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‘The explosions calm them down’ What Russian soldiers are teaching children after returning from the war in Ukraine

Source: Verstka
 Mihail Siergiejevicz / SOPA Images / LightRocket / Getty Images

Story by Verstka. Translation by Emily ShawRuss.

In recent months, soldiers who have returned from the war against Ukraine have begun visiting Russian schools in droves. They hold “Courage Lessons,” speak to students about “Ukrainian fascists,” show videos from the front, and have the children try on military gear. The Russian authorities have no objections; on the contrary, they've developed their own plans for using servicemen for “patriotic education,” including a special initiative called “Your Hero,” in which demobilized men are taught to work with kids. The independent outlet Verstka recently explained how men with no pedagogical training are turned into school mentors, and the threat this poses to the students themselves. Meduza in English is publishing a translation of the story.

‘I want to forget’

In February, Rosmolodyozh, Russia's federal agency for youth affairs, announced "Your Hero," a reintegration program for servicemen who have returned from the “special military operation zone." According to the agency, servicemen in the program undergo retraining courses to “become integrated into the patriotic youth education system,” which encompasses schools, universities, youth centers, and military-patriotic clubs.

In March, participants gathered at a convention center in Pyatigorsk for a four-day educational seminar. According to the organizers, about 130 demobilized servicemen from several Russian regions attended the event, where they received “free psychological help” and “basic knowledge of pedagogy and psychology for work with young people.” After that, according to the program’s design, the former servicemen should go to their regions, apply to local universities, and train there to become youth mentors.

According to participants of the project who spoke to journalists from Verstka, the vast majority of demobilized attendees were from the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk "People's Republics" (or the "DNR" and "LNR") in occupied Ukraine. They claimed that “about 15 people” came to Pyatigorsk from Russian regions. The psychological assistance took the form of a single group meeting with a psychologist, the participants said.

19-year-old Andrey from Makiivka decided to participate in the “Your Hero” project because he “was interested in seeing what they would talk about there.”

When the war began, Andrey was a first-year student at an institute. All of the men at the school, including students, were drafted into the “DNR People’s Militia.” Andrey didn’t want to go to war, but at some point he realized that “constantly sitting at home and hiding” wouldn’t work — “there was commotion in the city, and they were constantly scooping people up.”

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“One of my classmates went to the front and told me that he was unloading ammunition,” Andrey recalled. “My friends and I thought that since we were students, we wouldn’t be sent to the front, so we decided to go. Roughly speaking, we went voluntarily, but with the understanding that there was no alternative.”

At the military enlistment office, Andrey and his three friends were “quickly processed and taken away.” The first-year students, who hadn’t even gone through compulsory military service, were given two weeks of accelerated training in which their instructors “let them shoot a bit.” Andrey said that before mobilization, he’d had no interest in weapons, and during training he didn’t even have time to learn how to use a rifle. Still, they assigned him to be a sniper and sent him to Mariupol — “super close to the front.”

At first, Andrey recalled, it was very difficult. There were almost no experienced troops around, and even the commanders of the platoons, squads, and companies didn’t know what they were doing. “At most, they’d been through compulsory service or gotten their rank in a military academy.” During the first battle, the students “shot, realized that nothing would come of it, and retreated. After that, the whole company refused to fight,” said Andrey. “We were told that we’d go to the same place tomorrow, but we said we wouldn’t go. They threatened and intimidated us, but then they took a few men from the company, including me, and sent us to unload ammunition two or three kilometers back from the front.”

Andrey recalled the following months as “a relatively peaceful time.” Closer to summer, the first-year students were moved to another location and offered the choice of joining the artillery, the tanks, or the infantry. Andrey chose the artillery. There, he was first a sniper, then, “purely on paper,” a grenadier and an officer’s driver, and, after that, a senior gunner.

In November 2022, when Russian President Vladimir Putin instructed the heads of the “DNR” and “LNR” to demobilize students, Andrey’s nine-month service ended. “Of course I celebrated. Who wouldn’t be happy?” he recalled.

Andrey said the war changed his values: “First of all, my attitude toward money changed. It was my first job, and I’d like to keep the same pay level.” The average 30,000-40,000 ruble salary (about $370-490) in the “DNR” isn’t enough for Andrey now, but for more money he has to go “to big Russia” — to Moscow or St. Petersburg — and he isn’t ready for that yet.

