Generation Z and the Youth Army: How Putin is Employing and Indoctrinating Millions of Russian Children

Moscow’s ability to win (and maintain) support for the war in Ukraine among common Russians is critical to the Kremlin and Putin. Children play a major role in this. There is Jeremiah, the famous Youth Army founded by Putin in 2015, its own version of the Hitler Youth that already has 1 million young people between the ages of 8 and 18 in its ranks. But even children who are not in the youth army, or who are too young for that, are already indoctrinated.

The Kremlin considers young people an essential part of the war effort. The government launched a series of national media campaigns targeting Russian youth to encourage them to view the war in Ukraine as a continuation of World War II and to feel a personal connection to the Russian soldiers fighting there.

Propaganda targeting young people is nothing new for Russia. When the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917, they introduced national military education to prepare the next generation for war. During the Brezhnev period from 1964 to 1982, attention turned to the Soviet Union’s victory over the Nazis in what Russia still calls the “Great Patriotic War.”

There was a strong psychological dimension to national military education in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Heroic stories of self-immolation were used during World War II to develop children’s devotion to the motherland. Whether through group activities for young people or in a more formal learning environment, a clear message has been conveyed to young people: they have a responsibility to preserve the memory of the victory of their parents and grandparents.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the memory of the Great Patriotic War has become more and more important for education in Russia. Young people are not only tasked with preserving the state’s version of history, but they are also expected to be vigilant and denounce the attempts of others to “fake” and “hide” Russia’s historical role in the world.

The memory of the Great Patriotic War is also central to the way Moscow justifies its war in Ukraine to Russian society. The unsubstantiated claim that Russia was forced to intervene to combat rising Nazi sentiment in Ukraine is now being woven into messages targeting Russian youth.

One aspect of this campaign was the launch of the “Strength in Truth” initiative. The opening ceremony in Moscow was attended by schoolchildren from regions across Russia, including members of Yunarmia, the national youth army created in 2015. In his remarks at the ceremony, Russian Education Minister Sergei Kravtsov said that a situation like the one in Ukraine could not It happens never again because “we have wonderful guys … who believe in Russia, in our country, in our teachers, in our victories!”

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Another part of this campaign is the use of Holocaust memories to bring Nazi atrocities to the forefront of young people’s consciousness and link them to the war in Ukraine. On April 19, the Victory Museum in Moscow opened an exhibition entitled Simply Nazism. The exhibition highlights “the atrocities committed by Ukrainian nationalists during World War II, as well as the massive crimes and terrorism of contemporary neo-Nazis against the people of Ukraine in 2014-2022”.

On the same day, the Day of Unified Action was also celebrated in Russia to commemorate the genocide of the Soviet people initiated in Russia by the Nazis and their accomplices. The event included concerts, exhibitions, meetings and performances in schools and universities across Russia.

In schools across Russia, educators are currently trying to find age-appropriate ways to connect children and youth with soldiers fighting in Ukraine. Toddlers are given simple tasks like drawing and coloring a ‘Z’ strip or standing in formations to make the shape of this letter. The (non-Cyrillic) letter “Z” has turned into a symbol of war and has become somewhat of a badge for those who support it.

Given the number of Russian soldiers killed in this conflict so far, conscription will continue to be an important part of the war effort.

Older children write letters to soldiers serving in Ukraine, especially soldiers from their cities or regions, and prepare care packages to send them to them. Schools are now provided desks with photos and biographical details of notable soldiers, “a vivid reminder of the proud history of Russian military heroism.”

These efforts to convey carefully constructed messages about the war in Ukraine to children and youth serve several purposes. There are short-term benefits, such as encouraging positive attitudes toward military service among older teenage boys who will be eligible for conscription in the near future. Given the number of Russian soldiers killed in this conflict thus far, conscription will continue to be an important part of the war effort.

By involving young people in the “good cause,” more Russian adults are also becoming complicit in supporting the Kremlin’s story. Some teachers may be genuine supporters of the war, but for many, this would be just another way of showing their superiors that they are doing a good job—and perhaps showing the state that they are loyal citizens. The consequences for those who refuse can be serious: There have been several cases in recent weeks of students reporting their teachers for making “unpatriotic” comments.

Since Putin ordered its creation in October 2015, more than 1 million children between the ages of 8 and 18 have joined the ranks of the Youth Army.

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Three to four times a week, children meet after school or on weekend mornings to discuss Russian history—usually wars—event planning and practice. They wear their signature red berets, make trips to theaters and museums, clean up city monuments, volunteer with veterans and attend national military camps, where cadets receive military training.

The Youth Army offers incentives in its efforts to recruit new members. Members aspiring to become army officers, for example, are given priority by performing well in competitions – weapons assembly, shooting accuracy, and physical endurance – held during national military camps that are held regularly throughout the year.

And the more depressed and poor the city, the more famous the youth army became

These incentives are extended to those without ambition to pursue a career in the military: At 20 universities across the country, Youth Army members receive additional credits upon admission.

The Youth Army was able to expand very quickly because National Military Clubs have been around the country since the 1990s. The organization is also seen as a tool for social and economic mobility, particularly in rural areas and in cities outside Moscow and St Petersburg. Many families in poor Russian villages see the army, the police or the SS as a way out. The bleaker and poorer the city, the more famous the youth army became.

As in Soviet times, the army became an instrument of the upward movement. Many Russians — more than half, according to a survey — would like their children to find law enforcement jobs. And they really believe that the youth army prepares their children for positions in the army, as well as in the FSB or in the OMON (riot police).

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