On Monday, February 28, during a social studies class in a high school in Russia’s Far East, a leaflet was handed out to students. It read in part:
Everyone should answer the question: what do we want? To continue supporting the fascist regime in Ukraine, which is hazing its people with propaganda, just like the Germans did before World War Two. Or we finally install peace, putting an end to the ongoing war that has been happening for eight years, and saving our beloved country.
Across 7 time zones, in Moscow, teachers received detailed instructions on how to talk about the country’s invasion of Ukraine, now in its fifth day. The instructions were so detailed, in fact, that it gave exact answers to the possible questions their students may ask:
Q: Why is the war happening?
A: NATO enlargement and its approach to Russia’s borders is a threat to all of us. There are sad cases of Iraq, Libya and Syria. What’s more, Ukraine could create nuclear weapons. Considering the current regime in that country it’s a direct threat to Russia.
Russia’s government started its first attempts to control the education narrative a few days before the invasion when a 24-year-old teacher in a regional school woke up to an unusual message in one of her WhatsApp groups.
“We ask you to conduct a special class between 24 and 25th of February on this topic,” the message from the school administration said. It linked to Vladimir Putin’s speech in which he called Ukraine an “inalienable part” of Russian history and said Russians and Ukrainians as people “bound by blood.” In this televised address, he said parts of Ukraine needed to be defended from an impending “genocide” and warned Ukraine’s exceptional levels of corruption had to be dealt with.
The regional minister of education had signed a letter of instruction to teachers stating that the main objective of the special class is “to instill patriotism and pride for the country.” The letter was soon shared on social media. In Crimea, the Ukrainian region annexed by Russia in 2014, the ministry of education replicated the same objectives.
Teachers in at least seven other regions of Russia were sent similar instructions to conduct a special class to indoctrinate schoolchildren with Putin’s arguments for the Ukraine invasion, either via official letters sent to school principals or informally via chats with individual teachers. Local media outlets have reported the special classes are to begin March 1.
“History is happening before our eyes! The most important historical events, which will enter the history books of many generations of Russians, are taking place,” read a social media post published by the ministry of education in the Kaluzhsky region, which is near Moscow.
The instructions have met with immediate resistance from teachers. “I plan to teach my children as usual. I will not say anything,” said a teacher who asked to be identified by only her first name, Dasha, because she feared she would lose her job for a second time. “I had already lost my job once for signing a petition from teachers, and then there wasn’t even a war.” Dasha is not the only dissenting teacher. As of March 1 more than 4,300 teachers from across the country have signed an official address to the government opposing the war.
The Kremlin has aggressively pushed its messaging not only to schools. It has provided sanctioned language about the war — including that it not to be called a war — to organizations as diverse as newsrooms and theaters across the country.
Pushback against the Kremlin’s point of view has had consequences. Over the weekend, an independent teachers union shared a screenshot of a message they received from a teacher at a college near Moscow that she had been summoned into a meeting with the school director after signing an online petition. In the Siberian city of Omsk, a university professor was questioned and threatened by federal police after announcing his opposition to the war on social media.
All of which reminds parents of the Soviet era. “My grandmother brought up my mother during the Stalin era with my father locked in the gulag. I was brought up in the Brezhnev era. I always remember my mother’s words: never mention in school what we say at home. And I raise my children the same way,” said Yulia, a mother of three in Moscow who declined to state her full name out of fear for her safety.
Controlling the conversation in schools is part of the government’s strategy of tightening censorship and controlling the digital space, and come on the heels of restricting access to social media platforms, passing highly intrusive data collection laws on tech companies, and years of criminal prosecutions for social media behavior, including simply liking a Facebook post the government finds objectionable.
On February 24, the day Russian forces invaded Ukraine, Russia’s media regulator Roskomnadzor announced that all Russian media must only publish or broadcast official information on the war provided by the government.
Under government pressure, Facebook took actions against several Russian state media outlets for spreading allegedly false messages about Russia’s invasion. It blocked RIA Novosti for 90 days and removed its access to Facebook Ads. The news agency said it considered Facebook’s decision “another blatant violation of freedom of speech by the American social network” and appealed to Roskomnadzor to resolve the issue. The regulator responded by advising the population to switch to homegrown social media platforms.
“Roskomnadzor is trying to install a military censorship in Russia,” Tikhon Dzyadko, editor-in-chief of Russia’s last independent broadcast news station, Dozhd, wrote on Twitter. Dozhd has been labeled a “foreign agent” by the Russian government and must post warnings about its content.
At least 16 media outlets have been blocked by Roskomnadzor since the start of the war.
On February 25, Russia announced it was limiting access to Meta’s platforms.
The crackdown has extended to theaters. Mayakovsky Theater, an important cultural center in Moscow, received a government email “to refrain from any comments on the course of military actions in Ukraine,” warning that anyone who chose to make comments critical of the invasion would be “letting the theater down.” Any negative comments would be “regarded as treason against the Motherland,” the message read.
Elena Kovalskaya, director of the Meyerhold Center, resigned in the face of censorship. She posted on Facebook that “it is impossible to work for a murderer and receive a salary from him.”