS/ZUMA

Baptism of Kyiv

Any reference to independent Ukrainian statehood must be suppressed in new textbooks. Kievan Rus', the medieval forerunner state of Ukraine and Russia, must simply become Rus. When it comes to Christianization in 988, there should no longer be talk of the “baptism of Kyiv” by Prince Vladimir, but of the “baptism if the capital.”

In this mood, suddenly everything is possible. Starting in the new school year, “historical enlightenment” will be taught in Russia from the very first grade as part of the elementary school subjects “My Environment” and “Fundamentals of Religious Cultures and Secular Ethics,” in line with the state’s view of Russian history.

In addition, the national anthem will be played, and the Russian flag will be raised at the beginning of the school week. The government is providing one billion rubles ($17 million) for the purchase of state symbols such as flags and coats of arms.

University rectors support the invasion

Russia’s universities are also being brought into line. For years, students have been pressured or expelled for voicing opposition views. Today, it is enough to take a stand against the war in Ukraine. More than 250 rectors of Russian universities of Russian universities have made it clear to their students what attitude is desired.

An education system in the interests of the national economy.

In an open letter, they supported the war and called for the “denazification” of Ukraine. Among them was Nikita Anisimov, rector of Moscow’s elite Higher School of Economics, long considered a haven of liberalism in the Russian education system. Anisimov’s university has abolished the “Human Rights and Democratic Administration” major, and Moscow State University has abolished the “Political Journalism” course.

The ”educational function” is also close to Putin’s heart, and wants to transform universities back into isolated systems like in Soviet times. He recently decreed that the Ministry of Education should withdraw from the European Bologna process that aligns degrees across borders.

Education Minister Valery Falkov says Russia needs its “own unique education system” based on “the interests of the national economy,” he said. The future of bachelor’s and master’s degree programs at Russian universities is therefore uncertain, and the achievements of Russian students will thus no longer be internationally recognized.

This means that future studies at European universities will become more difficult, as will the recognition of Russian degrees abroad. In this way, Moscow wants to stop the emigration of highly qualified people. The Russian upper house of parliament said that the Bologna system is nothing more than a “vacuum cleaner” that sends “smart people: from Russia to unfriendly states.”

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