When he returned to his institute, Andrey learned that students who’d taken part in combat operations were offered the chance to go to Pyatigorsk for the “Your Hero” project. Andrey thought he could become a professional mentor and earn money that way. In Pyatigorsk, however, it wasn’t the project’s program that impressed him but the living conditions. “Mashuk is a super new center — it has ramps for disabled people, and everything is great,” Andrey said. “But the best part is the cafeteria. We had so many jokes about the cafeteria — even as far as moving in and living there.”

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Andrey only listened to the speakers at the seminar — he didn’t come up with any projects himself. One day, they had a teleconference with the “DNR” youth policy minister and the “LNR” deputy youth policy minister. The officials said, according to Andrey, that former servicemen might soon be forgotten, and that in order to prevent this, they had to be “urgently placed somewhere” — for example, as military training teachers in schools.

Andrey admitted that before his trip to Mashuk, he’d considered participating in patriotic projects. He even liked a seminar participant’s idea to organize an airsoft club for adults and children. But, after a month, he suddenly realized that he didn’t want to be immersed in military culture anymore. “I’ve served, I’ve suffered through it, and I’ve put it out of mind. I want to forget it,” Andrey said. He now plans to finish his studies at the institute and work in telecommunications, his field of study.

‘It's like they're kids, and you're not a kid anymore’

For other former students, however, the war and subsequent participation in the “Your Hero” project have already become a platform for career advancement. Such was the case for Anatoly Yushko, a 20-year-old student in the Donetsk National University Economics Department.

Anatoly volunteered to go to the front and celebrated his 19th birthday while at war. At first, he was “a simple fighter,” he said. Then, he was made a sniper. “I used to be an assistant to the head of the Young Army Cadets National Movement (Yunarmiya) central HQ, so I knew how a machine gun works and how it shoots, and it was easier for me. Many people were holding a gun for the first time in their lives,” said Anatoly.

Six months later, 19-year-old Anatoly took the post of regiment deputy chief of staff, after he caught his superiors' attention by volunteering to help the leadership with documents. “According to the military's organizational structure, this position should have been held by a major, but they chose me, a private,” he said. Anatoly claimed that he only directly took part in combat at the beginning of his service, when he was a private. “There were no violent clashes — there were skirmishes, but it still wasn’t good,” he said. When asked if he’d ever used weapons to kill during those skirmishes, Anatoly declined to answer, saying it was “an inappropriate question.”

According to Anatoly, after his demobilization in late 2022, he began collecting and delivering humanitarian aid to the front. In March, he attended the “Your Hero” project in Pyatigorsk as the coordinator of a group of students. There, he claimed, he was spotted by officials and journalists. Now, he’s constantly invited to give interviews and asked to speak to young people.

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Anatoly sees himself as a mentor and wants to tell young men and women “about the heroes who volunteered to go to the front to defend their homeland,” but he admits that students can’t understand his experience.

“I went on trips to Yekaterinburg after the mobilization, I talked to students there, and they didn’t understand me at all. There’s a chasm between us,” said the now 20-year-old Anatoly. “They seem to empathize with you, but they don’t understand you completely because they’ve never experienced it. It’s like they’re kids, and you’re not a kid anymore. Whether that’s good or bad, I don’t know.”

Anatoly, however, has no plans to go into teaching — rather, he sees his future in politics. He wants a job that will earn him as much money as he made at the front: “It’s hard to come back home and get a 2,000-ruble stipend (about $25) after those salaries.”

Anatoly hopes that the younger generation won’t have to go through what he did, but he’s convinced there will always be wars because “history’s cyclical and repeats itself.” He thinks of himself as pro-peace and believes that only those who profit from war can want it. “All civilians want peace,” he said. “But Russian peace,” he immediately added.

 ‘Kids are shown war, and they laugh’

Journalists from Verstka learned that Russian veterans of the war against Ukraine don’t need to take part in training sessions or the “Your Hero” project in order to meet with children and teenagers. They regularly go to schools and hold so-called “Courage Lessons.” Volunteer Emil Vayerovsky from Syktyvkar served as a combat medic and took part in battles in the Kharkiv region. After getting wounded, he returned to his hometown and has since held dozens of meetings for schoolchildren throughout the Komi Republic.

