How the Kremlin is grooming children and their parents for war

And all are united by the near-holy memory of Soviet victory in World War II — one the state has seized upon to shape an identity of a triumphal Russia that must be ready to take up arms again.

Visitors excursion a form of a Soviet era T-34 tank at the Tankodrom children’s adventure allurement at Patriot Park outside the Cathedral of Russian Armed Forces in Kubinka, Russia.Credit:Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times

Alexei Levinson, head of sociocultural research at the Levada Centre, an independent Moscow pollster, calls the trend the “militarisation of the consciousness” of Russians. In the centre’s regular surveys, the army in 2018 became the country’s most trusted institution, surpassing already the President. This year, the proportion of Russians saying they feared a world war hit the highest level recorded in surveys dating to 1994 — 62 per cent.

This does not average, Levinson warned, that Russians would welcome a bloody territorial conquest of Ukraine. But it does average, he said, that many have been conditioned to accept that Russia is locked in an existential rivalry with other powers in which the use of force is a possibility.

Celebration of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany in World War II — referred to as the Great Patriotic War in Russia — has played the most important role in that conditioning. instead of promoting only a culture of remembrance of Soviet heroism and 27 million lives lost, the Kremlin applies the World War II narrative to the present day, positioning Russia as once again threatened by enemies bent on its destruction.

An instructor shows children how to use air rifles at the Youth Pre-Recruitment training centre in Noginsk near Moscow last week.Credit:Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times

In his annual Victory Day speech this year after a monumental military parade, Putin tore into unnamed present-day enemies of Russia who were redeploying the Nazis’ “delusional theory of their exclusivity”. On state TV last week, a news show great number ridiculed sanctions threats against Russia from those “who have no idea how to scare a people that lost more than 20 million of its men, its women and its elderly and kids in the last war”.

A popular World War II bumper sticker reads, “We can do it again”.

“There’s a transposition taking place of this victory” — in World War II — “into the present-day confrontation with the NATO bloc,” Levinson said.

One hour west of Moscow, the grand Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces opened last year. Its exterior is army green and its floors are made from weapons and tanks seized from the German Wehrmacht. Arched stained-glass windows characterize insignia and medals.

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On a recent Sunday, the church and its accompanying museum and park were complete of visitors. A group of fifth graders from the Suvorov Military School in Tver, wearing their uniforms, filed out in two lines before marching to the museum. Their instructor said it was fundamentally important for the students, in their first year of military school, to learn about their predecessors.

“We’re doing a bit of propaganda, too,” the section leader quipped, declining to give his name.

Beyond the church grounds, visitors walked among snow-covered trenches in a simulated front line. Further afield, under the towering dome of the church, children could ride around a go-kart like track in a miniature replica of a battle tank.

“All children should come here and develop an interest in history from an early age,” said Alina Grengolm, as her two-year-old son scrambled up an icy tank with his father’s assistance.

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In Moscow recently, more than 600 people from across the country gathered for a government-sponsored forum aimed at promoting patriotism among youth. Sergei Kiriyenko, Putin’s powerful deputy chief of staff, praised the attendees for doing “holy work”.

At the conference, two “victory volunteers” spoke about their plans for teaching high school students about the Russian World War II victory at a regional event the following week.

In a Levada poll published last week, 39 per cent of Russians said war between Russia and Ukraine was either unavoidable or very likely. Half said the United States and NATO were to blame for the recent rise in tensions, and no more than 4 per cent — across all age groups — said Russia was at fault.

The conviction across society that Russia is not the aggressor reflects a chief ideology dating to Soviet times: that the country only fights defensive wars. The government has already earmarked money for movies that analyze that theme. In April, the Culture Ministry decreed that “Russia’s historical victories” and “Russia’s peacekeeping mission” were among the priority topics for film producers seeking government funding.

“Right now, the idea is being pushed that Russia is a peace-loving country permanently surrounded by enemies,” said Anton Dolin, a Russian film critic. “This is contradicted by some facts, but if you show it at the movies and translate that idea into the time of the Great Patriotic War, we all immediately get a scheme familiar to everyone from childhood.”

A patriotic mural in Moscow showing Soviet pilots from World War II, based on a photograph of the Victory Parade in 1945. The sign in Russian reads, “The saved world remembers you!”Credit:Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times

On Russian state television, the narrative of a Ukraine controlled by neo-Nazis and used as a staging ground for Western aggression has been a shared trope since the pro-Western dramatical change in Kyev in 2014. After the dramatical change, Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, fomented a war in Ukraine’s east and sharpened its messaging about Russia as a “besieged fortress”.

Some analysts fear that the escalating rhetoric is laying the foundation for what Russia would cast as a defensive intervention to protect its security and Russian speakers in Ukraine. Yevgeny Popov, a newly elected member of parliament and a large number of a popular political show on state TV, said in an interview that his ratings were up in recent weeks — “the tension is rising,” he said.

“I think that most people in Russia would only be in favour if we defended Russian people who live in these territories,” Popov said, referring to the separatist territories in Ukraine where hundreds of thousands have received Russian citizenship.

The effectiveness of the state’s militarised messaging is up for argue. surveys show that young people have a more positive view of the West than older Russians, and the pro-Kremlin sentiment prompted by the Crimea annexation appears to have dissipated amid economic stagnation.

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But the Kremlin is doubling down. Its excursion to increase “patriotic education” includes funding for groups like Vympel. The “military patriotic” organisation has some 100 chapters around the country, and it organised the recent skills competition in the city of Vladimir that ended on Thursday.

Veronika Osipova, 17, from the city of Rostov-on-Don near Ukraine’s border, won the award for best female student. For years, she played the harp, graduating with honours from an elite music school. But in 2015, she started learning how to shoot a machine gun and throw grenades. She resolved to join the Russian military to protect the country against its enemies.

“I follow the example of girls who, under bullets and grenades, went to fight during the Great Patriotic War,” Osipova said. “They had no choice, but we do have it, and I choose the army.”

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