After the full-scale invasion in February 2022, Russian occupying forces quickly took steps to militarize children’s education and infuse it with Kremlin propaganda. Their policy was to blur the Ukrainian identity before imposing a false interpretation of the war as they sought to Russify young people. In the pre-2022 occupied territory of Eastern Ukraine, where the Ukrainian language was already banned in schools and Russian imposed, the invasion saw the occupiers step up their efforts.
Karina is 11 years old. She lives in Yalta, Crimea, and all her classes are taught in Russian. When the illegal annexation began in 2014, she was just two, and the only Ukrainian words she knows are diakuiu (thank you), dobroho ranku (good morning), and do pobachennia (bye). This handful of phrases she has learned from her parents.
“It wasn’t possible for us to leave the peninsula after the annexation”, Karina’s mother said in an interview. “But now we understand the only way to preserve her Ukrainian identity would have been to flee the peninsula nine years ago.”
Karina, whose name has been changed to protect her and her family, is not an exception. Most children in Crimea who stayed on the peninsula after the annexation were unable to continue Ukrainian classes at school. Russia’s occupying administration seeks first to blur and then erase the memory of the Ukrainian language and culture.
The switch from a Ukrainian to a Russian curriculum was first enforced in occupied Donbas and illegally annexed Crimea, and is now spreading to the more recently occupied territories of Zaporizhzhia and Kherson oblasts. In Berdiansk, in Zaporizhzhia Oblast, Russian forces raided family homes to check children weren’t following online Ukrainian study programs. Parents have been threatened with fines, and even warned their children will be taken from them, if they refuse to send them to Russian schools.
Occupying forces have also ordered parents to state in writing that their children don’t want to learn Ukrainian in order to justify the cancellation of lessons in the language, the Kyiv-based National Resistance Center reported.
School children are forced to write letters to Russian military personnel, play the Russian national anthem before classes, and hold a mandatory “hour about important matters,” in which they are taught the Kremlin’s interpretation of the war, the center reported.
Alongside changes to the curriculum, the occupying authorities have also opened a range of Cossack, cadet, and other uniformed quasi-military organizations in schools. Members are overseen by supervisors from the military or law-enforcement agencies and taught to assemble and disassemble a machine gun, as well as attending lessons in the workings of the Russian government and legal system.
The cadet classes, which also began in Crimea and Donbas, started appearing in other occupied territories after the full-scale invasion. Volodymyr Saldo, the Russian-appointed governor of the occupied area of Kherson Oblast, announced in February that his administration planned to set up two cadet units for children in occupied Skadovsk, named after Aleksandr Suvorov, an 18th-century Russian general. Cossack classes with “proper patriotic education” for children aged six and over have also begun in occupied in Luhansk Oblast. Parents who didn’t want their children to join were told they would lose their parental rights.
The occupiers have also used Yunarmiya, a Moscow based military-patriotic movement which prepares children to serve in the Russian armed forces, to try to build loyalty in occupied Ukraine. The organization, which was sanctioned by the European Union (EU) for its propaganda activities last year, was operating in Crimea before the full-scale invasion and now has branches in the occupied territories of Zaporizhzhia and Kherson oblasts.
And it’s not the only youth organization being used in the Kremlin’s propaganda drive. The state-backed Russian youth organization Movement of the First, a version of the Soviet-era Young Pioneers with a mission to “educate the patriotic spirit of youth,” is also active in the occupied territories, while the Putin-supporting United Russia party has opened “children’s recreation centers” offering sports and arts facilities with heavy Russian branding.
Russia has also launched a range of “treatment camps” and educational trips to the Federation to re-educate and Russify young Ukrainians. The Children of Donbas program, for example, aims to “closely involve the children of Donbas and new territories in the life of Russia, strengthen ties with the regions . . . and make them true patriots of their Motherland — the Russian Federation,” according to its website. Children from the occupied territories are given a Kremlin-sanctioned version of events and told the war is to “to protect people from Nazis.”
At the beginning of 2023, 414 children from occupied Horlivka were taken to the Rostov region for “celebrations” intended to show how “happy and carefree” life was in Russia in contrast to the chaos of war in Ukraine. Children from Lysychansk and Sievierodonetsk were also transported to camps in Russia’s Stavropol Oblast for “treatment.” They were told Ukraine started the war, and famous Russian actors, sportsmen, and bloggers recited Kremlin propaganda to them.
As another part of this strategy, Ukrainian kids have been promised free places at Russian universities. In February, the occupying forces took 50 high school students from the occupied city of Lysychansk to Yelabuga, in the Russian Republic of Tatarstan, to prepare for the Unified Russian State Exam, a series of tests every student must pass to enter a Russian university or professional college.
Whatever the method, every program is designed to show children and young people a Russian version of reality. Using Kremlin-backed propaganda, the occupiers seek to impose common enemies on the next generation — Ukraine itself and the countries that make up NATO.
Today’s pupils and cadets are tomorrow’s soldiers, and Moscow wants to ensure they are in no doubt on which side they should be fighting.
Elina Beketova is an in-residence fellow with the Democracy Fellowship program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA.) Her research focuses on Ukraine’s temporarily occupied territories. She has previously worked as a journalist, editor and TV anchor for various news stations in Kharkiv and Kyiv.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.