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Generation war: Russia’s militarised children

Through propaganda, special training and a systematic educational approach, young Russians are becoming part of the Russian government’s offensive policy.

June 16, 2020 - Oleksandr Kraiev - Articles and Commentary

President Vladimir Putin visits Tula Suvorov Military School in 2016. Photo: Presidential Administration of the Russian Federation (cc) wikimedia.org

“War… War never changes.” Unfortunately, this overused quote from a famous video game series still bears some truth. Although we may speak of new military methods, armaments and theoretical approaches, the essence of war and its brutality is invariable. It is a great shame that even in modern times, Russia continues to pursue acts of war and geopolitical greed in a way that affects the most vulnerable part of society – children.

The notion of “child soldiers” invokes images retrospective of African conflicts in the late twentieth century. Some may even visualise particular scenes from the recent film “Beasts of No Nation”. However, the reality is that the social policy of Russian Federation of the last several years incorporates the idea of preparing its youngest generation to become part of its military system. Through propaganda, special training and a systematic educational approach, young Russians are becoming part of the Russian government’s offensive policy.

Overview of the system

The Russian government primarily reaches kids through its education system. Starting at the level of the Ministry of Education and reaching down to the smallest countryside schools, so called “patriotic upbringing” is instilled in children from a young age. It is commonly provided through additional lessons or extracurricular activities centered around commemorating specific dates related to military history, preparing projects on military topics, and taking part in different militaristic sports activities. In most cases, such endeavors are under the patronage of local army officials. To some, these extracurricular activities may not seem concerning or noteworthy. Any boy is fascinated with guns, military history and all that “boys’ stuff,” right? However, these programs are just the tip of the propaganda iceberg.

The biggest – and most notorious – organisation responsible for “patriotic upbringing” is Yunarmia (Юнармия is a Russian portmanteau, blended from words “young” (юная) and “army” (армия)). It is a specific project under the auspices of the Ministry of Defense. The idea came from the minister Shoigu himself, so he has taken a keen interest in the program’s success. Launched in September of 2016, the project encompasses eerily similar specifications to that of Hitler’s Youth: a militaristic spirit, permanent tactical trainings, and ideological and political education aimed at specific patterns of thinking.

The program’s website proudly calls itself a children and youth military patriotic social movement, and this exceptional attention to the military component is what makes it different from youth organisations like the American Boy Scouts or Ukrainian Plast. With Scouts and Plast some militarism is acceptable as a part of hardening youngsters’ minds and bodies. A problem arises when such militarism is placed as a centre of the proposed mindset. Kids and teenagers tend to be maximalist, and that trait makes them “dive” into the world of constant war that is proposed to them in such an appealing manner.

Yunarmia has become visible and present in the day-to-day life of Russian youngsters since 2016. It currently has several hundred “headquarters” in each of the 85 federative subjects and countless local centers. Furthermore, a set of supplementary organisations – mostly on the basis of local sport clubs or military units – were established to foster Yunarmia’s activity in social and practical familiarisation of kids with the military community.

The existence of such organisations is not the real problem. To specify the real threat, it is important to examine the underlying logic. This type of “education” and training occurs within a specific mindset, in which warfare and war-related subjects appear to be the key social and cultural institutes. Any other form of activity or field of study presented in such organisations is merely a supplement to a basic war narrative. Such a focus on war not only gives less alternatives for young people’s own dreams and views, but it also legitimises any further military initiatives from Russian authorities. It makes them acceptable for the Russian public and even somewhat democratic in the overall perception of public consent. This resulting mindset and permissibility is where the true problem lies.

Russian activity in the occupied territories

Unfortunately, such social “novelties” as children military education and militarisation are spread alongside Russian tanks and small green men. International and local human rights activists note that on the territories of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR), the same social transformations have taken place.

The quasi-republics passed laws on the “patriotic upbringing of their youngsters”. The proposed steps are virtually identical to the Russian approach. The legislation supports the idea that both the school system and family environment must “shape children’s consciousness.” Contrary to Russia, however, the administrations of the occupied territories are not limited in their lawmakers’ innovations, and they have gone even farther than Russia in with their initiatives. According to several sources, kids are trained with real automatic weapons and are forced to take part in military construction. Some are even used as real soldiers on the battlefield.

This horrific image seems to be something from another dimension, not the European reality. However, the forced usage of kids is not limited to the terroristic leaders of the DPR and LPR – some more “civilised” organisations are also interested in using cheap labour for their own military good. Even now we can witness some minor practical applications of the notorious Youth Army. According to the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, some Crimean branches of Yunarmia are directly involved into the informational warfare of Russia against Ukraine and the West. Teens are specially trained to create information materials glorifying Russian “peaceful politics and civilisation missions.” They are also tasked with eradicating and taking note of any opposition information channels and narratives on social media.

Geopolitical repercussions

These programs indicate that the illegitimate conquest and international law violations will continue even after the end of Putin’s rule. It is a sign of a systematic approach to the construction of a so-called “Russian world.” Many positivists believe that the abnormal politics of the Russian Federation since 2014 are a result of the attitudes of its current political regime. However, the young generation, raised on the ideas of the Russian imperial tradition and more modern approbations of so called “Russian world,” will not let these aggressive politics die out. That is why, in addition to the human rights concerns associated with these politics, such “education” is dangerous. It is a social time bomb that will one day blast the democratic world.

The Russian media is pumping out slogans of “our best reserve,” “the future of our army,” and “our new armed shield.” We must not forget that this narrative is about kids – not tanks, planes or any other warfare equipment. It seems that Russian leadership is willing and eager to transform its younger generations into a warmongering population with the sole purpose of enhancing the borders of the “empire.” However, the logic of history is quite ironic and there are few, if any, examples of societies built on warfare that survived long enough to see their triumph. War is truly an indispensable part of our societies and civilisation as a whole, but when it is placed at the centre of societal life – we must be prepared for tragedies and disappointment.

Oleksandr Kraiev is an International Relations expert and publicist with the Foreign Policy Council “Ukrainian Prism”.

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