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The invasion of Ukraine has upended Russian education

Russia continues to expand lessons in “patriotic” values, this research finds

In Russia, Sept. 1 is known as the “Day of Knowledge.” The day traditionally kicks off the start of the new school year, with festivities in schools and universities. After six months of war in Ukraine, however, this school year in Russia is not an ordinary one.

To garner support for President Vladimir Putin and the invasion of Ukraine, Russian authorities have passed new education laws, revised school textbooks and introduced teaching guides that help teachers deliver “patriotic” lessons. Russia’s new nationwide children’s and youth movement, dubbed the “New Pioneers,” has already started its work.

What explains the big changes to Russian education amid wartime? Studies show that education serves as a long-term insurance policy for autocracies. School subjects and activities teach young citizens to be loyal to the authorities — and this helps promote long-term social and political stability. While promoting patriotic education has always been a goal of Putin’s government, our own data suggest that educational reforms accelerated in the aftermath of Crimea’s annexation in 2014.

Is Russia’s wartime propaganda more powerful than family bonds?

Surveys we fielded with the Varieties of Democracy Institute show how country experts evaluate changes in the content and provision of education around the world from 1945 to 2021. Evidence from Russia suggests that as the government’s emphasis on patriotism grew in recent years, freedom of speech in the classroom declined. Teachers also found themselves under increased threat of being fired for political reasons. The invasion of Ukraine gave a renewed sense of urgency to educational rules that promote patriotism and clamp down on academic freedom.

Autocrats use education to create loyal citizens

The expansion of mass education in autocracies has gone hand-in-hand with efforts to create a national identity — especially in the aftermath of wars. Autocrats realize that schools help create generations who share their ruling values and principles and are loyal to the regime.

Even smaller-scale changes in school curricula, for instance, can help create pro-regime attitudes in authoritarian settings. For example, China’s textbook modifications, enacted from 2004 to 2010, helped boost students’ views of the government and made them more skeptical of free markets.

Since coming to power in Russia in the early 2000s, Putin has insisted that students learn patriotic values in schools. He has insisted that lessons in history, languages and the arts should inspire pride among Russia’s youth and strengthen their loyalty to the Motherland. Putin’s early efforts to bring about educational changes, however, had limited success.

Russia expanded ‘patriotic’ education after 2014

To investigate whether and how governments — including autocracies like Putin’s Russia — use education for political ends, from January to May 2022, we surveyed 760 country experts from around the world. Together with the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute, we asked experts to answer a series of 21 new questions about the structure and content of education in over 100 countries, from 1945 to 2021.

Our data suggest that Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea coincided with renewed investments in patriotic education. According to the experts surveyed, patriotic symbols such as the Russian flag or the national anthem were more likely to be celebrated in the years following Crimea’s annexation, than in the decades preceding it.

In 2014, the Russian authorities also approved a new set of history textbooks. These featured a revised narrative of historical events, praised Putin’s achievements and Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

As emphasis on “patriotic” education grew, however, freedom of speech in Russian classrooms declined. Answers to two of our survey questions suggest that following the annexation of Crimea, opportunities for students to critically discuss what they were taught in history classes declined. After 2014, teachers also became more likely to be fired for publicly expressing political views that contradicted those of the authorities.

What happened after this year’s invasion of Ukraine?

Within days after Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine, Russian authorities began to orchestrate a pro-war campaign at home. “Patriotic” lessons in schools were designed to justify the invasion and generate support for Putin.

In the first week of March, for example, Russian schools held an All-Russia open lesson.” The Ministry of Education was unusually swift in distributing instructions on how teachers should present the invasion and address students’ questions.

Putin’s iron grip on Russia is a legacy of empire

Students returning to school this month, as young as 6 years old, are expected to attend new lessons on “patriotism,” labeled “Conversations about the important.” These weekly lessons will remind students that “a true patriot should be ready to defend the country“ and “to die for the Motherland.”

Russian authorities also introduced legislation to keep vaguely defined “foreign agents and influence“ out of schools. In recent months, teachers across the country faced prosecution for expressing anti-war views in and outside the classroom.

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Propaganda efforts aren’t limited to the curriculum. Earlier in the summer, Putin approved the creation of a national children’s and youth movement, modeled after the Soviet Pioneers. Such movements were integral to Soviet efforts to generate loyalty among younger generations and stabilize Soviet rule. The resurgence of these types of youth-focused movements in contemporary Russia may reflect similar ends.

If successful, these efforts may generate support among children for nondemocratic values and Russia’s expansionist policies — and temper optimism about political change. That may be wishful thinking, as parents and school teachers across the country have already begun to show their resistance to the unfolding educational shifts.

Professors: check out TMC’s latest topic guides for your classroom.

Eugenia Nazrullaeva is a postdoctoral fellow at the School of Public Policy, London School of Economics.

Anja Neundorf (@AnjaNeundorf) is a professor of politics and research methods at the University of Glasgow and the primary investigator of the European Research Council-funded project “Democracy under Threat: How Education can Save it” (DEMED).

Ksenia Northmore-Ball is an assistant professor of comparative politics at Queen Mary University of London.

Katerina Tertytchnaya (@KTertytchnaya) is an assistant professor of comparative politics at University College London.