How children in occupied Donbas are being worked on psychologically and informationally
What’s actually going on in the occupied parts of the Donbas is often only evident in a fragmentary manner and incomplete data. What can be tracked in social nets and video clips is mostly about the lives of adults: the latest squabbles among warlords, new military equipment that has been recorded there, prices for goods in the “young republics,” or problems with going back and forth through the military checkpoints. The one important point that is rarely brought up in the press is how children live in DNR and LNR – or, rather, how Russia’s propaganda machine is affecting them
Why kids? Should the conflict in the region remain frozen or at least unresolved for some time, the children are the hope of the “republican” leadership and their handlers in Moscow. The pensioners who have stayed behind will not be working to contribute to the already small local budgets. They can’t take up arms although in the recruitment centers, they are officially considered ф mobilization resource. Those who are already adults today are also a limited resource given the distinct success of the Ukrainian army and the number of those who are keen to move to Russia. The flow of mercenaries and volunteers from Russia is gradually slowing down, fewer and fewer are ready to come back from Donbas with a serious disability in lieu of money to pay off loans, and the recent “victories” of the Wagnerites in Syria have not added to the prestige of this work.
At the same time, it’s quite common for separatist parents recognize the worthlessness of a DNR diploma and send their children to study at post-secondary institutions in Crimea, Moscow or St. Petersburg or even to hateful Kyiv where their offspring end up staying on. The two “republics” risk turning into something like Transnistria, where the end of the conflict simply led to even more depopulation. So the Kremlin’s main challenge is to make sure these kids grow up to favor DNR/LNR so that they can be forced to stay in the occupied territories. The youngest have already forgotten their childhood in Ukraine, as most of their short lives have passed under the two-headed eagles, some have lost family members, friends or even just neighbors, which makes it easier to get them to hate “ukrops,” the pejorative nickname for Ukrainians since the start of the war. What’s more, a child’s psyche is not very resistant to informational and psychological influences and quickly succumbs to the avalanche of “good advice” from adults.
This is actually somewhat in contrast to the takeover of Crimea, where there is at least some effort to appear objective in teaching the young, in line with the standards established in Russian law and its school curricula. Even there, though, it’s possible to see all kinds of “festivals of military and applied martial arts” with cossacks, tricolors and toddlers in camouflage. Textbooks, of course, offer only the Russian interpretation of events in the country.
Meanwhile, enjoying their free flight, those running the self-declared republics began their work almost immediately after the start of the conflict. Working with children and teens became just one component of their psychological and informational efforts to “rebrand” local residents. Their weapons include well-known Russian practices and theses, but often hyperbolized with an added touch of local color, which results in what might be called informational Frankensteins. The best-known example was the children’s magazine called “Polite Little Men,” a reference to the “green men” who invaded Crimea, of which several issues were published in LNR in 2016. According to the publishers, it was supposed to encourage “spiritual and patriotic upbringing” and raise a future generation of “boy-Kibalchiches,” named after a Russian revolutionary who was born in Brussels. The magazine included everything that a future separatist needed to know: Faschiston, who printed greenbacks; Gnuland, who brought magic cookies to Charyvary Land and turned everyone into various Sectors; the evil dill shooting seeds on innocent Hill Country, “dill” being a play on the name “Ukrop;" and people in striped tees and uniforms. And, of course, the magazine had a good, wise Daddy who teaches judo throws and is obviously modeled on Vladimir Putin.
A fresher and more interesting example was recently found by activists from the Ukrainian Cyber Alliance (UCA): the current curricula for public schools in the occupied territories. Among others, UCA provided a “citizenship lesson” plan, which is an hour of class time for 5th through 7th grades, on of the topics being “Who started the war in Ukraine.” The stated purpose of this kind of lesson is “to form in children the conviction that Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians are fraternal nations, they always lived, live and should continue to live in peace, friendship and accord,” which is all a repeat of the basic themes of Russian propaganda. At the same time, as on the RF’s national channels, DNR pupils are supposed to understand that there’s a big difference between Ukrainians and “banderites,” to be persuaded that the Ukrainian people were always brotherly, and to point out to them just how much positive good Russia has done for Ukraine. Somewhat contradictorily, the Moscow handlers also bring up nationalism as a negative factor that has brought destruction and evil. And this supposedly caused the discord among nations that led to “the collapse of one of the most powerful states in the world.” It was nationalism, and not Moscow’s interference, of course, that started the conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh, Northern Ossetia, and lawlessness in the Fergana valley – and it was all done in the interests of the United States and its allies.
