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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

"Save Us From Nazis," Indoctrination Stamped On Student Letters To Russian Troops

In the Ukrainian city of Izium, Russian troops left behind more than destruction, mass graves and testimony of torture. After their hasty withdrawal in early September, Ukrainians found traces of the regime's propaganda indoctrinating school children.

Photo of remains of a Russian camp in Izium

Remains of Russian camp in forest near Izium

Francesca Mannocchi

IZIUM — We've spent the last few days in this strategically important city northeastern Ukraine, visiting some of the buildings used by the Russians as prisons and places of torture. One particular building in Izium had served as an administration center, which became a jail during the occupation. Today, it's been partly reduced to rubble.

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The presence of Russian troops is still visible on the military vehicles marked with “Z”, symbol of the “special military operation.” There are also the remains of soldiers' food rations, boots, uniforms, all abandoned before the Ukrainian counteroffensive liberated almost the entire Kharkiv region in just a few days.

But perhaps most interestingly, we found boxes full of the letters that Russian students of all grades had sent to their soldiers to keep their morale high.

Citizens of Izium told us that they began to realize that something was going on when Russian soldiers imposed a 24-hour curfew, broke into homes, and demanded male clothing to try to escape by posing as civilians, some on foot, some by hiding in the woods, and some by stealing bicycles from local people.

Before leaving, they destroyed the buildings they were using as administrative offices, set fire to the headquarters of the local government they had appointed and to their military vehicles, and blew up a bridge connecting the two banks of Izyum, which is crossed by the Donets River.

Evidence of Russian propaganda

Inside the building we visited, which used to serve as a prison during the occupation, there were dozens of letters scattered on the ground and several boxes of still unopened cards. The local police authorities who regained control of the city gave us the opportunity to read, examine and translate some of them. They had been sent from Russia to the soldiers along with supplies of fuel, food and ammunition.

Among the rubble and dust were drawings made by elementary school children, letters from middle and high school students, and writings from college students attending engineering and medical schools.

In their letters, the youngest children encouraged the troops to “liberate Ukraine from the Nazis and the terrorists,” adding, evidently under dictation, that it is “sad and depressing that Russia and Ukraine were forced by NATO and the U.S. to kill each other.”

Such letters are a clear example of how the Kremlin is pushing its narrative in Russian schools, muddying the truth and manipulating history.

Photo of a drawing found in a school praising Russia's invasion

Drawings found in schools showing propaganda

Francesca Mannocchi

Moscow's educational handbook

But that’s nothing new: on Feb. 28, just four days after the beginning of the invasion, the independent Russian website Mediazona published a handbook circulated to teachers with instructions on how to talk about the “special military operation” according to the age of the students. It featured mock questions and answers for children aged 6 to 10 and 12 to 16, and instructions to be followed in social sciences colleges to report any rebellious, anti-war students.

This is from the handbook circulated in schools called “Events in Ukraine” (7th-8th grades):

“Teacher: We are witnessing the events of modern history. But the events that are happening now have a long history behind them. The state of Ukraine did not exist on the world map until the 20th century. It appeared in 1917 after the revolution in Russia and soon became part of the Soviet Union. Later, Novorossiya (Donetsk and Luhansk) was annexed to it and, after the Great Patriotic War, the Western regions as well.

But unfortunately, in 2014 there was an unconstitutional and bloody coup d'état on the territory of Ukraine, during which many innocent people died, a pro-American government came to power and external control was established.

Russia has made and is still making efforts to peacefully resolve all these difficult and tragic events, but unfortunately, neither the authorities in Kyiv nor the Western community are abiding by the previously concluded agreements. On the contrary, they are strengthening Ukraine's military power by helping with weapons and specialists, and deploying information campaigns to incite anti-Russian policy.”

Photo of a drawing found in a school praising Russia's invasion

Drawings of a tank found in schools demonstrating Russian propaganda

Francesca Mannocchi

Patriotism in schools

By March, the letter “Z” had appeared everywhere on school doors and windows. Kindergartens and primary schools had begun posting on social media images of activities organized in support of the “special operation” as part of a mass campaign with children as protagonists.

“Patriotic education” has been one of the pillars of Putin’s Russia since 2005. But now, with the war of aggression in Ukraine and the difficulties that the country is going through internally, the Kremlin is putting even more emphasis on “patriotism” in schools.

Two months ago, as a new school year began, the Ministry of Education launched a compulsory weekly lesson entitled “important conversations” to explain the “peace operation in Ukraine” in schools of all grades and to support the soldiers fighting in Ukraine, depicted as “examples of genuine patriotism.”

Mandatory activities include drawing and writing letters to be sent to soldiers in Ukraine, such as the ones we found in Izyum.

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My Wife, My Boyfriend — And Grandkids: A Careful Coming Out For China's Gay Seniors

A series of interviews in Wuhan with aging gay men — all currently or formerly married to women — reveals a hidden story of how Chinese LGBTQ culture is gradually emerging from the shadows.

Image of two senior men playing chinese Checkers.

A friendly game of Checkers in Dongcheng, Beijing, China.

Wang Er

WUHAN — " What do you think of that guy sitting there, across from us? He's good looking."

" Then you should go and talk to him."

“ Too bad that I am old..."

Grandpa Shen was born in 1933. He says that for the past 40 years, he's been "repackaged," a Chinese expression for having come out as gay. Before his wife died when he was 50, Grandpa Shen says he was was a "standard" straight Chinese man. After serving in the army, he began working in a factory, and dated many women and evenutually got married.

"Becoming gay is nothing special, I found it very natural." Grandpa Shen says he discovered his homosexuality at the Martyrs' Square in Wuhan, a well-known gay men's gathering place.

✉️ You can receive our LGBTQ+ International roundup every week directly in your inbox. Subscribe here.

Wuhan used to have different such ways for LGBTQ+ to meet: newspaper columns, riversides, public toilets, bridges and baths to name but a few. With urbanization, many of these locations have disappeared. The transformation of Martyrs' Square into a park has gradually become a place frequented by middle-aged and older gay people in Wuhan, where they play cards and chat and make friends. There are also "comrades" (Chinese slang for gay) from outside the city who come to visit.

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