During his visit to Crimea and Sevastopol, on March 18, Russian President Vladimir Putin highlighted the importance of patriotic education for schoolchildren and teenagers. In his address, Putin emphasized such notions as “patriotism,” “love for the Fatherland,” and “knowledge of history” as the Russian nation’s main foundations. He also praised the former Soviet system of youth education (e.g., Little Octobrists, All-Union Pioneer Movement and Komsomol), whose experience should be used more today. Yet, according to Putin, “instead of imposed and overarching ideology, the emphasis should now be on patriotism” (TASS, March 18). It appears that the task of youth upbringing in Russia will focus on three key elements.
The first area of increased attention by the authorities is the military-patriotic youth movement Yunarmia (nicknamed “the army of [Russian Defense Minister] Sergei Shoigu”). On March 12, the Russian Ministry of Defense urged the top management of all major domestic defense-industry companies to start creating local Yunarmia branches at their main facilities, with children of their employees seen as prospective members. The key anthem of this campaign boils down to the following slogan: “Too support this initiative is to support Sergei Shoigu” (Kommersant, March 12). Two weeks later, the Russian defense ministry head himself stated that “development of the youth patriotic movement in Russia will become the main priority for 2019” (TASS, March 28).
Since the official founding of Yunarmia on September 1, 2016, not a single major public event celebrated in Russia has passed without the participation of this organization (see EDM, November 9, 2016). Namely, rehearsals for the upcoming Victory Day Parade on May 9 are already aiming to integrate members of Yunarmia, who will be headed by Roman Romanenko, a retired cosmonaut and recipient of the Hero of the Russian Federation honorary title (Makb.su, March 28). Also, during the 2019 Winter Universiade (this year, hosted in Krasnoyarsk), traditional volunteers to this international youth sporting competition were fully replaced by members of Yunarmia (Moskovsky Komsomolets, March 10).
At least based on official data, Yunarmia has clearly been popular with Russian students and youths. In less than three years since its founding (2016–2019), the overall number of its members in Russia (8- to 18-year-old children) has reached 411,067 (Yunarmy.ru, accessed April 5). Moreover, local Yunarmia branches have been created in Kazakhstan, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, the Moldovan breakaway territory of Transnistria, and Belarus (TASS, March 15). And on January 14, 2019, the first Yunarmia branch appeared in the United States—the “Varyag” detachment—organized by the Russian embassy in Washington, DC (Yunarmy.ru, January 14).
According to the organization’s leadership, Yunarmia is on track to reach 500,000 members by May 9, 2019; while by 2020 (the 75th anniversary of the victory over the Nazi Germany), the number should swell to one million (Novaya Gazeta, March 13). This figure is to be reached by various means. The most actively discussed option is likely to entail en masse enlisting of the children of Russian military officers. Colonel Alexander Manakov, one of the key figures involved with the issue of military-patriotic upbringing in Russia’s Eastern Military District, has stated that top priority will be accorded to enlisting “100 percent of the children of Russian officers to the ranks of Yunarmia… if this task is not achieved, this will be construed as a lack of understanding of the foundations of the state’s policies in the domain of patriotic upbringing of Russian citizens” (Kommersant, February 5).
Connected to this youth-focused initiative, the government is apparently seeking to explicitly target Russian orphans. As noted by Anna Kuznetsova (the children’s rights commissioner for the president of the Russian Federation), the so-called “Yunarmia Mentorship” project, which came into effect in 2018, aims to establish ties between Yunarmia and all orphanages in each Russian region (Novaya Gazeta, March 15). To date, the pilot project, which heavily draws on the Soviet post–Civil War experience, is being tested in 8 Russian regions (30 orphanages) (Rossyiskaya Gazeta, July 12, 2018). As Kuznetsova noted, only 10 percent of Russian orphans succeed in their lives, while 90 percent become involved in criminality, alcoholism or other forms of deviant behavior. On March 15, the secretary of the Security Council of Russia, Nikolai Patrushev, stated that the most effective way of dealing with “difficult youth” will be to send them to various military-patriotic camps. Patrushev added that all formalities are now being solved (TASS, March 13).
The second key element of the Russian state’s overall military-patriotic initiative aimed at children and adolescents is concerned with the integration of so-called non-Russian peoples, with particular emphasis on the Kuban Cossacks. The total membership of the Union of Cossack Youth currently stands at 95,000. Recently, the ataman (head) of the Kuban Cossack Army, Nikolay Doluda, has emphasized the importance of raising young Cossacks to respect values of patriotism and martial virtues (Kadetskoe bratstvo, April 1, 2019).
The third and final element of the government’s approach to military-patriotic upbringing is to target volunteer military trainees, or cadets, whose overall number in Russia at any one time is presently estimated at 180,000 people. Perhaps most crucially, all major Russian ministries and departments have embarked on creating cadet branches of their own. For example (aside from the Ministry of Defense), the Russian National Guard (Rosgvardia), the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Federal Security Service (FSB), the Ministry of Emergency Situations, the Investigative Committee, as well as other institutions are now playing an increasingly important role in developing cadet culture. As noted in Russian sources, “cadets could become both a spiritual and organizational factor of patriotic ‘soft power’ in case Russia ever faces political and socio-economic crisis” (Moskovskie Suvorovtsy, accessed April 4). Also, some cadet schools, especially those affiliated with then FSB, intensely stress the importance of Vladimir Putin and his role in restoring the Russian state (Novaya Gazeta, February 22).
It is clear that the Kremlin seeks to create an effective framework for raising Russian youths who, having internalized a fervent “military-patriotic” foundation, will support no only the Russian state but also the Putinist regime itself.