Russia's schools and universities are shamelessly kowtowing to Putin

22 March 2022

2:13 AM

22 March 2022

2:13 AM

Anyone wanting an insight into the strange atmosphere springing up almost overnight in Russia’s institutions could do a lot worse than consider campaigns held in Russian schools and kindergartens over the past week.

There have been numerous photographs published online of infants waving Russian flags and arranging themselves in Z-formation, ‘Z’ being the current war-symbol of choice in Russia. Celebrations of the 2014 annexation of Crimea, and poetry-reading sessions against ‘attempts to ban Russian culture abroad’, have also been held.

In a report by Meduza – the Kremlin-sceptical online news service branded a ‘foreign agent’ by the Russian ministry of justice – we see, amidst nationwide footage of kids dressed as soldiers and holding up the letter ‘Z’, a kindergarten in Saratov region. Here children, barely knee high wear military clothing, their teachers bearing Russian flags behind them. ‘We support the decision of our president, we support our soldiers, we are proud of Russia and our army,’ they chant together. ‘Our army is the strongest, our army is the bravest.’

Nor is it just children who are being indoctrinated. This comes in the wake of an open letter at the beginning of March, circulated to university rectors across the country for their signatures.

‘Dear colleagues!’ it begins. ‘We are witnessing events that every Russian citizen cares about. This is the decision of Russia to put an end at last to the eight-year long conflict of Donbass and Ukraine and to achieve demilitarisation and denazification of Ukraine, thus protecting ourselves from emerging military threats.’

‘It is very important,’ the letter goes on, ‘to support our country, our army that stands for our safety, and support our president, who made what may be the toughest decision in his life: a painful, but necessary one. It important not to forget our main duty: to keep the educational process up and running, and to raise our youth as patriots, so that they are eager to help their Motherland.’

‘Our priority is serving Russia and developing its intellectual potential,’ it continues. ‘Now, more than ever, we must demonstrate confidence and resilience… and effectively rally behind our President, by example strengthening the optimistic spirit of youth and faith in the power of reason, bringing hope that peace will come soon. Together we are a great force!’

It has been signed by over 250 university rectors, countrywide.

It is tempting to pick apart this document for all its bad-faith statements. Quite apart from the plain untruth of that word ‘Denazification,’ the first is the notion – one that many citizens are clinging to – that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is an altruistic, defensive operation to defend their Donbass brothers. So much is poppycock: as a Russian friend pointed out, if the Russian government merely wanted peace and stability in Donbass region, they could station a garrison, or several, of soldiers there, to protect the region’s borders. They could also use the billions they’ve already spent on the invasion to rebuild Donbass’s infrastructure, shattered after years of frozen war with the Ukrainian government. This is the foundational lie – a comforting one for Putin supporters – from which the rest of the letter flows.

One could also question whether it’s any university’s business to support the government or army. The Russian intelligentsia was, historically, the nation’s conscience, not a cheerleading and militant wing of government. Whether or not this was, as the letter says, the ‘toughest decision’ of poor, beleaguered Putin’s life (and he has made many, as a number of grieving journalists’ families and widows in South Ossetia will testify), one suspects it has proved rather tougher for the people of Ukraine. For them it has certainly been ‘painful’ – but ‘necessary’? The world outside Russia will take some convincing.

Is ‘keeping the educational process up and running’ the same thing as raising students ‘as patriots’ or are they, in fact, different and even mutually cancelling processes? By the time the letter is talking about ‘faith in the power of reason’ and ‘the optimistic spirit of youth’, a distinct feeling of nausea has set in. Putin has already allowed the slaughter of several thousand of his own young men – many ill-trained 18-year-old conscripts pining for their mothers – and countless young Ukrainians. So much for reason. So much for youth.

Why did the rectors sign? Why are teachers at schools and kindergartens shilling so keenly for Putin and his war? Only an idiot or someone with no knowledge of Russian history would conclude they are all in full agreement with the invasion.

Nobody can mistake the bullying note in the rectors’ letter beneath its sickly cluster of abstract nouns and cheerfully assenting public lies, and one imagines similar directives going out to infant-schools. Once a letter like this is circulated from the top and the first signature comes in, you are more or less obliged to sign it. The same goes for those militaristic schoolyard pageants, however distasteful they may seem. Sign, add your name, share the guilt – or pay the consequences. What job is there for an ex-rector or form-teacher?

Some are doubtless true believers in Putin’s ‘special military operation’ and are assenting willingly. For others a lemming-like panic and fear – the kind of fear you only admit to yourself alone, in toilet cubicles in the early morning – is clearly running the show now. The universities of Russia have signed up to become nationalistic seminaries, the intellectual wing of Putin’s propaganda campaign. Schools and kindergartens now seem to be morphing en masse into paediatric war-boosters. Their job as teaching institutes is for now on hold.

Back in that Saratov kindergarten, the kids finish off their chant by joining in a song:

‘That’s how it has been since the days of old in Russia,

The higher the pressure, the stronger the concrete,

And if there is a danger to our Motherland,

The country becomes a monolith.’

Whatever you think of the rest of it, that last line – at least with regards to Russian education – would now seem beyond any question.

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