In a bid to preserve and promote so-called traditional Russian spiritual and moral values, the Kremlin has launched a sweeping campaign to instill them into the younger generation. Through changes in the school curriculum, youth clubs, and a massive propaganda drive, the government hopes to shape the worldview of the next generation of Russians.
Russia’s war in Ukraine has reinvigorated this push for conservative ideas. Moscow has used the conflict to promote a narrative of Russia as a defender of traditional values against what it portrays as Western decadence and moral decay. In this context, a pivot toward patriotic education among young people has been seen as a way to strengthen national identity and support for the government’s policies. The government seeks to instill into students “systemic knowledge” about Russia’s place in the world, its historical role and territorial integrity.
Starting September 1, 2023, Russian educational programs will be adjusted to emphasize patriotic education, which will become the main element of extracurricular activities at schools.
From Front Lines to Classrooms
On January 31, Russian President Vladimir Putin directed the government to create mentorship programs for the youth. The task of boosting young people’s patriotic spirit will fall upon veterans of special military operations.
Together with the All-Russian Public-State Movement of Children and Youth, the Government of the Russian Federation is to develop and implement mentorship programs, as well as ensure the conduct of events involving Heroes of the Russian Federation and participants of special military operations.”Quote from the public Kremlin document containing a list of instructions following a State Council meeting
The report on the programs is expected to be completed by June 1 and then updated every following year. The Prime Minister, Mikhail Mishustin, and the Chairman of the Board of the Russian Movement of Children and Youth, Grigory Gurov, are responsible for the project.
Sergey Kirienko, First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Presidential Administration of Russia, praised the veterans and their role commenting on the announcement.
“Each of them fulfilled the highest duty to Russia, defending the country on the front lines. Their understanding of the Motherland, patriotism, selflessness, and heroism is very valuable for the younger generation,” he said.
Some local governments have already started searching for veterans to fill in different positions in their education departments. In February, the Tula region in Western Russia announced it would hire five such people.
“Mentoring plays a key role in youth policy. It is now important to use the experience of special military operation participants in patriotic education. There is a huge demand for patriotic education through personal examples. Currently, there is a great need for new personnel in this area. In addition, special operation participants require socialization and involvement in various projects,” said Alexei Davletshin, Minister of Youth Policy of the Tula Region.
This patriotic education will also be complemented by the basic military training that is expected to be introduced in the new academic year. The program will take about two hours per week and will be considered an extracurricular activity involving veterans with military experience.
But new teaching plans are not the only thing Russian authorities have in the making. Patriotic education has been pushed through other avenues like youth clubs, thousands of which can be found on Russian social media networks. They are still not overly popular, however, with many having 30-50 participants or less.
Earlier this year, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the paramilitary mercenary group Wagner, celebrated the launch of a youth club housed at his PMC Wagner Center in Saint Petersburg. The club was originally known in the media as Wagnerenok, meaning “little Wagner.” However, on March 3, it was announced that there was a misunderstanding, and the club’s official name is Leader. The name change seems like a reasonable decision given the fact that in January, the United States designated Wagner a transnational criminal organization, and its influence on the youth could lead to problems with law enforcement authorities outside of Russia.
According to official statements, Leader opened its doors with the primary goal to “instill a love of the Fatherland in the younger generation.” As of March, the club had about 60 participants whose average age was 18.
Leader’s curator Alexander Tronin is an 18-year-old ex-member of the Saint Petersburg Youth Parliament. He was expelled from the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) in January 2023. Following his expulsion, he was contacted by Prigozhin’s representatives, who offered him the opportunity to lead the youth club. On February 27, Tronin announced his appointment as a full-time assistant to the 27-year-old State Duma deputy, Vasily Vlasov, who is a member of the Committee on Physical Culture, Sports, Tourism and Youth Affairs.
The deputy curator of the club is Kirill Ovchinnikov. He has been providing statements to the media and also acting as the club’s HR. If someone wants to become a member, they have to contact Ovchinnikov first and bring their BIO to an appointment at the Wagner Center.
Another person who has significant influence on the youth club is Alexander Kolos. Referred to by the Russian media as “businessman and public figure,” he participated in the club’s inaugural meetings.
Kolos is the head of the Kolos Charitable Foundation. Research shows that, lately, the foundation is heavily involved in sending supplies and resources to Donbas. Some of those supplies include medical kits and collapse grappling hooks made by MTac, likely used to sweep IED lanes or minefields.
In one post, Alexander says he was able to procure a UAZ Patriot, an SUV Russia has used in the war, to send to Donbas.
Additionally, Kolos has two companies, LLC “A7” and NF “FAYPAS,” which generate the equivalent of over a million USD per year. According to GazetaSPB and Rambler, Wagner founder Prigozhin supported Kolos’ candidacy when he ran as a deputy for St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly.