Vayerovsky’s rural school “tour” was organized by the Russian Rural Youth Union’s local branch. An announcement advertising the events read: “Emil is still recovering from a serious injury, but he’s already fully engaged in the patriotic education of the younger generation. In today’s world of fake information, this is especially important, as young people have to get reliable information about what’s happening on the front line and have the opportunity to talk with people who’ve seen the military operations with their own eyes and have taken part in them.”

14-year-old Dmitry M. met the former medic on the morning of April 8 at his village school in Vizinga, when, instead of algebra class, students listened to Vayerovsky give a lecture. Dmitry provided Verstka with a recording of Vayerovsky’s speech to the class. In the recording, Vayerovsky reminded the students of how the Soviet Union fought against Nazism and stated with full confidence that the West, which “was powerless to cope with Russia,” had decided to revive Nazism in modern times. He claimed that when “the Nazis came to power in Ukraine in 2014, they started terrorizing the Donbas.”

“Russia didn’t seek domination,” Vayerovsky said. “We Russians have a beautiful culture, beautiful customs, we are very kind people. Yes, we can become fierce; when it comes to our homeland, a Russian can’t feel at ease if it’s in danger.”

Vayerovsky also spoke about what it was like at the front line — how they had to sit waist-deep in water, how they lacked equipment and supplies, and how an East European Shepherd named Sarmat helped him and his comrades-in-arms. “We all know that dogs have very good hearing. They hear mortar rounds flying through the air faster, they hear soldiers sneaking in the night faster, so you can’t beat a dog — it’ll show you where the enemy is,” Vayerovsky said, with tenderness in his voice.

Sarmat didn’t return from the war — he was blown up by a tripwire-activated IED. But his owner, Andrey Mukhin, had already gotten a new puppy so that he could train him and go back to the war zone. He and Vayerovsky took the puppy, Cherkes, to some meetings. The children, of course, liked the dog very much and were eager to be photographed with him.

Vayerovsky came to the meeting at the school in Vizinga alone, but he brought several items from the front with him. Dmitry’s classmates happily tried on protective goggles, camouflage, and tactical gloves before taking pictures with Vayerovsky. Dmitry refused to be a part of the group photo, tried not to look at the military ammunition, and said that, in general, he didn’t feel very well during the meeting.

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“I tried to close myself off, to not show emotion, because I was uncomfortable,” the teenager recalled. “He showed us a video from the front — a night battle where you can’t see anything, you can only hear explosions. The soldiers there were joking, and my classmates were laughing about it. It’s not nice when kids are shown war and they laugh.”

The former soldier didn’t tell shocking stories about death, said Dmitry. On the contrary, Vayerovsky said “that everyone was quite positive.” Dmitry could only guess at the purpose of this meeting: “I don’t know what he wanted from us. He said that those who left the country were cowards. Maybe he wanted to convince us that the war was right.”

Vayerovsky, for his part, is certain that these meetings are necessary for children, and that the details of life on the front lines don’t scare or upset them in the slightest. “When they hear the explosions and learn the details, and they understand that our men continue to defend us in spite of this, it calms them,” Vayerovsky told Verstka. “The main purpose of these meetings is to foster courage from our men’s example, from their view of the situation from the trenches, not from the news. Love for our homeland must be taught by personal example. We live in our homeland, and it’s called Russia. It’s worth loving — [and] it’s worth fighting for, if necessary.”

Emil Vayerovsky is 38 years old, according to his VKontakte page. He enlisted as a volunteer in July 2022. He was in medical school at the time and couldn’t, he said, stay home, knowing there weren’t enough doctors and paramedics on the front lines. In the fall of 2022, he was wounded when the car he was riding in was hit by a tank round. In November, Vayerovsky returned home.

When asked why he comes to schools, Vayerovsky said he doesn’t do it for show but out of a sincere conviction that the children need it. “This conflict is precisely the result of not caring about sharing information with the younger generation,” he explained his motives. “It’s pointless to go to war against someone who remembers history and whose weapons are always at the ready. Maybe, the weapons won’t be needed. If you want peace, prepare for war.”

Vayerovsky hopes that the children won’t have to go to war, but he believes that combat training will benefit them, and that it’s better not to burden teachers with it. But Vayerovsky doesn’t want to become an instructor — he plans to return to the front line and has already purchased almost all the necessary equipment. “The only thing left to wait for is the armor. The rest is up to our doctors — if they can make my arm work, I'll go. If they can’t — I’ll look for a place where they take people by their conviction, not their health,” said the volunteer.

