What Russian children learn in school about the war in Ukraine

High on the facade above the entrance to the Holy Yekaterina School hangs the Russian tricolor with four letters sewn on recently. At the top are the Cyrillic letters X and B, which together form the traditional Easter greeting ‘Jesus is risen’. Below that are the Latin letters Z and V. These are the letters painted on Russian military vehicles in Ukraine. Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, they have been used as a statement of support for the Russian army. But no one in Russia knows exactly what the letters mean.

At the holy Yekaterina school, Father Georgi must also remain unanswered. “We just say Za Veroe, ‘For the faith,'” he says, looking up at the flag. ‘The teachers took it up and I thought it was good. You have to raise children with ideas. Without ideas, we are lost. ” His long black habit flutters around him as he leads a group of noisy children across the schoolyard to the gym. Around the neck, a fierce crucifix sparkles in the spring sun.

A war of religion would have been easier to explain

The bearded priest is the founder of the Russian Orthodox school in the small town of Sudogda, located in the Vladimir region, 250 kilometers east of Moscow. The two-story building on Red Street consists largely of donations from churchgoers. The school has more than a hundred students between the ages of six and seventeen. It is a popular school, every year a class is added.

Inside, girls in dark blue skirts and white bows run up and down the stairs, boys in blue uniforms whisper toward the coat racks. Then a song announces the beginning of the lesson from the speakers.

Father Georgi, founder of Holy Ekaterina School.
Photo by Andrej Borodoelin
Father Georgi, founder of Holy Ekaterina School.

patriotism

The faith has been at the forefront of mainstream Russian education for years, but strictly Orthodox schools are in the minority in Russia. They must comply with the Education Act, but otherwise enjoy reasonable freedom to organize their lessons as they see fit. “Our school is one big family,” laughs Polina Kolikova, father Georgi’s daughter, in her small office. She knows all the children by name, she says. Her ankle-length purple dress rattles as she walks down the stairs to the cafeteria, where scarfed women in large outfits prepare lunch. “Our children are better educated than in regular schools,” she says. “They wear uniforms and perform better. We provide four hours of English lessons a week, where only two hours are required. Therefore, parents like to come to us.”

In addition to faith, patriotism is also highly valued at the Ekaterina school. And that is as the Russian government prescribes. Two years ago, President Putin signed a law introducing ‘patriotism’ as a profession. This is to instill in children a “sense of patriotism and citizenship” and respect for “the memory of the defenders of the fatherland,” according to the law. Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Russian schools have even been actively used to spread government propaganda. Thus, the story of a Russia waging a just struggle against the ‘Nazi’ regime in Ukraine, which allegedly attacked Russia with the help of the West.

Recently, the government has also provided special educational materials to schools dealing with the war in Ukraine. Thousands of Russian children have already watched the TV show ‘Defenders of Peace’. In it, Sofia, a girl of about eight with ties in her braids, explains with a journalist and a historian how the West would have used the fall of the Soviet Union to expand its power at the expense of peaceful citizens. Ukraine is portrayed in the video as a murderous aggressor, with terms such as ‘nuclear power’ and ‘divide and rule’. On April 19, Russia commemorates “the genocide of the Soviet people carried out by the Nazis and their aides,” Education Minister Kravtsov said that history should be first-class mandatory.

The flag at the entrance to the school also bears the letters Z and V, which are used throughout Russia as a sign of support for the military.
Photo by Andrej Borodoelin
Students line up to sing the school song.
Photo by Andrej Borodoelin
The flag at the entrance to the school also bears the letters Z and V, which are used throughout Russia as a sign of support for the military. Students line up to sing the school song.

‘Enemy grenade’

Although this new teaching material has not yet reached Sudogda, the war is very much alive at the school. “The children are asking questions, some have relatives in Ukraine or at the front,” says Polina Kulikova. When the opportunity arose to hand over letters to soldiers wounded in the Donbas, the school grabbed it with both hands, she says, opening the fifth-grade door.

Inside, about twenty children are concentrated over their desks. Hesitantly, a little dark-haired boy in blue uniform shows what he has written. On clean, pre-drawn lines it says in nice calligraphy:

Goodbye, dear protector of our fatherland! My name is Matvej, I am 11 years old and I live in Sudogda. My dream is to become a doctor and make people better. I wish you good health and strength to protect our homeland. And may you soon recover and return to your family and loved ones. Goodbye dear soldier, good luck!

Matvey decorated his letter with a Russian flag and a tank. The teacher accepts the letters, which are sent to a hospital in Moscow, with approval. Just like in World War II, when there were no envelopes, they are folded into a triangle.

The letters are not the school’s only effort to make the war a topic of discussion. In the salmon pink-painted corridor decorated with paper flowers, students and teachers have decorated a gallery with portraits of fallen Russian soldiers. Soldiers who fought in World War II against the Nazis from Germany and those who are now fighting in Ukraine against the “Nazis” who, according to Putin, rule there. According to the Russian government, the fact is that thousands of innocent civilians are killed as a result, fake news and remain unnamed at the Yekaterina school. “Schools must protect children from the destructive influence of disinformation,” Russian Education Minister Sergei Kravtsov said in late March.

In one of the pictures, a young woman in military uniform looks into the camera. It is Olga ‘Oletshka’ Klimova, can be read in the accompanying text. The 34-year-old soldier fought against the Ukrainians in the Luhansk region, was hit by an “enemy” grenade and died on the operating table. “Oletshka, we’ve asked you so many times: why the hell are you staying? Stay home with your two children. They need their mother!” Later in the text is Olga’s answer. “We have been at war here for eight years. Those bastards have no mercy, neither with children nor with the elderly. Why are they killing us? Because we want to speak Russian and live with Russia.” Although Russian has been restricted in Ukraine in recent years, there is no ban on speaking the Russian language.

Father Georgi finds the conflict between two Orthodox Slavic brother nations a difficult topic, he says on a bench in the schoolyard. “A religious war would have been easier to explain,” he says thoughtfully. Yet he hears stories of oppression in Ukraine from refugees and colleagues, and he has no doubt about it. “All people want the good, everyone wants justice. But justice does not exist on this earth, it is a lie.”

Therefore, he thinks it is important that children develop a good moral compass, something that the “sinful” West can learn something from. “It comes out very well, technology and iPhones and stuff like that. But the West suffers from moral decay, sin reigns. “Then his laughter resounds across the square.” Fortunately, our Russian children are naturally immune to sin. “

photos Andrej Borodolin
At the very top: Letters to soldiers from children from the Holy Ekaterina School.

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