How the Kremlin is militarizing Russian society

MOSCOW – Stepping onto a podium in heavy boots and military fatigues at a ceremony outside Moscow, six teenagers received awards for an increasingly important discipline in Russia: patriotism.

For days, students from across the country took part in activities such as card reading, shooting and history quizzes. The competition was funded in part by the Kremlin, which made “patriotic military” education a priority.

“Parents and children understand that this aggressive shell around us, it tightens, it hardens,” said Sviatoslav Omelchenko, a KGB special forces veteran who founded Vympel, the group that organizes the event. “We are doing everything we can to make sure the children are aware of this and to prepare them to go and serve.”

For the past eight years, the Russian government has promoted the idea that the homeland is surrounded by enemies, filtering the concept through national institutions like schools, the military, the media, and the Orthodox Church. He even raised the possibility that the country will have to defend itself again as it did against the Nazis in WWII.

Now, as Russia massages on the Ukrainian border, sparking Western fears of an impending invasion, the constant militarization of Russian society under President Vladimir V. Putin is suddenly looming and seems to have gotten a lot used to the idea. that a fight could occur. .

“The authorities are actively selling the idea of ​​war,” said Dmitry A. Muratov, the editor of the Russian newspaper which shared the Nobel Peace Prize this year, in his acceptance speech in Oslo this month. . “People are getting used to the thought of its legality.”

Speaking to Russian military leaders on Tuesday, Putin insisted that Russia did not want bloodshed, but was ready to respond with “military and technical measures” to what he described as the aggressive behavior of the West in the region.

While there is no outbreak of war fever, there are many signs that the government is harboring preparation for conflict. A four-year, $ 185 million program launched by the Kremlin this year aims to dramatically increase Russians’ “patriotic education”, including a plan to attract at least 600,000 children as young as 8 to join. the ranks of an army of young people in uniform. Adults receive their education from state television, where political broadcasts – one called “Moscow.” Kremlin. Putin. – bring into play the story of a fascist coup d’état in Ukraine and a West determined to destroy Russia.

And all are united by the almost sacred memory of the Soviet victory in World War II – a memory the state seized upon to shape the identity of a triumphant Russia that must be ready to take up arms once again. more.

Aleksei Levinson, head of socio-cultural research at the Levada Center, an independent Moscow pollster, calls the trend the “militarization of consciousness” of the Russians. In the centre’s regular surveys, in 2018 the army became the most reliable institution in the country, overtaking even the president. This year, the proportion of Russians who said they feared a world war reached the highest level recorded in surveys dating back to 1994: 62%.

This does not mean, Mr. Levinson warned, that the Russians would be in favor of a bloody territorial conquest of Ukraine. But that means, he said, that many have been conditioned to accept that Russia is locked into an existential rivalry with other powers in which the use of force is a possibility.

The celebration of the victory of the Soviet Union over Nazi Germany in World War II – called the Great Patriotic War in Russia – played the most important role in this conditioning. Rather than promoting only a culture of remembrance of Soviet heroism and the 27 million lives lost, the Kremlin applies the WWII narrative to the present day, positioning Russia as once again threatened by determined enemies to its destruction.

In his annual Victory Day speech this year after a monumental military parade, Mr. Putin tore apart current anonymous Russian enemies who were redeploying the Nazis’ “delusional theory of their exclusivity”. On state television last week, a news anchor ridiculed threats of sanctions against Russia from those “who don’t know how to frighten a people who have lost more than 20 million people. its men, its women, its old people and its children during the last war ”.

A popular WWII bumper sticker reads, “We can do it again.”

“There is a transposition of this victory” – in World War II – “in the current confrontation with the NATO bloc,” Mr Levinson said.

An hour west of Moscow, the Great Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces opened last year. Its exterior is army green and its floors are made from weapons and tanks seized from the German Wehrmacht. The arched stained glass windows feature badges and medals.

On a recent Sunday, the church and its museum and accompanying park were full of visitors. A group of fifth graders from the Suvorov Military School in Tver, dressed in their uniforms, marched in two lines before heading to the museum. Their instructor said it was fundamentally important for students in their first year of military school to learn more about their predecessors.

“We also do a bit of propaganda,” joked the section chief, refusing to give his name.

Beyond the church grounds, visitors walked through snow-capped trenches in a mock front line. Further on, under the towering dome of the church, children could ride a go-kart like a track in a miniature replica of a battle tank.

“All children should come here and develop an interest in history from an early age,” said Alina Grengolm, as her 2-year-old son climbed an icy reservoir with the help of his father.

Recently in Moscow, more than 600 people from all over Russia gathered for a government-sponsored forum to promote patriotism among young people. Sergei Kiriyenko, the powerful deputy chief of staff of Mr. Putin, congratulated the participants for having done “sacred work”.

At the conference, two “victory volunteers” spoke about their plans to teach high school students about Russia’s victory in World War II at a regional event the following week.

In a Levada poll released last week, 39% of Russians said war between Russia and Ukraine was either inevitable or very likely. Half of them said the US and NATO were to blame for the recent rise in tensions, and no more than 4% – across all age groups – said Russia was at fault .

The belief across society that Russia is not the aggressor reflects a fundamental ideology dating back to Soviet times: that the country only fights defensive wars. The government has even earmarked money for films that explore this theme: in April, the Ministry of Culture decreed that “Russia’s historic victories” and “Russia’s peacekeeping mission” part of the priority topics for film producers seeking government funding.

“At the moment, the idea is put forward that Russia is a peace-loving country permanently surrounded by enemies,” said Anton Dolin, Russian film critic. “This is contradicted by some facts, but if you show it in movies and translate this idea back to the days of the Great Patriotic War, we all instantly get a pattern familiar to everyone from childhood.”

On Russian state television, the tale of a neo-Nazi-controlled Ukraine used as a playground for Western aggression has been a common trope since the pro-Western revolution in Kiev in 2014. After the revolution, Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula from Crimea, instigated war in eastern Ukraine, and sharpened its message about Russia as a “besieged fortress.”

Some analysts fear that escalating rhetoric may lay the groundwork for what Russia would present as a defensive intervention to protect its security and Russian-speaking people in Ukraine. Yevgeny Popov, a newly elected MP and host of a popular political program on state television, said in an interview that his ratings had increased in recent weeks – “the tension is rising,” he said. declared.

“I think most people in Russia would only be supportive if we stood up for the Russians who live in these territories,” Popov said, referring to the separatist territories of Ukraine where hundreds of thousands of people have received the Russian nationality.

The effectiveness of the state’s militarized messaging is subject to debate. Polls show that young people have a more positive outlook on the West than older Russians, and pro-Kremlin sentiment over the annexation of Crimea appears to have dissipated amid economic stagnation.

But the Kremlin doubles. His drive to increase “patriotic education” includes funding groups like Vympel. The “patriotic military” organization has around 100 branches across the country and organized the recent skills competition in the city of Vladimir which ended on Thursday.

Veronika Osipova, 17, from the city of Rostov-on-Don, near the Ukrainian border, won the award for best female student. For years she played the harp, graduating with honors from an elite music school. But in 2015, she began to learn to shoot a machine gun and throw grenades. She decided to join the Russian army to protect the country from its enemies.

“I am the example of the girls who, under bullets and grenades, went to fight during the Great Patriotic War,” Ms. Osipova said. “They had no choice, but we have it, and I choose the military.”

Anton Troianovsky brought back from Moscow, Ivan Nechepurenko from Vladimir, from Russia, and Valerie Hopkins from Kubinka, Russia. Alina Lobzina contributed reporting from Moscow.

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