Vayerovsky also likes literature. He writes poetry and prose and publishes it on VKontakte and other platforms. His poem “Volunteers,” for example, ends like this:

And we go to the final battle

Not ordered on this mission.

The volunteers’ spirit is strong,

We’ll eradicate the infection!

‘Our children are recruited by the Western media’

By April 2023, there were already hundreds of stories on the social networking site VKontakte of returned contract servicemen, volunteers, and mobilized soldiers meeting with children and teenagers in schools, colleges, universities, and patriotic clubs in Ivanovo, Samara, Podolsk, Smolensk, the Novgorod region, Mariinsk, Voronezh, the Kuban region, and elsewhere. Classes are canceled for the “Courage Lessons” and gala concerts for war participants held in the auditoriums of educational institutions. Children read poems, sing songs, and prepare gifts for the soldiers, while men in camouflage tell them about military life and the goals of the “special military operation.”

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In Dubyonki, a village in the Mordovia Republic, serviceman Sergey Chatkin told schoolchildren that “fascism must be stopped" because "otherwise tomorrow these people with swastikas will start bombing and looting our villages and towns.” Chatkin also asked students to write letters to the front. These letters, he said, reinforce the soldiers’ belief that they are “doing the right thing” — after all, “Russians have never been invaders.”

In Russia's Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug, Dmitry Orlov, a member of the Cossack community “Romanovsky Khutor,” told schoolchildren that being in the war convinced him that Ukrainians have fundamentally changed. “There, I understood that we’re at war with fascists,” he said. Orlov also insisted to the children that Ukrainians were fighting “for dollars,” but Russians were fighting “for the truth.”

After he was wounded, Ruslan Khamutayev, a serviceman in the 98th Guards Airborne Division, came to the Ivanovo region for treatment. During his medical leave, he took part in several youth outreach events. He told journalists that he speaks to schoolchildren so that they will “know the truth” about the war, and that he's convinced that “most people, including our children, are recruited by the Western media."

Khamutayev told Verstka that he’s been serving in the army for the past eight years. He’s regularly invited to various towns in the Ivanovo region to give schoolchildren lectures on information security. During the lessons, he explains to teenagers “how to recognize fakes and false information in the Western media.” 

Meetings with schoolchildren don’t always go smoothly. While some servicemen, like Emil Vayerovsky from Komi, are quite confident speaking in front of children, others clearly have a hard time dealing with their emotions. Anatoly Shamsutdinov from Bashkortostan, for example, was invited to meet with students at Kaltasinsky School No. 1, his alma mater. Shamsutdinov was mobilized in September 2022 and returned home after being wounded. The school posted a video about the meeting in their VKontakte group.

Elementary, middle, and high school students were gathered together in the auditorium. In the video, the teens are shown smirking and exchanging glances at the moderator’s prompt: “Let’s try to answer the question: who is a hero?” However, a boy of about nine answers sincerely: “Heroes are those who fight for their lives and for ours.”

Anatoly Shamsutdinov, looking nervous and fidgety, says that “the soldiers were happy for everything that came [to the front] in packages” because there weren’t enough clothes, hygiene items, or food, and they had to sleep on the ground.

“I'm not a military man — I didn’t even serve in the army. I graduated from the military department at the university. There was a shortage of officers, so I was drafted. There was no question of going or not, the question was how to explain to my oldest daughter where [I was going]...” Shamsutdinov said, his voice trembling. “It was hard to explain where I was going and for how long.”

Throughout the meeting, teachers encouraged the children, especially the older boys, to ask Shamsutdinov questions “because it should be especially interesting to them.” The older students weren’t very eager to ask about the war, but the elementary students asked lots of questions. When they asked questions that were more naive, the teachers said: “Of course, what did you think? It’s war — people get killed there.”

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‘Total deathly silence’

Sergey Golitsyn, a 48-year-old soldier from Chuvashia, went to Ukraine as a volunteer soldier in March of last year. He served several months in a Chechen unit, and when he returned, he bought equipment and mock weapons and started going to schools to give presentations.

At first, Golitsyn offered to hold a so-called “Courage Lesson” for high-school students. Then, he said, administrators from other schools began asking him to come to them as well.

