The beginning of the new school year in many countries of the former Soviet Union, including in Russia, is celebrated on September 1st and is known as “Knowledge Day”. This day is marked by grand celebrations where schoolchildren, parents and teachers gather together. The children who are entering school for the first time are the stars of the day – dressed in black and white suits, carrying large bouquets, and listening to the school bell ring to mark their first lesson and their new status as “schoolchildren”. The new school year brings new textbooks and subjects for older students.
This year, however, September 1st will be unique as the new educational amendments enter into force in Russia and Russia-controlled territories (referring to the Ukrainian territories of Crimea, Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk and Luhansk region currently under the effective control of the Russian Federation). These amendments introduce controversial changes to the educational process, which raise serious concerns about children’s rights and freedoms. These changes include new unified textbooks on history, the legalisation of children’s forced labour, and the continuation of “Conversations about the important” lessons with an enhanced militaristic element.
Federal programs and unified textbooks
As highlighted in my previous post, in 2023, Russia introduced new federal unified programs for school subjects, such as history, geography, literature, and basics of life safety. These programs will come into full effect in September 2023, with new rules governing textbooks, the content of which is now under the complete control of the Ministry of Education. During the Summer of 2023, Russian Minister Sergey Kravtsov presented new history textbooks to the general public. Some experts have qualified these textbooks as “blurring the line between history and propaganda”.
In line with the new federal standard, the new textbook promotes “Russian military glory” and frames the current war against Ukraine as a continuation of the Soviet Union’s struggle against the “Nazis”, claiming that Ukraine itself is inhabited by “Neo-Nazis”. Apart from the issue that having a single history textbook as such is problematic, another troubling aspect is the aim of such education, as not having a purely informative function or developing critical thinking but instil “a sense of pride and patriotism” with “readiness to defend the Fatherland”. This approach is contrary to the right to education and, in its core content and aims, can amount to “mnemonic indoctrination”.
Forced labour legalised: returning to the “good old Soviet times”
My parents once told me how during schoolyears in “good old Soviet times”, they were required to collect harvest on the fields (of course, without any compensation), clean their school premises, and even forge new items for their schools (such as chairs and desks). During the USSR, children aged 15 were obliged to participate in “socially beneficial labour”, although de-facto forced labour was prohibited. These practices very accurately illustrate the “voluntold” phenomena in the Soviet Union, where citizens were “encouraged” to perform some tasks for the government without the option of refusing, such as performing “socially useful work” like cleaning streets or collecting harvest.
Bringing children to work in kolkhozes (a form of collective farm in the Soviet Union) or collecting cotton in hazardous conditions was a common practice. However, as early as 1967, some Soviet functionaries raised concerns about the deteriorating health of children collecting harvests that were generously covered by pesticides. These concerns were largely ignored because mandating children to work for the “benefit of the society”, according to one Russian scholar, was considered a valuable educational tool to “instil the right Communist spirit”.
After the fall of Communism, these practices were abolished. In Russia, guarantees against forced labour were enshrined in the Constitution and the Law on Education, prohibiting forced labour as such and requiring parents’ written consent to engage children in labour activities during prescribed educational activities. However, in 2023 Russian parliamentarians decided to amend the definition of “upbringing” to include “industriousness” (original: trudolyubije) and a “responsible attitude towards labour”. The previous version of Art. 34 of the Law on Education explicitly prohibited involving children in labour activities outside the regular curriculum without their parent’s consent.
Since 1st September, 2023, children can be engaged in such activities under the general Labour Law requirements. These amendments are especially worrying as just in July 2023, the Russian news outlet “Nastojaschee vremya” reported that students of the technical college in the Tatarstan region were producing combat drones used in the war against Ukraine, working 12-hour shifts and earning roughly 400$ a month for their work. As the law does not specify which activities are considered “socially useful labour”, the schools are given broad discretion in deciding how to engage children, and as of September 1st, parents are given no say in that regard.
