War education

A psychologist on how the routine of war is becoming embedded in children’s lives, with basic military training lessons in schools

Tatyana Britskaya, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta. Europe


The Russian Ministry of Education is creating a basic military training course for schools and colleges. Over the span of five days, 10th and 11th-graders will learn how to handle a Kalashnikov assault rifle and administer first aid in battle.

They will also study the basic principles behind F-1 and RGD-5 grenades, the mechanisms of motorised rifles on infantry fighting vehicles, the technology of individual protective equipment, and some battlefield techniques — including how to create individual shelters against enemy assault and how to camouflage equipment. It has also been reported that the Ministry of Education intends to bring in “officers with combat experience” as teachers for this course.

Basic military training harkens back to the most backward practices of Soviet schools. It also formalises the militarism that has already infiltrated educational institutions.

With the outbreak of the war, the government has been actively sowing seeds of support among children and teenagers, so that the details of front-line life (and death) have slowly become part of daily existence at school and even in kindergartens.

It all began, of course, with the various flash mobs in which students lined up to form the letter Z. That campaign started in March and was so geographically widespread that it is difficult to write it off as purely local initiatives.

Most likely, instructions for these demonstrations were distributed to schools and kindergartens from above, and then executed — as usual — with great zeal.

For example, in Monchegorsk, Murmansk region, a boarding school for developmentally disabled students had children draw the symbol for the invasion of Ukraine and take pictures of themselves with their drawings.

Students of the Monchegorsk boarding school for developmentally disabled children. Photo: Monchegorsk city administration

In the eight months since then, the methods by which schools impart this “patriotic education” have become more diverse. In the Rostov region, Youth Army participants make stretchers for military service members; in the Yamal village of Labytnangi, students in 6th through 11th grades sew clothes for deployed soldiers; in the neighbouring town of Tarko-Sale, children form angel-shaped amulets for the troops. Students in Kislovodsk put on a fair to sell their original artwork and raised 300,000 rubles (€4,770) for the soldiers in Ukraine. And in the Krasnodar region, primary school pupils sent packages to the front. Unnamed organisers facilitated a competition among schoolchildren to design creative chocolate-bar wrappers for soldiers.

In the village of Zaostrovye, Arkhangelsk region, a local patriotic club decided to build a diorama of a military clash in Ukraine in which a Russian National Guard officer, a native of the region, had died.

The introduction of front-line realities into the school day occurs within the framework of extracurricular activities — in addition to the “Important Conversations” programme, a series of extracurricular lessons, during which the children will learn about “patriotism” and “morality”. How is all this perceived by the students themselves, and how does it affect them?

Psychologist Valentina Likhoshva, who has done lots of work with adolescents and trauma survivors, thinks that the old-fashioned implementation of this military education is, to put it mildly, ineffective:

“Kids today are using technology, and they are thinking in completely different ways. The mind of a modern child does not work in the same way as the mind of a child in the 1930s did. Building a cardboard diorama of a battle isn’t what will attract the modern schoolchild. These things work only for children who haven’t yet developed critical thinking skills,” she says.

Psychologist Valentina Likhoshva. Photo: Tatyana Britskaya, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta Europe

“And early adolescence — the onset of puberty, which is so feared by parents — begins for girls as young as 9 years old, and for boys from 11-12. So only children under the age of 10 are really going to be interested in this, especially if their families do not have opposing views. But the durability of these emerging ties is also minimal. We saw this in people who were teenagers in the 90s, too: all those stories about pioneer-heroes quickly faded away, right?”

So, such extracurricular activities don’t answer the needs of modern children. They have spheres of life that are inaccessible to adults.

Recently, prominent Kremlin official Sergei Kiriyenko said that 270 thousand letters had been sent to the front line as part of a letter-writing campaign among school-age children. In the Stavropol region, activists proudly report that they have received children’s drawings stained with tears. The authors of some of these letters have received responses from the front. The best students in classes are seated at the “hero’s desks” — tables with photos of dead Russian soldiers on their surfaces.

For the past few years, the war was portrayed as a holiday, a carnival, just an element of popular culture. Now, logically, it has become an occasion of death and tragedy.

This death is being carried into the classroom by propaganda and officials at the Ministry of Education — the very same officials who even very recently were ostensibly absorbed in the fight against child suicides.

“Any war stories, especially if they are realistic or full of tragic details, will not have a positive effect on children,” Valentina Likhoshva continues. “The child always empathises with the main character. That is, every time they hear a story about the war, or a story about a graduate of his school who died, they try on that possibility for themselves. This, of course, can be traumatising.”

“And here’s another question: are they considering the situation in students’ families? What if the children who are being forced to write letters to soldiers and re-enact battlefield scenes have family members who have been drafted? Do they know where their fathers are now and what is happening to them there?”

Best case scenario, the introduction of military training courses will be just another dull hour in an already tedious school day. Worst case scenario — especially if the defence ministry acts on its desire to involve citizens with “combat experience” in the teaching of these courses — the program becomes a very interesting addition to a background of already numerous school shootings.

The level of aggression and anxiety in society is rising with each front-line report, and the problem of quality mental-health support for adolescents remains unresolved. But instead of trained psychologists, the government is filling schools with military instructors — and particularly with “veterans of the special military operation”.

We might even wonder if members of the Wagner Group, a private military company actively involved in the Ukraine War, would be considered suitable instructors of children.

“Military training includes not only the ability to assemble and take apart a Kalashnikov assault rifle and to use weapons, but also general rules of warfare. What is a grenade, how great would its damage be, et cetera. In other words, we are talking about skills for killing people,” the psychologist reflects.

“On the one hand, we are responsible for the reduction of aggressive sentiment in children; we want to prevent shootings. On the other hand, we help to ensure that children don’t see weapons as a bad thing. We make sure that killing is considered a part of our normal life. At the same time, access to weapons will grow, and these won’t be the kinds of weapons kids’ parents kept in safes — they will come from the war zone. It's hard to predict the consequences.

Photo: elkapobedy.ru

Patriotic education in Russia has always had a military component. For some reason we can’t express our love for the motherland by painting a school fence, taking care of dogs in a shelter, reading Pushkin, or doing garbage pickups. (Still, doesn’t it seem obvious to everyone that love for the Fatherland isn’t measured in Kalashnikov rifles?)

In the Soviet school system, preparation for war was to some degree balanced by slogans about striving for peace. In contemporary Russia, there is nothing of this sort.

Over the winter holidays, the Moscow Victory Museum will hold a performance under the title “Protect the New Year”. The plot is as follows: “People come up to the tree of victory and remember the events of 77 years ago, in 1945. But dark forces have reared their heads again and want to turn back time. And now the team of participants in the quest, the heirs of victory, must fight these dark forces in time to greet the new year.”

In the past, matinees of this sort always featured traditional “bad guys” from Russian fairy tales, like Baba Yaga and Koschei, who took away the holiday — the Christmas tree, the snow maiden — from children. Now the antagonist is a treacherous enemy whose national and geographical identity can be read between the lines.

In the finale, children ages 6 to 12 are offered the opportunity to become “real defenders of the motherland”. And there’s a gift bag, which includes not candy and oranges but an army cap, soldier’s porridge, and a camouflage sack. All that remains is to replace the greeting card with a draft notice.

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Посмертно присвоенное знание

Психолог — о том, как обыденность войны и гибели на ней внедряется в детскую жизнь, в том числе за счёт возвращения уроков НВП в школы

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