The Re-education of Ukraine’s Children

Masho Lomashvili

 

Earlier this summer, in June, children from an occupied region of Luhansk were taken to a summer camp in Russia. The camp was made up of both Russian and Ukrainian children. The goal, authorities say, was to distract children from the grim reality of war.

During the 10-day camp, activities included history lessons in which the children were taught that Ukraine was a Russian land. Belén Carrasco Rodríguez from the Center for Information Resilience, who investigated this case as part of a recently published report on Russian propaganda, told me that the “key thing with this camp is that these children are in crisis mode and when they leave the crisis they feel relaxed. So they associate this feeling of relief with the Russian government taking them away from the war, to a happy place.” 

The camp seems in keeping with the “Russification” of Ukrainian children through the use of propaganda.

Renee Hobbs, a professor of communication studies at the Harrington School of Communication and Media at the University of Rhode Island, explained why children are a perfect target audience for propaganda. “Children,” she says, “generally lack critical thinking and analysis skills as well as the contextual or background knowledge needed to evaluate media messages.” They are “naturally drawn to authority figures, are literal in their thinking, and respond well when feelings of belonging are cultivated.”

In the Donbas region, for instance, the curriculum is designed to emphasize natural and close historical ties with Russia. Already, newly occupied areas like Mariupol face the same threat. 

According to a Mariupol city official, Petro Andryushchenko, whose social media posts have been widely quoted, “throughout the summer, children will have to study Russian language, literature, and history, as well as math classes in Russian.” Yuri Sobolevsky, the First Deputy Chairman of the Kherson Regional Council, says Russia wants to send Ukrainian teachers to Crimean retraining camps. 

“Sometimes,” Hobbes told me, “we can learn to critically analyze these old ideas in high school or in college, or later in life. But studies of denazification in Germany, reveal how difficult it is to shift attitudes and beliefs acquired in childhood.” 

Re-education and indoctrination, of course, are not limited to Ukrainian children alone. Belén Carrasco Rodríguez in her report, “The Kremlin’s Generation Z,” writes about Lyosha Pavlichenko, “an unknown eight-year-old boy” who was so deliberately and successfully turned into a propaganda weapon in a few short weeks that in May, he was taken “on tours in Russia and Belarus to mobilize support for the war in Ukraine.”

Whatever the effects on Russian children, though, it is in Ukraine that the indoctrination efforts are taking a horrifying turn. In March, the United Nations sounded a somber warning about the risk of forced adoptions by Russians of Ukrainian children, some 91,000 of whom were in institutions and boarding schools, mostly in the east. 

IN GLOBAL NEWS

“Essentially,” said disgruntled Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, “RT has been blocked and cannot operate in Europe.” The net is tightening around Russian attempts to publish propaganda around the world. 

On July 27, an European Union court in Luxembourg dismissed an appeal by RT France to overturn a ban on content from Russian state-owned media like RT and Sputnik being distributed and broadcast across the EU. The decision was received with dismay in the Kremlin, with Peskov telling select reporters that the court’s decision was “extremely negative.” Europeans, he added, “are trampling on their own ideals.”

RT can still appeal the decision to a higher court.

Meanwhile, in the United States, on July 27, three senators joined forces to warn the bosses at Telegram, Meta and Twitter to “remain vigilant about the ability of known purveyors of Russian disinformation to propagate falsehoods about Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, whether in Spanish or any other language.”

In jointly-signed identical letters sent to each of the three platforms, the senators wrote that RT and Sputnik “actively spread English and Spanish-language disinformation across Latin America and the Caribbean.” Both outlets were described in the letter as “the cornerstone of Russia’s disinformation and propaganda ecosystem.”

Some experts have likened the battle over information to a new, digital Cold War. As if in confirmation of such analyses, French President Emmanuel Macron and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov are both in Africa spinning diametrically opposed stories. For Lavrov, the West’s position on Ukraine has pushed Africa into a food crisis. While for Macron, the French are now seeking to reestablish relationships in Africa as a bulwark against the neo-colonial aspirations of both China and Russia.

The politics of information are being played out on a global scale between Russia and China on one side and the West on the other. On a local level, countries continue to wage internal campaigns against disinformation that are marked less by an interest in the truth than an interest in muffling dissent. On July 27 (a busy day in the disinformation wars), a Nicaraguan court sentenced opposition leader Yubrank Suazo to prison for 10 years. His “crimes” include the undermining of national integrity and spreading false news. 

Though human rights groups insist his only offense was to be a prominent face in the protests against Nicaraguan strongman Daniel Ortega in 2018, for which he was already arrested and spent a year in prison before being released in an amnesty deal. Back then, the government meted out shocking violence against citizens, with some 355 protesters dying at the hands of Nicaraguan security forces.

This newsletter is curated by Coda’s senior editor Shougat Dasgupta. Erica Hellerstein contributed to this edition. 

Disinfo Matters looks beyond fake news to examine how the manipulation of narratives and rewriting of history is reshaping our world.

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