Propaganda in the classroom

October 19, 2022
Parents and teachers are pushing back against new patriotic lessons introduced by the Russian government. While it is impossible to estimate just how many parents oppose the lessons, those who do are taking up varying strategies to shield their children from wartime propaganda.
This school year in Russia, each Monday begins with a flag-raising ceremony and the singing of the national anthem. Afterward, teachers conduct what are called “Conversations about Important Things” – extracurricular lessons that are expected to teach children of all grades about “traditional” and “patriotic” values, as well as boost national pride.

These new patriotic lessons were announced for the 2022-23 school year back in the spring (three months into the war with Ukraine) by Russian Education Minister Sergei Kravtsov. Technically, students are not required to attend the “Conversations;” however, many schools and teachers insist on them taking part as if they were mandatory. Officials have said that those who skip the lessons could be punished, without clarifying what that would entail.

In an article for Russia.Post, political scientist Ivan Fomin wrote that the ideological message of the lessons “boils down to national unity and social solidarity. Moreover, the lessons are designed to systematically emphasize the imagery of heroism and self-sacrifice, as well as ‘traditional family values.’”

So far, there has not been any mass opposition to the lessons. Though there is no way to estimate the level of support for patriotic teaching in schools, anecdotal evidence suggests that parents either approve or are indifferent. One parent told Meduza that against the backdrop of Russia’s isolation from the West, he thinks children need to be instilled with the belief that there is something great and unique about Russia, and therefore he supports the new curriculum. Other parents think that including some patriotic elements, such as playing the national anthem and the weekly raising of the flag, is right, though they find patriotic instruction – especially during wartime – inappropriate for young children.

But not all teachers, parents and students support the government’s push for patriotism in the classroom. Parents have written strong objections on social media to the new lessons, indicating that they intend to let their children skip them. Others wrote that children should decide themselves whether they want to attend or not. In some areas, schools are allowing students to withdraw from the new lessons.

Parents opposed to the patriotic teaching whose children are forced to attend the lessons are taking varying approaches to protect their children from the propaganda. Some use books such as Harry Potter to help explain their views on the war to their children, drawing parallels between fictional events and those happening in the real world. Other parents are taking a middle road approach, closely following lesson schedules and, depending on the content planned for certain days, deciding whether or not to keep their children at home.

In an interview with Meduza, Daniil Ken, who heads the Alliance of Teachers union, said his organization receives dozens of letters each day from teachers, parents and college students complaining about the new lessons. He believes that they are a sign that opposition to the lessons is much wider. Back in September, Ken was designated a foreign agent by the Ministry of Justice, as his organization often stands in opposition to the official educational establishment in Russia.

The Alliance of Teachers publicly opposed patriotic education in an open statement in August, reminding educators that the lessons are extracurricular and therefore optional. Likewise, it urged teachers not to incorporate the "Conversations about Important Things" into their lesson plans (especially since teachers don’t receive additional pay for the additional instruction) and parents to boycott the weekly lessons by holding back their children.

On its Telegram channel, the Alliance of Teachers published templates of arguments that can help parents "free children from the propaganda lessons.” It also notes that according to Russian law, educators are guaranteed the freedom to teach and express their own opinions, as well as the freedom from interference in their professional activities.

Teachers who don’t support the regime have said that they sometimes face pressure from school administrators, including having their workbooks checked constantly to ensure that lessons are conducted in accordance with recommendations from the Ministry of Education. Sometimes administrators allow for greater autonomy among faculty, so teachers can use the time allotted for the weekly patriotic lessons to teach what they would like, such as about nature and other topics.

In an online teachers’ group on VKontakte, one teacher wrote: “[state officials] made everything clumsy and ugly. I’ve already planned that we will read fantasy stories about outer space, we will drink tea and read poetry, we will listen to our favorite music. Whoever comes will come. Love is in the details, not in slogans.”

There have been localized cases of parent groups demanding schools to remove blatant political propaganda from the lessons, and in a number of instances administrators have made concessions. In fact, thanks to the efforts of the Alliance of Teachers, a group of female politicians and activists called Myagkaya Sila (“Soft Power”) and ordinary parents, Russia’s Ministry of Education made changes to the teaching manuals for the “Conversations about Important Things,” removing references to Ukraine, the “special military operation” and NATO. Still, Ukraine-related topics have recently appeared again in instructional materials, including Russia’s sham referendums in Eastern Ukraine.

Digest by Mack Tubridy for the Russia.Post editorial team.
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