Russian pre-schools are being forced to run lessons teaching toddlers to support the Russian war in Ukraine, with teachers fearing they'll be fired or have their salaries cut if they don't comply with the propaganda campaign.
Pre-school kids, who are as young as 3, and their teachers have been ordered to take part in “patriotic” activities that include drawing military hardware, spray-painting Russian flags on the snow, lessons about Russian President Vladimir Putin, and photoshoots promoting the letters “Z” and “V” that have become symbols of the Russian military action.
“They asked us to work with parents, and organise drawing competitions,” said one nursery teacher in the city of Nizhny Novgorod, who spoke to VICE World News on the condition of anonymity. She said some of her colleagues had taught lessons in which toddlers were tasked with inventing cartoon characters that could defeat an evil enemy.
"I'm categorically against it. Both pedagogical rules and the education system state that such military-patriotic work is unacceptable for children of this age," she said. "And that's to say nothing about involving underage children in politics."
The Kremlin has taken unprecedented steps to rally public backing for its attack on Ukraine, and its war propaganda has gone into overdrive in recent weeks. While the Russian authorities have a long history of corralling state institutions — and state employees — into staged expressions of political support, particularly during elections, it is rare for politics to be so openly imposed on young children.
One of the most widespread demonstrations of support for the invasion in nurseries — like in society as a whole — has been the use of the letter “Z,” which was painted on Russian military vehicles to aid recognition before being popularised by officials and state-owned television. In nurseries around the country, children and have been drawing and painting Zs, or taken into snowy playgrounds to form giant, human Zs.
“We carry out conversations and themed lessons designed to nurture patriotism and national pride,” nursery No. 50 in the Siberian city of Chita wrote in a social media post on Tuesday. The text was accompanied by a photo of seven young children dressed in black and white who were standing to attention in front of balloons, and the letters “V” and “Z” made out of orange and black fabric.
Despite the risks it entails, some teachers have spoken out about involving children in politics. A teacher at a rural junior school in western Russia – who VICE World News is not naming for security reasons – was one of almost 5,000 Russian teachers to sign an open letter in protest during the first days of the war. She said that most of her colleagues are either cheerleaders for the war, or happy to switch off their critical faculties and following the lead of what they see on state-owned television. “People go against their consciences because of inertia,” she told VICE World News.
When the local authorities tried to get her to organise patriotic activities in her classroom, the teacher point-blank refused. “I told them I wouldn’t work at the school if they ask us to carry out these sorts of lessons,” she said.
Another common expression of “patriotism” in nurseries has been pictures with military themes: Nursery No. 112 in St. Petersburg posted a display of drawing that included one of a Russian tank shooting flowers, and another of a Russian gunship with the words “We need peace”. A photo posted by nursery No. 117 in the same city a few days earlier showed a boy pointing eagerly at a photo of President Vladimir Putin.
Russia has a large network of state-owned nurseries that children from the age of 3 can attend for a minimal fee. Many of the teachers at these nurseries, like their counterparts in schools, fear they could lose their jobs, or face salary cuts, if they are not seen to publicly back the invasion.
“The wages of employees of pre-school institutions are made up of a basic salary and bonuses awarded by management,” said the nursery teacher in Nizhny Novgorod, adding that managers would not hesitate to deprive teachers of their bonuses if they were seen to showed disloyalty.
Patriotic stunts in nurseries have been accompanied by similar demonstrations of support for the war in schools across Russia. More than 5 million schoolchildren were reportedly shown a special lesson called “Defenders of Peace” about Russian military action in Ukraine on the 3rd of March, and there were similar lessons last week to coincide with the anniversary of Russia’s annexation of the southern Ukrainian region of Crimea in 2014.