“Fighting against ourselves.” That’s what teachers have to stuff into kids’ heads in order for them to absorb the Kremlin media’s persistent claims that it’s a “civil war” in Ukraine, where men from some of the furthest corners of Russia are somehow dying. Of course, this kind of formulation leaves any possible Russian regulars outside the conflict altogether. Teachers are recommended to use the phrase “someone somehow started a conflict between Ukrainians and Russians” over and over again so that Moscow’s role in the war is shifted to the shoulders of the insidious “banderites” who are of course supported by the US and the EU. What’s more, Western “handlers” supposedly stimulated the Ukrainian movement after the USSR collapsed and directed all the colored revolutions. The image of Stepan Bandera still disturbs Moscow and Donetsk, which means teachers in the occupied territories have to blame Bandera and his followers for actively cooperating with Hitler, engaging in “unbelievable atrocities,” the burning down of the village of Khatyn in Belarus, and serving in the German police. Pupils are supposed to conclude that “banderites” are supposed to be called “fascists,” following the well-known practice of associative labeling, typically a combination of words that have very negative emotional connotations with roots in history. DNR teachers are supposed to emphasize that nationalism started out as pride in one’s nation but gradually became distorted and radical, such as in Germany and Ukraine.
Interestingly, the lessons themselves are supposed to be quite modern in the way that material is presented: in addition to their own explanations, teachers are encouraged to support their teachings with video clips to increase the psychological impact. Thus, the cooperation of “banderites” with the Nazi regime is supposed to be illustrated by a film featuring Vladimir Visotskiy’s “Soldiers of the Center group.” The active recruitment of Ukrainian nationalists is supposed to be artistically represented by the court jester Feliks Yasnievskiy. To embed the study materials, a special exam question was even put together: “Which of the following doesn’t belong: Russian, Belarusian, Ukrainian, banderite.”
Not surprisingly, that after these kinds of lessons, very tiny kids show up that don’t understand the essence of the matter but are blindly ready to “kill Ukrops,” about whom there are dozens of films on YouTube. The actual involvement of children in illegal military formations is no longer an exotic phenomenon from the African continent. Reports about minors participating in armed conflict in the Donbas began circulating already in 2016 in a special report by the US State Department on human trafficking around the world. The document stated that pro-Russian militants in the Donbas were using children to serve in their units as scouts or simply as human shields. In the Donetsk Military Academy, 14-16 year-old cadets are being trained through a program that gives them the opportunity to be commanders of general infantry divisions. Excessive militarization and brainwashing starts at an even earlier age. The photographs of “parades” in occupied Donetsk on May 9 and Republic Day show parents with two and three year-old toddlers dressed in military uniforms. The celebrations themselves turn into some kind of crazy hodge-podge: red flags and Lenin, icons with Nicholas II, in the same spot where a McDonalds once stood, and in the middle of it all, kids doing gymnastic turns with portraits of “fighting grandpas” that are sold at the supermarket around the corner and separatists under a variety of tricolors. The youth wing of the Oplot Donbasu, sings songs about “I don’t know any other father, Zakharchenko is the only one.” This is probably the biggest contrast with celebrations in Ukraine proper: despite the war, you don’t see any children in uniform, only embroidered shirts. And no one sings paeans to the president or the ministers.
Despite all its surrealism, it’s not possible to disdain this active informational and psychological work. If Ukraine doesn’t start using counter-measures at all levels, it risks finding itself very soon with Generation “D” on its hands: a generation of extremely aggressive and hostile people. This will manifest as resistance at the front, if the war goes on, and possible sabotage in the rest of the country. The decline of occupied Donbas and the further marginalization of its residents will only make the situation worse. Turning them into law-abiding Ukrainians at a mature age will be extremely challenging: journals and songs will definitely not do the trick at that point.