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POLITICS

Automatic weapons pass. Resurgence of “military-patriotic” training in schools, kindergartens and clubs

Russian schools are witnessing a growing presence of Kalashnikov assault rifles, which find their place alongside blackboards and learning materials. As of September 2023, basic military training will be incorporated into the official Russian school curriculum. This shift has even extended to some kindergartens, where children are being taught how to properly assemble an assault rifle. Meanwhile, military-patriotic clubs are taking over spaces previously used for creative activities.

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  • The assault rifle comes to school

  • The assault rifle comes to kindergarten

The assault rifle comes to school

The government's recent decision represents a resurgence of “basic military training,” a program similar to the one that existed during the Soviet era before it was discontinued in 1993. At that time, schoolchildren were instructed in self-defense tactics in the event of a nuclear or chemical attack, first aid techniques, and how to handle firearms. In 2000, the Putin administration reverted to the czarist and Soviet-era view of the military as a source of patriotic education and a means of rallying people around a strong leader by developing patriotism. The following year, the Russian Ministry of Defense was designated as one of the three institutions responsible for implementing the Concept of Patriotic Education of Russian Citizens.

Over the past few months, organizations focused on patriotic outreach to youth have increased their efforts to provide military training, including the use of weapons. Additionally, some of these groups have started visiting schools to promote their practices and ideology to other students. In certain instances, schools themselves are going beyond these efforts by providing their own military training programs, which can include firearms training.

Following the annexation of Crimea, there has been a significant rise in the number of military-patriotic clubs (VPKs) offering military education to children. According to official data, there are now over 5,500 such clubs. In 2015, Defense Minister Shoigu, in conjunction with the presidential administration, established the Yunarmiya [Youth Army] movement, which seeks to introduce young people to the fundamentals of military training and to “preserve and expand patriotic traditions.” The organization's website claims a membership of 1.25 million, which includes Ukrainian children from Mariupol who were forcibly enrolled in its ranks.

While the use of firearms was already a part of the Yunarmiya's training prior to the Ukrainian invasion, reports of teenagers receiving intensified military training are now frequently appearing on the social media pages of the organization's regional branches. For instance, in Magnitogorsk, 40 members of the Yunarmiya and VPKs recently participated in the “Spartakiade - 2023,” an event in which they swam with Kalashnikov assault rifles while dressed in camouflage.

According to the municipality's website, it is not just boys who express an interest in participating in the swimming event while carrying a 3.5-kilogram assault rifle - girls also want to take part. The website highlights a quote from one participant who said, “I prefer swimming with an assault rifle.” Additionally, children, who are often referred to as “fighters” in regional media, are being instructed in military tactics and trained to navigate snowy terrain while dressed in uniform and carrying assault rifles.

Besides the increasing radicalization of the VPKs and Yunarmiya's activities, there are also new institutions emerging with a responsibility for “patriotic education.” One of these institutions is the Leader club, also known as Wagneryonok, which was established in late January 2023. The club, which allegedly has around 40 members, including minors recruited primarily through VKontakte, provides training in drone flying, arranges talks with bloggers and militaristic politicians, and supervises teenagers in making trench candles. Although the source of the club's financing is unknown, it is located in the Wagner PMC center in St. Petersburg, built by Yevgeny Prigozhin.

These military-patriotic groups are contributing to the Russian invasion in different ways. The Yunarmiya and the VPKs show support for soldiers by sending letters and collecting donations for “humanitarian aid.” Moreover, instructors from these organizations are involved in training new recruits or even deployed to the front lines. An example of this is the Bastion military-patriotic club based in Stavropol, where one of their instructors used the club's VKontakte page to gather funds for a sniper who he trained and who was subsequently mobilized.

In some instances, schools have proactively taken it upon themselves to train children in the use of firearms. In February, several schools in St. Petersburg were inspected by the prosecutor's office, and the Kuibyshev court was petitioned after it was discovered that School #294 in the Central district was lacking “essential materials,” including F-1 and RGD-5 grenades, and Kalashnikov assault rifles. Despite objections from the school director, the prosecutor's appeal was successful. However, other schools have already procured all the “required” weapons.

