A view of the Big Kremlin Palace and Churches with the Moskva River in Moscow, Russia

Russian propaganda tries to convince youth that Russia is "always a victim of the West,” great-granddaughter of Nikita Khrushchev says

Russian schools are revamping their curriculum and encouraging students to join a new patriotic youth movement in an attempt to steer them away from Western influence. To discuss how propaganda works, The World’s host Marco Werman speaks with Nina Khrushcheva, professor of international affairs at The New School in New York and great-granddaughter of former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.

The World

A view of the Big Kremlin Palace and Churches with the Moskva River in Moscow, Russia, June 2, 2022.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP/File photo

For Vladimir Putin, young Russians are the key to the future. But to understand what that means today, we need to turn back the clock a few decades to the heyday of the Soviet Union.

A youth group known as the Young Pioneers was on the march. Children with their red neckerchief and Vladimir Lenin badges were featured in parades. They spouted Communist slogans at events.

Membership was obligatory if you were hoping to pursue higher education or a career in government.

Now, the patriotic youth movement is making a comeback in Russia. It's happening at the same time that school curricula are being revamped. And it's all part of an attempt to steer young Russians away from Western influence, prompted by a new law signed this month by President Vladimir Putin.

Members of the Pioneers, a Communist youth organization, give the Pioneer salute at ceremonies marking the organization's anniversary, May 19, 1981. 

Members of the Pioneers, a Communist youth organization, give the Pioneer salute at ceremonies marking the organization's anniversary, May 19, 1981. 

Credit:

Boris Yurchenko/AP

The World's host Marco Werman spoke about the rise of the new youth movement with Nina Khrushcheva from Moscow. She is a professor of international affairs at The New School in New York and is also the author of several books including, "In Putin's Footsteps: Searching for the Sould of an Empire Across Russia's Eleven Time Zones."

Khrushcheva is also the great-granddaughter of Nikita Khrushchev, the first secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

Marco Werman: Professor, I just want to ask you first about your reaction, hearing that old audio of those young pioneers. Was that part of your own political education?
Nina Khrushcheva: Well, it was part of my education. It wasn't even political. It was obligatory. So, there was no other choice. You were supposed to be a pioneer. But as for today, I was not surprised. I mean, I think the Putin administration, for already two decades, has been moving in that direction. In fact, I think in the early 2000s, there was already a textbook for smaller schoolchildren in which his portrait in the young pioneer red necktie, looking very much like a young Lenin, was already inserted. So, they were supposed to learn about Putin's greatness as a young pioneer once, and children were supposed to follow up.
So, how do you see the gist of this new legislation? Is it an effort to turn back the clock in terms of how Russian youth understand and participate in politics? What is the intent?
The way, at least, the Kremlin sees it is that the United States has flags raised all over. They have the Pledge of Allegiance. They have all these things that exert Americanism. So, "why can't we do the same to exert Russian-ness and if some of those features were in the Soviet Union, why not? That's not bad."
I mean, a lot of school-age children, especially older ones, are exposed to other realities online. If this is basically an effort to shape how young people in Russia view their leaders, in particular, Putin, is it likely to work?
I don't think so, although I was talking to some young people yesterday ... And I said that probably is not going to work because now it's formalized. And once it's formalized and there is no choice, then that's how the Soviet Union was shooting itself in the foot. And they were not agreeing with me. In fact, they were saying that the idea that Russia is being so mistreated by the West and, for that reason, we do need a special ideological education, in fact, for some is quite popular. I still think as a Soviet person, a year from now, they would be spitting and hating and they would be watching via VPN, TikTok videos at school somewhere in the bathroom. But for now, some people are very much against it, but some people are quite excited.
What sort of digital media literacy do most Russian youth have? Can most of them spot fake news and propaganda?
No. I mean, you know, and who can? I mean, please, I teach in the United States. So, no, of course they can't. They do have access. You can actually go on Facebook, you can have Instagram. I mean, it is a little bit annoying, it takes one minute to get the VPN working. The greater problem with propaganda and why in, sort of, this Putin's world TV works is because when they watch the other side and it's so angry against Russia, so, ultimately you have to go to your own site, because if you are so hated by everybody else, even of your own system, you are very critical, ultimately, you would have to think, "we cannot do all these horrible things, because look at us, we have beautiful streets, we are kind to refugees who came from Donetsk," and so on and so forth. So, you choose your party in a sense, and that's something that actually has worked for Putin's propaganda.
Nina Khrushcheva, this law in Russia comes right in the midst of Putin's war on Ukraine. Is there a link, do you think, between this new emphasis on indoctrinating youth and the war in Ukraine?
Oh, absolutely. I mean, it is all about the war in Ukraine. It's all about the war, period. I'm in Moscow now, so I walk around and, you know, the paintings on buildings ... [are] all about victories in [the 1600s] or defending the motherland in 1200-something. And there are all these laws now to make sure that nobody has a peep out of that militaristic system, that after 22 years, Putin finally has been able to install.
Will this new movement likely be prominent in Crimea or newly occupied areas of Ukraine?
They would have to. In Crimea, it's already flourishing and I'm sure it will be even more so. All those young children who will be told that they're liberated because, if they're going to be Nicolai, rather than the Ukrainian Mykola, God forbid, was in fact even last year, there were lectures on what the intent in this "special military operation" in Ukraine was. Now, it's part of the textbooks, now it's part of the curriculum, and it becomes part of the historic, heroic narrative of Russia's military greatness that always is a victim of the West and therefore always has to defend itself. And I mean, I personally did not think in the 21st century, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in '91, after all the things we've learned about the KGB, about Stalin, about injustices of Russian and Soviet history, we're going to be back at square one.
Nina Khrushcheva, there are, of course, big battles going on here in the US, your adopted country, about what is and isn't taught in schools, especially when it comes to history. Do you see parallels between these efforts to revamp curriculum in Russia and the US at the moment?
Yes, I do. I think the time now is of a revolution. I mean, the Black Lives Matter movement was a revolution. I mean, what Putin did, in a sense, was, I personally call it a palace coup. But yes, I think in general terms, the world is moving toward liberalism and sort of more diversity and screaming about it. And then the world that represents the old and talks about traditional values and the traditional color of skin and traditional gender is fighting like hell against it. And I think that is centrifugal. Centrifugal forces happen all over the world. But because Russia and the United States are such a giant pieces of land, it's probably visibly and more pronounced there than in other smaller places.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Related: Russia’s feminists are protesting the war and its propaganda with stickers, posters, performance and graffiti
 

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