Dating back to at least 1732, youth military-patriotic upbringing has historically been an integral aspect of the Russian/Soviet version of patriotism. And though the government’s support for such initiatives dipped somewhat following the collapse of the Soviet Union, they again regained their former centrality in 2015, with the adoption of the state program “Patriotic Upbringing of Citizens of the Russian Federation for 2016–2020” (Government.ru, December 30, 2015). More recently, on July 24, 2020, the Federation Council (the upper chamber of the Russian parliament) approved transformative amendments to the law on “Education in the Russian Federation” (Rosbalt, July 24). The modified legislation, which formally enters into force on September 1, after President Vladimir Putin’s signature, paves the way for the emergence of “managed patriotism” among young Russian. The “curriculum” will be premised on a combination of symbolism of the Great Patriotic War (1941–1945) and veneration for the achievements of Putin’s rule. Interestingly, in contrast to other post-1991 Russian practices, both formal education and patriotic upbringing are to be heavily influenced (if not directly managed) by the country’s power structures/institutions (siloviki), ranging from the Ministry of Defense (MOD) and the Federal Security Service (FSB), to the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation (Sledkom), (pseudo)Cossacks and other militarized semi-official organizations (see EDM, April 10, 15, 2019). In exchange for loyalty and “patriotism,” the Russian state promises upcoming generations of Russians bright career prospects and elitist societal status. However, these assurances conceal two disturbing aspects that the Russian authorities choose to obfuscate.
First is a discriminatory gender-based division, which creates a fertile soil for various social dysfunctions going forward. The central idea promulgated by the Russian MOD with respect to military-patriotic upbringing rests on separate military-type schooling for male and female students. A notable embodiment of this strategy has become the creation of MOD-run girls’ boarding schools. The first such institution was opened in Moscow in 2008; and as of 2019, the MOD Boarding School now also has a branch in St. Petersburg. Located on Bull Island, the St. Petersburg campus features a gargantuan architectural complex, whose cost apparently exceeded 10 billion rubles ($135 million) (Spb.pansion.mil.ru, accessed August 7). During the opening ceremony, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu declared, “[T]he Petersburg-based branch of the Moscow school is to continue the glorious traditions of the first female education institution—the Smolny Institute of Noble Maidens… The students will be taught patriotism, social manners and foundations of motherhood.” Shoigu further promised that similar institutions will be created in the Russian Far East and Central Siberia (Rambler.ru, September 9, 2019). On March 4, the St. Petersburg all-girls’ MOD school hosted the first session of its board of governors, whose members include the senator from St. Petersburg and chairperson of the Federation Council Valentina Matviyenko as well as Russian Deputy Minister of Defense Tatiana Shevtsova. In her speech, Matviyenko stated, “[T]he girls […] have drawn the lucky ticket… Having received an education here […] they will become the elite, with all doors opened to them. The doors of all universities.” In turn, the chairperson of the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly, Vyacheslav Makarov, claimed that “the future of Russian society is being created here” (Spbformat.ru, March 4, 2020).
This pompous rhetoric obscures some unsavory facts. Local journalists revealed that rules at the MOD Boarding School resembled those of penitentiary institutions. Namely, female students are only allowed to meet with their parents once a month (and solely outside of the school building); no personal belongings (food, beverages, clothes) are allowed; inspections are regular and unannounced; some personal hygiene practices are openly humiliating; books that “do not agree with the student’s age” are confiscated (Gorod-812.ru, July 27, 2019). Many Russian professional psychologists are terrified by these methods. Maria Saburova argued that institutions of this type will be preparing broken/deformed personalities and future victims of domestic abuse/violence (de facto not viewed as a crime by Russia’s judicial system), which is blossoming in the country. She also noted that this system openly implies the intellectual inferiority of female students, breeding numerous complexes and hurting their self-esteem (Sobaka.ru, August 8, 2019).
The second, perhaps even more alarming, trend in Russia’s military-patriotic upbringing suggests that, aside from the Armed Forces, those being put in charge of educating Russian children include semi-/extralegal quasi-military organizations. It is known that various paramilitary groups—including the previously active private military company (PMC) E.N.O.T. Corp.—have been involved in training Russian and foreign youth in the Balkans and Donbas (see EDM, October 24, 2018 and May 28, 2019). Now, such practices are coming home to Russia itself. At the end of 2019, during the fifth annual assembly of the Union of Donbas Volunteers (attended by then–Kremlin aide Vladislav Surkov), the organization’s head, Alexander Borodai, announced that youth upbringing is now an important part of the Union’s activities. According to Borodai, in 2019, it organized “galas for more than 2,116 children” and “more than 550 ‘classes of manhood’ were carried out in schools and other educational institutions” (TASS, December 14, 2019).
Against this background, it is worth noting that among the 33 Wagner Group PMC mercenaries arrested by Belarusian authorities, on July 29, for allegedly planning destabilization operations in the run-up to that country’s presidential elections (see EDM July 30, August 3), one of the detained fighters was a certain Denis Kharitonov, who has been actively involved with the Union of Donbas Volunteers. Kharitonov reportedly took part in conflicts in Donbas, Syria and “another country” (Hromadske.ua, July 29). And in June 2016, he was decorated with the “Russian Patriot” medal for “active participation in the military-patriotic and moral-spiritual upbringing of youth” (Ikradm.ru, June 10, 2016).
In his writings, Ivan Ilyin—supposedly Putin’s favorite philosopher—identified “patriotism” as a cornerstone of the state (Ivan Ilyin, Put’k Ochevidnosti: Sochineniya, Moscow, 1998). Post-2014 developments suggest that a very specific version of patriotism—based on “conservative values” still supported by the majority of Russians, according to the Levada Center (Vedomosti, October 24, 2019)—is becoming a new pivot of Russia’s state ideology (see Jamestown.org, June 25, 2019). It would thus be reasonable to expect the next focus of Putin’s domestic policy to be on winning the hearts and minds of youth. This will be done through military-patriotic upbringing—presenting an odd hybrid of pre-1917 and Soviet-era traditions mixed with present-day realities—and promises of rewards for loyalty. The efficacy of such a strategy is by no means certain, however. Instead of breeding a new elite, the Kremlin’s approach could contribute to the further fragmentation, compartmentalization, radicalization and alienation of certain groups within Russian society.