Propaganda Textbooks at Russian Schools

June 20, 2023
In Russia, school textbooks have become yet another powerful tool for brainwashing the youth about Ukraine.
article-photo

Even if adult Russians may try to avoid propaganda in the media, their children cannot escape brainwashing at school.

The Russian state has long been concerned with  youth policy. Now textbooks will be used to help the Kremlin raise "loyal" citizens with the "correct" stance on the current Russo-Ukrainian war.

Ignoring Ukraine 

The textbook's approach to dealing with Ukraine-related topics began with removing all references to Ukraine.

Russian independent media Mediazona reported that on the first day of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, editors of the Prosveshcheniye publishing house were directed to reduce references to Ukraine and Kyiv in Russian school textbooks. Prosveshcheniye is one of Russia's largest and oldest publishers of schoolbooks.

According to Mediazona's sources, this tendency has been in place since 2014, but even after years of "scrubbing", in 2022, editors had to censor an additional 15% of all texts.

As one of the editors put it, "if a child grows up without any knowledge about this country, it would be far easier to make them believe [what they hear] on TV".

This policy particularly undermines history. One of the trickiest topics here is the medieval history of Kyivan Rus, whose heritage Ukraine, Belarus and Russia claim as the foundation of their respective statehoods. In Russian textbooks it is referred to as just "Rus" or "capital" rather than indicating its title, Kyiv. In April 2023, some of these updates were made public.

Source: Mediazona Source: Mediazona

Teaching the "right" history

Surely, simply ignoring Ukraine would not be suffice for the Russian establishment.

In April 2022, Russia's Education Minister Sergei Kravtsov and Head of Russia's President's Administration Department for Public Projects, Vladislav Kononov, presented a new history textbook for the 11th grade with a chapter dedicated to the war in Ukraine.

Kononov noted that the history textbook is "not just a textbook on some subject, but a tool for protecting our traditions."

It was written in conjunction with Vladimir Medinsky, Russia's former Minister of Culture who also led the Russian delegation in negotiations with Ukraine in Belarus at the beginning of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine and Anatoly Torkunov, a Soviet and Russian diplomat and rector of Moscow's State Institute of International Relations.

The relevant pages from the textbook were featured as a backdrop on the screen, allowing us to see some snippets of its contents.

Sergei Kravtsov and Vladislav Kononov present a new history textbook. Screenshot from znanierussia.ru The illustration depicts the occupational heads of Kherson and Zaporizhia Oblasts,as well as the leaders of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk “People's Republics” together with Vladimir Putin during the ceremony of signing the treaties of these four Ukrainian oblasts (regions) to “join” Russia at the Kremlin on September 30, 2022. Screenshot from znanierussia.ru

The textbook reads how "the special military operation increased the aspiration among the country's population to provide assistance and support to its participants. A mass volunteer movement has erupted across in all regions of the Russian Federation."

It explains that the start of the "special military operation" sparked unprecedented Western sanctions against not only the Russian government but Russian citizens. The authors go further to state that the West banned the mentioning of Lev Tolstoy, which is a shameless lie.

Following this chapter, there is a list of control questions which also provides clues about the chapter's upcoming content:

  • Define the relationship between the West and Russia at the beginning of 2020s. 
  • What threat did the actions of the Ukrainian authorities pose to the security of Russia?
  • What were the reasons behind the "special military operation"? Why did it start in February 2022?
  • Show on the map and name territories that were incorporated into the Russian Federation in 2022.

Given that in Russia any dissent with the official interpretation of events would lead to persecution, this textbook will enforce the only "justifiable" view on the war. 

Kononov also emphasized the continuity of Russia's history: Russia is the successor of the USSR in the same way that "the USSR is the successor of the Russian Empire, and it, in turn, of the Muscovite kingdom and the Ancient Rus."

He also stated that the text would be "lively and emotional" making the textbook a "fascinating book" to read.

"Our cause is just"

Excerpts from another history textbook were recently published by the Russian media SOTA. It also tells a lot about the war against Ukraine.

Cover of the textbook. Source: SOTA

Schoolchildren are told that after Maidan in 2014, residents of Donbas resisted the Ukrainian army, special forces, foreign mercenaries and even punitive battalions and declared "independence".

The textbook then delves into the reasons for the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. It is the United States that sought to "maintain their domination at a time when it's economic, political and moral positions were considerably weakened" and "took the course aimed at undermining the positions of those states capable of challenging their hegemony" (Russia and China).

In the explanation, the textbook replicates the anti-Western discourse of the Russian government from the beginning of the invasion: claims about NATO's expansion, encroaching on the borders of Russia-contrary to the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act, sanctions against Russia "under contrived pretexts", and "Ukraine being under complete foreign control" as a striking force against Russia. 

The authors go into detail about the "heroization of Nazism in Ukraine", as well as "the everyday shelling of Donbas with full approval of the West for the previous 8 years".

They explain that Russia's invasion of Ukraine was an involuntary preventive measure against Ukraine's "plans" to seize Donbas and Crimea with Western support.

They praise the "examples of lofty courage and heroism" of Russian forces and their state-of-the-art weapons, tell stories of specific "heroes" of the aggression, and mention Western eagerness to fight "until the last Ukrainian."

Students are reassured, however: "Western strategists's plans completely failed", "Russia united in support of its Armed Forces" and Putin's approval ratings surpassed 80%.

The illustration shows the Russian military distributing humanitarian aid in the occupied Kharviv Oblast. Source: SOTA

Finally, the textbook promotes the Kremlin's anticolonial discourse: only the US and its "vassals" imposed sanctions on Russia, while "Not a single African, Latin American or Islamic country joined them" ("because they remember Western colonialism" and "understand the true nature of the conflict around Ukraine").

The textbook stresses that those Western countries bore the brunt of sanctions, while Russia successfully re-oriented towards the East. 

The chapter concludes with the words of Vyacheslav Molotov, an Old Bolshevik, and Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs, infamous for signing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact: "Our cause is just. The enemy shall be defeated. Victory shall be ours." These words concluded Molotov's radio speech on 22 June 1941, when the Nazis invaded the USSR.

Molotov's grandson Vyacheslav Nikonov, the First Deputy Chairman of the State Duma Committee on International Affairs, co-authored the textbook.

Russian media Podyem reported that the relevant publishing house confirmed that the textbook was included in the list of the Ministry of Education and can be used at school though it is not mandatory.

The discourse of the Russian textbooks increasingly resembles the worst examples of Soviet propaganda. New generations of Russians will be forced to comply with the official doctrine of the state through education.

Andriy Avramenko
Analyst and Journalist at UkraineWorld