A Russian schoolboy photographed handling a rifle as part of new military training. (Credit: Russia Horizontal/Telegram)
(CNN) -- Russia's playgrounds are being turned into parade grounds. In schools, from the Pacific to the Black Sea, kindergarten children dress in uniforms and participate in walking practices. Older children are taught to dig trenches, throw grenades and shoot with live ammunition.
Schools across the country glorify service in the armed forces, form "volunteer companies" of teenagers, and change the national curriculum to emphasize homeland defense.
In short, Russian children are being prepared for war.
The militarization of Russian public schools has intensified since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, driven not by a spontaneous wave of patriotic sentiment, but by the government in Moscow.
The investment is huge. Education Minister Sergei Kravtsov recently said that there are currently about 10,000 clubs of the so-called "military-patriotic" in Russian schools and universities, and a quarter of a million people participate in their work.
These clubs are part of a multi-pronged effort that includes a radical overhaul of the school curriculum. There are mandatory classes on military patriotic values; Up-to-date history books accentuate Russian military triumphs.
In August, President Vladimir Putin signed a law introducing a new compulsory course in schools: "Fundamentals of Security and Defense of the Fatherland."
Subsequently, the Ministry of Education promoted courses as part of this initiative that included excursions to military units, "military-sports games, meetings with military and veterans" and classes on drones.
High school students would also be taught to use live ammunition "under the guidance of officers or instructors from military units experienced exclusively in the line of fire," according to the ministry.
The program, which is being tested this year and will be introduced in 2024, is designed to instill in students "an understanding and acceptance of the aesthetics of military uniforms, military rituals and combat traditions," according to an Education Ministry document uncovered by major Russian independent media outlet Stories.
Russian state media RIA Novosti shows photographs from a new history book with a chapter on the "special military operation," as Russia calls its war on Ukraine. (Credit: RIA Novosti/Telegram)
Modern history is also being rewritten. The standard textbook, "History of Russia," now has the Crimean Bridge on its cover and a new chapter devoted to Ukraine's recent history. There are sections titled "Falsification of History," "Revival of Nazism," "Ukrainian Neo-Nazism," and "Russia is a Country of Heroes."
Putin has repeatedly falsely presented the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a "special mission" to protect Russian-language speakers in Ukraine from genocide at the hands of "neo-Nazis."
A new chapter falsely claims that Ukraine "openly declared its desire to acquire nuclear weapons" and "unprecedented sanctions have been introduced against Russia, as the West is trying by all means to bring down the Russian economy."
The book seems designed to stoke a sense of historical grievance among Russian children and expose an existential battle for the nation's survival, a common theme in state media that airs daily in living rooms across the country.
President Putin has personally led the campaign to inject patriotism into Russian schools. At an event in the Kremlin this month, he told a group of children about a letter his grandfather had sent to his father, who was fighting the Nazis during World War II.
"Beat the scum!" he had told her, according to Putin's account.
Putin continued: "I realized why we won the Great Patriotic War. People with that attitude simply cannot be defeated. We were absolutely invincible, just as we are now."
Children are taught to assemble weapons
An extensive survey conducted by CNN on local and social media in Russia found that children as young as seven or eight receive basic military training.
In July, for example, Belgorod children gave themselves call signs (one of them adopted "Sledgehammer") and participated in exercises that included using automatic weapons, mounting a machine gun and overcoming an obstacle course.
The governor of Belgorod, Vyacheslav Gladkov, proposed to periodically hold exercises with schoolchildren and preschoolers.
In Krasnodar in May, dozens of children who appeared to be no older than seven or eight paraded in army and navy uniforms, some wielding imitation automatic weapons, as they passed dignitaries at a podium.
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At a parade held in the city of Vologda, a small boy waved and said to an official: "Parade commander! The parade is ready. I am Commander Uliana Shumelova."
Similar scenes have unfolded from Sakhalin, in Russia's Far East, to Yeisk, on the Sea of Azov. Some of the children seem excited, others bewildered. In Yeisk, a preschooler led the march of border guards, while his classmates chanted: "One, two, three. Left, left, left!"
Most of the children in these parades wear some sort of military uniform and try to march to the pass without much success. They frequently carry photographs of Russian military heroes.
It also celebrates the symbolism of what the Kremlin calls "Special Military Operation" in Ukraine. In the city of Astrakhan, kindergarten children wore uniforms and had toy vehicles adorned with the letter Z, a propaganda symbol used to show support for Ukraine's war.
Schoolchildren receive a talk from a soldier of the Russian Army. (Credit: Municipal Educational Institution "Ilyinsky House of Children's Creativity")
The Ministry of Defense expanded its reach to schools with a highly publicized program, the Christmas Wishing Tree, similar to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, in which the minister himself, Sergei Shoigu, has actively participated.
Shoigu invited a 9-year-old girl named Daria, from Udmurtia, to the Victory Day parade in Moscow in May. Other children visited military helicopters and the Air Defense Museum.
The Next Generation Prepares for Military Service
Russian children are also expected to contribute to the war effort in practical ways. The ruling United Russia party launched a program in Vladivostok in which schoolchildren sew pants and caps for soldiers (according to the party's pattern).
In Vladimir, children have been sewing balaclavas for the military in work lessons, as part of a campaign called "Sew for Our Men."
Students of a technical school in Voronezh were entrusted with the task of making mobile stoves and trench sails for the Russian army. Disabled teenage girls from Ussuriysk were recruited to sew "friend or foe" headbandages and bandages for the Northern Military District. And in Buryatia, in the Russian Far East, orphans sewed "good luck" charms for soldiers fighting in Ukraine.
There are also letter-writing campaigns. "Five-year-old kindergarten children respond with confidence," a local media outlet in Chita announced. "Before sealing the triangular envelope, they carefully colored the image of the fighter."
All of these activities are publicized in regional media as part of a broader effort to rally patriotic spirit in support of Ukraine's campaign.
Teenagers are also encouraged to compete in so-called Youth Military Sports Games.
The district final in the Orenburg region has just concluded. 180 athletes from 14 teams, including illegally annexed regions of Ukraine, participated in various competitions: grenade throwing, training exercises, overcoming an obstacle course and assembling a Kalashnikov assault rifle, equipment storage and a military history quiz.
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The goal, according to the Ministry of Defense, is to "cultivate a sense of mutual assistance and camaraderie support, high moral and psychological qualities, as well as prepare the younger generation for service in the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation."
The military also visits schools. Children in Buryatia spoke of the visit of a wounded soldier who claimed to have fought Polish mercenaries in Ukraine and said Ukrainians themselves "don't want to fight and are being forced."
At least some teachers who were not very enthusiastic about the changes were replaced, although it is difficult to know how many. A Perm school principal has resigned after being criticized by pro-war activists. She had been reluctant to take classes on BMS.
It is also difficult to assess how parents feel about the introduction of a more militaristic curriculum. Some parents have expressed opposition, but most seem to support this military-patriotic campaign, if public opinion polls are to be believed.
State news agency RIA Novosti reported that, according to a poll, 79% of parents support showing videos about the war to their children.
Comments on social media suggest that many Russians feel their country is surrounded and ostracized by hostile powers. Their only option is to defend themselves. That message, underscored by the president and state media, is now being carried to Russia's schools.
Russian War in Ukraine