Control, militarization and Russification: how Russians brainwash Ukrainian children in the occupied territories

"Russians take children out of town, dress them in military uniforms, give them certain roles, such as a drone operator, sapper or paratrooper, and then organize 'military-patriotic games'. But everyone realizes that this is actually a way to prepare children in the occupied territories to be drafted in the war," says Stanislav Zakharevych, head of the occupied community in Zaporizhzhia Oblast.

Читати українською

In the occupied territories, Russians suppress active pro-Ukrainian youth, tightly control students, and promote their propaganda through the "Movement of the First", an organization that copies the pioneer movement in the Soviet Union. This happens from morning to night: at school, young people are brainwashed by teachers, and all their free time is occupied by the curators of the "Movement of the First". We talked about it with Stanislav and people living in the occupied territories.

Occupation and captivity

Stanislav Zakharevych is the head of the Sofiyivka village military administration in the Berdiansk district of the Zaporizhzhia region. In the first days of the full-scale war against Ukraine, the Russian army invaded this community. Stanislav stayed there and helped the locals until the Russians captured him on April 25, 2022.

The occupiers threw him into a punishment cell and forced him to collaborate. There were many civilian prisoners in the same prison as Stanislav, including three teenagers aged 16-17.

"The occupiers said that they had allegedly stolen a car, but these were fake accusations. From the first day of the occupation, the Russians have been doing everything to destroy potential resistance among young people. There were teens from the city of Berdiansk in prison with me, and I don't know anything about their fate after I was released," Zakharevych recalls.

This is not a unique case - in the village of Sofiyivka, where Stanislav used to live, someone removed the Soviet flag from the building of the seized village council and burned it. The Russians accused three teenagers, aged 15 and 16, of this. "Invaders captured them, took them to the Prymorskyi district police station and tortured them," Zakharevych said. And in 2023, in the Berdiansk mentioned above, the occupiers killed two teenagers and called them "pro-Ukrainian terrorists."

Stanislav was released after 34 days of captivity, but later the Russians continued to persecute him. The man went into hiding and eventually managed to escape from the occupied territories to Zaporizhzhia and began helping residents of his community from there. Now, Zakharevych helps the refugees in this city and keeps in touch with the community under occupation, including the parents of children who stayed there.

Control in schools

At the end of the summer of 2022, the Russians set themselves a demonstrative goal of launching an "educational process" in the occupied territories. But in fact, the occupiers are using schools not to educate children but to spread their propaganda and brainwash Ukrainian pupils.

Therefore, the Russians began to persuade educators to cooperate. In the Sofiyivka community, this mission failed.

"In some schools, only 1-2 teachers agreed to work according to the 'Russian program', so they failed to open for students on September 1. Then they began to use harsher methods against parents and teachers and engaged all kinds of unprofessional staff, including 17-year-olds who graduated from schools in May 2022," says Stanislav.

Thus, Russians opened three schools in October and two more in November in the Sofiyivka community.

Invaders forced Ukranians to attend their school. If parents did not send their children to school, Russians would visit and threaten them. It is worth noting here that children in the occupied territories are not left without education if they ignore Russian schools. Ukrainian teachers teach them online. And the occupiers are very afraid of this.

We wrote in detail about how Russians seized schools, persuaded educators to collaborate, and how teachers of a Kherson school organized underground teaching of the Ukrainian curriculum during the occupation here.

Either your child goes to school tomorrow, or we take your children away from you and take you to the war zone.

"It happened like this: representatives of the occupation authorities come to the parents' homes and give them an ultimatum: either your child goes to school tomorrow, or we take your children away from you, then take you to Vasylivka near the frontline, and you walk from there to Ukraine through the war zone.

The Russians did practice deporting people and even filmed them walking toward Ukraine. But these people very often do not reach Ukraine - either Russians take them back to the occupied territory to punishment cells or kill them. It is clear that parents have no choice after such an "offer"," says the head of the occupied community.

And inside those schools, instead of studying, children face a level of control that resembles a prison. The occupiers put so-called "civilian paramilitary guards" in schools. Two to five people with machine guns are constantly present in each educational institution, says Zakharevych.

Those guards check students' backpacks at the entrance and during classes and take away their phones. Some schools allow students to keep their smartphones but require them to turn them off and prohibit children from taking photos or videos inside the school. It is impossible to do this even in secret because the guards with machine guns check the messages, contacts, and galleries on students' phones.

And in the classroom, teachers promote pro-Kremlin propaganda and intimidate children.

One teacher told elementary school students that if the Ukrainian army returned there, they would all kill them for going to a Russian school.

"Children are forced to sing the Russian anthem, encouraged to watch Russian news, told how good the Russian government is and that Ukrainians are Nazis. Propaganda is conducted not only in history, geography and Russian language classes, where it would at least be logical but also in math and biology classes. One teacher told elementary school students that if the Ukrainian army returned there, they would all kill them for going to a Russian school," Zakharevych says.

Back to the USSR

To prevent young Ukrainians from even having time to think about Ukraine and all the war crimes that Russia have done to their nation, Russians are trying to occupy all the free time of schoolchildren. In September 2022, Kremlin authorities created the "Movement of the First" - a copy of the pioneer movement in the USSR - specifically for this purpose.