Therefore, the Russian government is disregarding its obligations under Art. 24 of the Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC) and Art. 10 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) to adopt all possible measures to prevent children from exploitation and forced labour. There are also no guarantees that the Russian government will not exploit children for the Russian army’s benefit by producing ammunition and clothing or engaging in patriotic activities.
These worries are justified. According to Russian MP Olga Kazakova, under the new amendments, children can be involved in “activities of a patriotic character”. During the 2022/23 school year, news outlets reported that children were sewing bags, gloves and other items for the Russian army, including children with cerebral palsy and children with Down syndrome. The new law de facto allows using children for activities showcasing support for the Russian military personnel participating in the war against Ukraine. Even parents cannot prevent their children from participating in “events of a patriotic character”.
Regrettably, international law’s stance on mandating children to participate in such events is rather weak and mostly oriented towards parents’ rights to have their children receive education in accordance with their own convictions. For example, in the Valsamis v. Grecce decision, the ECtHR’s argued that a child’s suspension from school for refusing to participate in a military parade due to religious convictions did not amount to a violation of the child’s individual freedoms. The decision was criticised by prominent child rights scholars, as by focusing on the parent’s rights and giving a value judgement about the “peaceful” nature of a military parade, it failed to acknowledge the individual stance of the child as being the right holder as such. If Russian children indeed are forced to participate in celebrations of, for example, days of Russian military glory or showcasing support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine, such practices can be seen as contrary to the individual rights of the child and not limited to parents.
“Conversations about important things” and other patriotic propaganda
In 2023 “Conversations about the important” lessons will be continued. Adopted in 2022 as a pilot project, this extracurricular activity, which is held as the first lesson every Monday, has become an effective propaganda tool. Although the classes were initially qualified as “voluntary”, parents who did not want their children to attend faced harassment from school administration and were even summoned to the Russian police for allegedly neglecting their parental duties. Eventually, the Russian educational ministry clarified that attending these lessons is mandatory and claimed that implementing such lessons for the 2022/23 school year was a great success.
The content of these classes raises serious concerns. For example, in a video filmed for a lesson about the “Day Commemorating Genocide of the Soviet People” (19 April), the Russian historian A. Zvyagintsev drew parallels between the Second World War and the current war against Ukraine. More subtle messages are hidden in other methodological materials of the cycle, such as asking students to tell stories of relatives currently fighting in Ukraine or openly calling the current war a “liberation mission for the people of Donbas”.
For the school year of 2023/24, Russian MP Yana Lantratova suggested showing videos titled “What are we fighting for” that tell stories about Russian servicemen currently fighting in Ukraine. It is also planned that these servicemen’s stories will be used in the methodological materials for the upcoming lessons on “Special Forces Day”, “National Unity Day”, “We Are Together”, “Heroes of Our Time”, “Defender of the Fatherland Day”. The ideological pressure is increasing: for example, a school principal from the Perm region who refused to hold these lessons and engage children in other propagandistic activities was recently fired. As a result, the upcoming school year will feature even more militaristic propaganda pre-approved and sanctioned by the government.
This is a brief overview of what lies ahead for Russian education in the upcoming school year. The new educational amendments only serve to strengthen the ideological component of Russian education. As noted by the Russian pedagogue Dima Zitzer, the consequences of these aggressive policies, which are being instilled in children’s minds will take ages to overcome. Another question is for the relevant human rights bodies, especially those supervising the implementation of human rights agreements to which Russia is still a party and whose provisions prohibit Russia’s described innovations. However, for now, the neglect of children’s rights in Russia remains out of focus for international stakeholders. Such negligence can have far-reaching consequences, as an entire generation of young Russians is being brought up with belligerent rhetoric, hostility, and hatred towards neighboring nations. In light of the above, children’s rights and education should return from the periphery of human rights law and, in the words of Freeman, children must finally be taken seriously.