Pro-Russian Telegram channels are already filled with projects for young people in occupied Zaporizhzhia and Kherson Oblasts and similar russification programs will be stepped up in 2024, when 45.85 billion rubles (around $470 million) have been earmarked for the “Patriotic Education of Citizens of the Russian Federation.”
The increased funding comes after Russian President Vladimir Putin instructed the Ministry of Education and Science, the Ministry of Education, and the Federal Agency for Youth Affairs to take additional steps to increase work with young people in the “new regions,” a euphemism for the occupied territories.
A presidential decree issued in July ordered the intensification of “work with the youth of the Donetsk People’s Republic, Luhansk People’s Republic, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions on issues of harmonizing interethnic relations and strengthening the all-Russian civic identity.” It also called for “information work in the student and school environment regarding the explanation of the reasons and objectives of the special military operation.”
Occupied Zaporizhzhia now has its first “mobile cultural centers,” trucks with generators, speakers, a stage, modern screens, and WiFi that can move from town to town in the style of the agit-trains that carried film projectors and propaganda around the Soviet Union.
“The house of culture on wheels has all the necessary equipment, a stage, and you can bring it to people in the most remote region,” Aleksei Lysov, one of the collaborators involved in the project, said in a video posted on a pro-Russian Telegram channel. “It can be installed in just one hour. You can show a film, you can have a theater performance.” By the end of 2023, the Zaporizhzhia region will have seven mobile clubs to take out to rural areas.
The widespread opening of youth clubs – on wheels or in communities – is not just about propaganda for the Russian forces, but also a method for recruiting young people into the Russian world.
The significance of the mission for the Kremlin was underlined when Sergey Kiriyenko, First Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration, visited a new training center for youth workers in Zaporizhzhia.
“They will work with leaders of public organizations and create youth projects that will help folks implement their ideas,” the pro-Russian Zaporizhzhia Herald Telegram channel said in a post about the new center. “Special attention is paid to the cultural and social integration of young people into the big family – Russia – in the new regions.”
The Russian occupiers are also using festivals for “exchange experiences” between young people from Russia and Ukraine’s occupied territories. The titles of programs at the “Russia is Us” patriotic forum, held in Crimea, left little doubt about the event’s intent. “Love for the Motherland – big and small”, “We are Russians”, and “Russia is a land of opportunities”, were just three of those on offer.
Moscow has sought to add international flair by involving people from different countries. The World Festival of Youth, which will take place in Krasnodar Krai, Russia, in March 2024, is actively seeking volunteers in Ukraine’s occupied territories.
School exchanges and sports festivals, where children from Ukraine’s occupied territories go to compete in Russia and vice versa, are continuing, but more direct methods of recruitment to the Russian mindset are also evident in military and political activities offered to young people in the occupied regions.
The House of Yunarmiya, a military-patriotic movement based in Moscow that prepares children to serve in the armed forces, is opening a unit at Ukraine’s Melitopol State University, while the Young Guard of United Russia, the youth wing of the United Russia party, has opened a branch in Mykhailivka, Zaporizhzhia Oblast.
Artem Burlakov, a young man from the occupied part of Zaporizhzhia Oblast, and an activist in the Young Guard of United Russia, said his involvement meant he had been able to travel to participate in an International Youth Forum in Arkhangelsk, on Russia’s White Sea coast.
“Globally it means exchanging experiences and starting joint projects and cooperation,” he said. “We are considering the option of sending children to patriotic education camps.”
A video about the youth forum posted online, and featuring Burlakov, showed children handling machine guns and other weapons.
A military-patriotic “team-building” event for young people in occupied Berdiansk, on the Zaporizhzhia coast, saw special forces soldiers providing classes in medicine, combat, shooting and operating drones. Drone flying has also been offered in Crimea as part of an “all-Russia” project to provide the military with specialist operators.
The free classes are deliberately used to target teenagers who are at a vulnerable stage of their lives and forming their own views and beliefs. Their parents are busy surviving under occupation, often without jobs and money for long periods, and the activities are attractive to bored young people.
They agree to the free classes – or other apparently innocent activities, such as tree planting in the name of youth environmentalism – and are then exposed to the full range of Russian propaganda.
The Telegram channel of Yug Molodoy (Young South), which organized a tree-planting campaign in occupied Dniprorudne, shows activities ranging from trips to Russia to involvement in social projects. Alongside this, many of its messages touch on “the special military operation,” revealing its true purpose.
Ukraine and the Western world need to pay attention to these territories and teenagers and offer them alternative activities, summer camps, exchange programs, and even online mentorship programs.
They are deprived of choice and have to follow the Russian agenda. If they have a choice, they might be better placed to preserve their identity, even under occupation.
Elina Beketova is a Democracy Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), focusing on the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine. She worked as a journalist, editor, and TV anchor for various news stations in Kharkiv and Kyiv, and currently contributes to the translator’s team of Ukrainska Pravda, Ukraine’s biggest online newspaper.
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.