Kolos attended St. Petersburg Marine Technical University, where he received a military education. He is connected to Valery Slavikov, who runs a “military-patriotic and tourist club” called Vityaz, which claims to prepare Russian youth to join Russian special operations units and has, based on the photos we have reviewed, several Spetsnaz members pass through its doors.
The Leader youth club offers participants passes to get out of classes, a likely incentive to encourage attendance and interest. Additionally, it has an in-house computer club, where “anyone can learn how to operate a UAV.” A number of guest speakers have already made their appearances, including former Russia agent in the U.S. Maria Butina, who is now a member of the United Russia party, and pro-Russian Ukrainian journalist Yuri Podolyaka.
State Duma Deputy Vitaly Milonov, known for his opposition to LGBTQ+ rights, said in an interview that he would be happy if his children joined the club.
“For a long time there has been a need to create an organization that is ideologically strict, serious, and understandable for children,” he said. “The youth wing of ‘Wagner’ is really cool, because children always strive for something bright, juicy, even if it is slightly extreme. There is an idea, there is an ideology in it.”
In February, the club taught its participants how to use text-to-image AI Midjourney to create various images, “including for the study of information warfare.”
“In order to keep up with our enemy, everyone must delve into new areas in the field of IT and put them into practice, which is why we launched the course for beginners,” Tronin explained.
Earlier, in December 2022, PMC Wagner Center hosted a hackathon, which promised 1 million rubles (or roughly $13,000 USD) to the winner of the competition. The center tasked hackathon participants with creating a “drone navigation system” that could be used in the event that a GPS signal was lost.
The winning team, a pair of undergraduate students from the Faculty of Mathematics and Mechanics of St. Petersburg State University, provided vague comments on their victory. When asked by the media about their feelings towards the war and the potential involvement of their creation in the conflict, one student said “leave it up to your reader’s imagination.”
Emphasis on Traditional Values
To guide educators and make their job easier, last year the Russian government identified a number of “destructive and foreign ideas and values” that post a threat to the society. The former included the cult of selfishness, permissiveness, immorality, and the rejection of ideas such as patriotism, service to the motherland, building a family, constructive work, and Russia’s positive contributions to world history and culture.
The Kremlin has also identified various sources as contributing to the erosion of Russian values, like extremist and terrorist organizations, the actions of the United States and its allies, and the activities of transnational corporations and foreign non-profit organizations.
Additionally, reforms in education, science, and culture that do not take traditional values into account are also considered a threat.
To combat these perceived evils, President Putin signed a decree titled the “Fundamentals of State Policy to Preserve and Strengthen Traditional Russian Spiritual and Moral Values”.
“The Russian Federation perceives traditional values as the bedrock of Russian society, contributing to the protection and strengthening of Russia’s sovereignty, ensuring the unity of our multiethnic and multi-faith country, safeguarding the people of Russia and nurturing human potential,” the decree says.
The policy seeks to counter the destructive influence by promoting ideas that have been identified as essential to the Russian national character. According to the government-approved list, some of the ideas include:
- Sanctity of life
- Human dignity
- High moral ideals
- Strong family values
- Unity of the peoples of Russia
Research on the psychological effects of indoctrination like this suggests that it can lead to a number of negative outcomes for young people, including a lack of critical thinking skills, an inability to consider alternative viewpoints, and a diminished capacity for empathy and moral reasoning. In addition, indoctrination can create a sense of groupthink and conformity, where young people feel pressure to conform to the beliefs and values of their peers and authorities.
Repetition, which is often used as a teaching method in Russian schools, can be a powerful tool in shaping beliefs and attitudes. Known as the “mere exposure effect,” repeated exposure to a particular message or idea makes it more familiar and easier to process, and this can lead to the perception of a particular message as true. Without critical thinking skills, it becomes harder for young people to actively evaluate and scrutinize the information they receive, which makes the exposure method, not a foolproof tool in itself, a working approach for convincing people of something that is untrue or goes against their beliefs.
While resistance to standardized thinking can take many forms, including subtle acts of nonconformity and more overt forms of dissent, it is becoming increasingly difficult in Russia. Arrests, imprisonment, and other forms of punishment created a chilling effect, discouraging people from speaking out. And government control over media makes it progressively harder to seek alternative sources of information and critically evaluate news. The situation is likely to get worse with Internet censorship and lack of opportunities to learn more about the “outside world” through travel.
Russia’s use of patriotic education to indoctrinate children and teenagers with a particular set of beliefs or values represents a form of psychological manipulation that impacts young Russians’ developing sense of identity and worldview.
With the introduction of groups like Wagnerenok that reinforce a sense of national identity and promote ideas that are seen as being essential to the nation’s success and well-being, this displays Russia’s urgency and willingness to target its young citizens.
The concept of traditional values has been used in Russia as a tool to suppress dissent and reinforce the government’s power, and is often used to justify policies that limit individual freedoms and stifle opposition. The government has used the idea of protecting traditional values to justify crackdowns on LGBTQ+ rights in the past, and it is likely that they will continue to use these “patriotic” ideas to further justify the war in Ukraine in the future.