Golitsyn told Verstka that he’s not satisfied with the formal way schools approach patriotic education, so he decided to take matters into his own hands. “First they’re shown a film, then they listen to a song, and that's where it ends,” he lamented. “To immerse themselves in reality, to get a sense of what’s going on out there, you need meetings with special military operation participants.”

During “Courage Lessons,” Golitsyn has the teenagers put on military uniforms and camouflage nets and lets them take aim with a hunting gun. In a photo from a lesson, little girls in helmets and a boy with a machine gun pose for the camera. Golitsyn said that they were elementary students. At recess, they ran into the assembly hall where the “Courage Lesson” was being held and wanted to try on the equipment themselves. 

Golitsyn believes that his lectures change the students' worldviews. According to him, he "proves" to them that Ukrainians are fascists who hate Russians. For example, he said, he tells teenagers that the AFU shoot soldiers if they refuse to fight against their “Slavic brothers” and then bury them in a pigsty. 

“Schoolchildren tell me after the meetings that they enjoyed it, and that they used to have a different understanding of what was going on over there,” said Golitsyn. “It turns out that they read social media and thought that we didn’t need this ‘special operation.’ But [then, they say,] I gave them the facts and convinced them that it was a completely necessary decision.”

Golitsyn said he likes to achieve “total deathly silence” in the classroom. To do so, he shows schoolchildren an interview with a fellow soldier that he recorded on his phone at the front.

“In the video, an hour before the attack, I ask my fellow soldier, ‘Tell me, for you and me, what motivates us?’” said Golitsyn. “He replies: ‘Specifically, for you and me, I can say that we’re definitely not here for the money — we’re volunteers, following our hearts. We’re here for the destroyed cities, for the peaceful people who were shot, and for our homeland — so that war doesn’t come to us.’”

After this video, Golitsyn claimed, schoolchildren begin to understand that “not everything can be measured in money.”

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‘The future defenders of the homeland’

Ekaterina Sudakova is a psychologist who does a lot of work with teenagers. She told Verstka that these meetings with soldiers who are just days out of the trenches are questionable in terms of the children’s psychological safety.

“At the very least, it can create a lot of anxiety in students. Even if a soldier at these meetings doesn’t directly mention any terrible events he witnessed, he still carries a strong emotional charge,” said the psychologist. “It doesn’t matter if he’s worked up, like, ‘we wiped them out,’ or if he’s out of it; it still creates a huge layer of worry.”

People who’ve been through war need psychological rehabilitation first and foremost, and attempting to rehabilitate them through meetings with schoolchildren is a fairly strange approach, Sudakova explained.

“A person experiences things in war where he may not even realize the psychological consequences. It’s essentially impossible to talk about it directly, but this horror is felt at the level of non-verbal communication, at the level of pauses and confusion,” explained the psychologist. “Children observe this, and the whole context of these meetings is set up such that it tells them they’ll soon have to take this person’s place. What does a boy, for example, think about at this moment? What kind of future is offered to him by the school where he goes, in fact, to learn?”

The teenagers with whom Sudakova herself works are usually skeptical of patriotic initiatives. “I’ve long seen a high level of cynicism among teenagers about what school offers them. If this intense patriotic education and talk about defending the homeland lasts a year or two, and we don't see any major changes, children are unlikely to pick up this rhetoric much.”

If the children have long-term exposure, it’s another matter. First, children and teenagers will have a higher level of anxiety. Second, patriotic militaristic rhetoric will teach them that there’s only one right point of view, and that it can’t be opposed, the psychologist explained.

“These kinds of events teach you to hold to an official viewpoint, not to reflect. They most certainly instill conformism, teaching you to keep your head down and stay quiet,” Sudakova said. “Besides, the increase of this military rhetoric will have an effect, for example, on the level of violence in schools. I'm afraid we’ll see that in the long run.”

Children have been hearing the refrain “You’re the future defenders of the homeland” for a long time, but now they’re seeing that these are no longer just empty words. It’s impossible to take that in calmly, Sudakova said. “Just a year ago, the idea that you have to die for your homeland was hypothetical. But now it’s real and affects our lives: you can actually die or come back without a leg. And children should really be thinking about other things.”

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Story by Verstka

Translation by Emily ShawRuss

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