On its website, the Movement describes itself as follows: "Movement of the First is hundreds of unique programs of education and formation of personality, active and responsible youth community, for which respect for traditions and cultures of the peoples of Russia, historical continuity and involvement with the fate of the country, in which the primary value was, is and will be — the family, are essential."

But in fact, this is just another opportunity for the Russians to brainwash children across the country and in the occupied territories of Ukraine.

Stanislav Zakharevych said that children in the occupied territories are also forced to join this Movement, even though Russian authorities claim it is a voluntary organization. The messages on forums and reports by Russian journalists revealed that children in Russian schools are also forced to join this Movement. Teachers force students to register on a special portal of the Movement and send a screenshot of successful registration to confirm it. Teachers say the school administration will "make conclusions about those who didn't register."

In the occupied territories, Russians don't waste time on trifles - they don't ask but force children to register with the Movement right in class. Some teachers told parents that their children must join the Movement if they want to avoid "big problems." This is what residents of the occupied territories told us (we interviewed residents of different communities in different Ukrainian regions occupied in 2022 under condition of anonymity). According to Zakharevych, the occupation authorities come to the parents of children who are not registered in the Movement and promise to take away their parental rights.

One of our interviewees from the occupied territory said that she did not even know that her children were forced to join this organization and realized this after we contacted her.

Inside the Movement

Then, teachers add the registered children to a Viber chat with a curator. The latter gives them tasks, such as organizing a clean-up day, a bike ride, or visualizing their dreams with their classmates on a poster.

"In most schools, these groups are led by teachers or deputy principals, but there are unknown curators in some chats. Teachers in such a school told children it was some guy from Berdiansk. We don't know who it is, but I have a hunch that it could even be representatives of the Russian special services," says Stanislav Zakharevych.

While completing these tasks, the students get together, and the curators continue talking about Russia's greatness. At one of the meetings, the students created a collage of their memories and plans for the future. For some reason, right in the middle of the paper, there is a photo of the Russian dictator and war criminal Vladimir Putin, and next to it is a photo of Cheburashka in military uniform - this cartoon character has somehow become a fetish for the current Russian regime.

Фотографія плакату, який зробили школярі з окупованих територій

The poster that Ukrainian children on the occupied territories created

Other tasks are even more obviously aimed at "re-educating" and militarizing Ukrainian youth. For example, the Movement organizes meetings with "heroes of the special military operation," forces children to write letters to soldiers of the occupation forces right in class, and participates in the Russian "pobedobesiye" — the cult of victory of the Soviet Union in the Second World War that modern Russia exploits for propaganda purposes to justify aggressive policies and increased militarism.

"Вікна перемоги" на окупованих територіях

An example of "pobedobesiye" — children are decorating a window to celebrate the Victory Day three weeks before the actual holiday

The Movement also organizes an analogue of the Soviet game Zarnitsa, called Zarnitsa 2.0. Curators take children out of town, dress them in military uniforms, assign roles, and hold "military-patriotic game." The children try out the role of a Russian soldier: they practice piloting drones and shooting.

"This is actually preparing children to participate in the war, and everyone understands this. Russians assign children a military speciality and train them in it for a certain period of time. But this is not enough — Russian authorities have announced that they will teach children to pilot drones at schools," Zakharevych says.

Residents of the occupied territories with whom we spoke said that they try to avoid their children's participation in the Movement's tasks and say that children of the pro-Russian population are most often active there. Parents said they secretly talk to their children about Ukraine and encourage them to learn the Ukrainian language and history. However, one resident said that the school does everything to break children.

Unfortunately, this propaganda works somewhere. Another resident of the occupied community told us that after the occupation in 2022, propaganda had a substantial impact on her teenage child. Still, she could not do anything about it to avoid completely ruining her relationship with her child.

19 billion

The Russian government generously sponsors the Movement of the First. According to the organization's chairman of the board, Grigory Gurov, the annual budget for 2023 amounted to 19 billion rubles, or $206 million. The Russians use part of these funds to encourage young people to participate actively in their tasks. The Movement's centres, created in each school, compete with each other, and the winners are promised money or free trips to children's camps. Sometimes, the parents don't even know that their children are going on these trips.

"It was not in our community but in other villages in the occupied territories. Once the children did not return home from school, their parents were scared, and then they learned that the Russians had taken their class to a children's camp in Crimea. Parents can't do anything about it because they are afraid of armed Russians," Zakharevych says.

Collaborator Aliona Trokay supervises this Movement in the temporarily occupied part of Zaporizhzhia region. Before the occupation, Alyona had no experience working with the public sector or youth organizations. Instead, she knew how to do sugaring epilation, sing in a national ensemble, and participate in a Ukrainian version of the TV show "Wife Swap". During the full-scale invasion, Trokai began cooperating with the invaders, persuaded her father-in-law to guide missile strikes on Zaporizhzhia, and her husband joined the Russian army.

We tried to reach Trokay for comment, but her number was unavailable.

This article was originally written in Ukrainian. It has been translated into English using AI tools such as DeepL, ChatGPT, and Grammarly. If you encounter an error that requires immediate attention, please inform us via Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Your understanding and support are appreciated.

occupation eng education brainwashing

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