Some schools have also been conducting military courses themselves. For instance, in celebration of Fatherland Defender's Day on February 24, 2023, students from School #31 in Yoshkar-Ola learned to throw training grenades, run with weapons, disassemble Kalashnikov assault rifles, and shoot air pistols in the schoolyard in 10-degree frost. One teacher proudly described the students in grades 6 through 10 as “reserve soldiers” who were taught how to handle weapons, provide medical assistance, repel enemy attacks, counterattack at the right moment, run obstacle courses, and shoot accurately from any position.

  • School #31, Yoshkar-Ola

The assault rifle comes to kindergarten

Recently, military-patriotic organizations such as the VPKs and Yunarmia have been visiting schools more often to provide firearms training to younger students. Previously, parents had the choice of whether or not to send their children to these organizations, but now that choice has been taken away. In a school located in the Sverdlovsk region, members of a patriotic club taught children aged 11-15 how to dismantle a Kalashnikov assault rifle on their school desks and how to properly wear a gas mask.

Russian educational institutions are introducing weapons training to children at an increasingly young age in order to instill confidence and encourage them to follow the right path. For example, young soldiers were recently invited to a kindergarten in the Krasnoyarsk region to conduct “combat training” with the children, which included disassembling and assembling automatic weapons together.

The director of the kindergarten confirmed the visit to the local newspaper:

“We work together with schools in the district and city, and as a result, members of Yunarmia visited our kindergarten. The children enjoyed the visit <…> they were already familiar with the concept due to the preparation for the upcoming Defender of the Fatherland Day. The atmosphere was friendly, beautiful and festive, and overall the experience left a positive impression. Of course, the kids want to look like soldiers – fit and brave”.

The newspaper also interviewed a psychotherapist to reassure parents who may have had doubts about the need to teach a 5-year-old child to own a gun. “If the bearer of the weapon has a high degree of responsibility, it is safe for their mental state,” the therapist assured.

On the other hand, some Western and Russian child psychology experts do not share the optimistic view of their colleagues. Dr. Philip D. Yaffe, a child rights specialist, has expressed to The Insider his concern about the militarization of the Russian educational system, stating that “it is causing significant anxiety around the world.”

“This is a highly significant and concerning step, as it fundamentally alters the concept of childhood. In most countries, adults aim to shield children from violence - not only violence directed towards them, but also from the broader violence in the world, which can adversely impact their development. […] While some countries do offer basic military training to children, they do not include teaching children to kill “enemies” using weapons. Russia has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child in case of military conflict, and the introduction of basic military training runs counter to the spirit and letter of this convention.”

The specialist emphasizes that in Western societies and in international law, education serves an entirely different purpose. “In this case, the goals of education are akin to preparing them for military service. Children are taught that the use of violence can be considered legitimate and given a legal status, which effectively turns them into potential soldiers.”

Alexander Trosov, professor of psychology, believes that the atmosphere of aggression in which Russia is immersed is even stronger than the school that conditions the development of a child's personality:

“As long as militarism is initially seen as a game or a passing phase, it may not have significant effects on personal development. However, if Russian society begins to strongly identify with military history and the spirit of militant patriotism, the consequences could be more serious. The pervasive discourse of “the whole world being against us” and the idea that “everyone wants to bring the Russians to their knees” and that “we are surrounded by enemies and traitors,” creates a dangerous environment for children. They are constantly surrounded by aggression, and such thinking can lead to different actions, as well as a general stubbornness and reluctance to seek compromise. Children may start to see this as the norm.”

It is not uncommon for military-patriotic organizations to physically take over peaceful institutions. In Moscow, for instance, a youth organization that provided education and cultural activities for socially disadvantaged children lost a municipal competition for the right to continue renting a plot of land it had occupied for 25 years. Instead, a military-patriotic club was granted the right to rent the space free of charge. Officials justified their decision by stating that “military education is now more important than art.” Two individuals familiar with the case confirmed this account.

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