Sombrely, and with the expected gravitas, the class of young school children stood and faced the Russian flag. The video panned across their classroom. A portrait of Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, had been placed on a shelf. A teacher flicked a switch and the bombastic Russian national anthem blared from a speaker.
This is the new weekly routine for millions of children across Russia who started the school year on September 1.
Each Monday morning, schools in Russia are now expected to line up and stand to attention as the Russian flag is raised.
As its war in Ukraine stalls, the Kremlin has re-focused its powerful propaganda machine on school children. Patriotism and an unflinching devotion to the great Russian state are the platform that the Kremlin wants children’s education to be built on.
As well as introducing flag-raising ceremonies in schools, the Kremlin has also told teachers to hold group conversations each week on the importance of serving Russia and the Motherland.
It wants children to understand that dying for the Motherland is an honour and that without a strong Russia to defend a Slavic state, life is not worth living.
From next September 2023 all school children will also have to study a new subject called the “Fundamentals of the Spiritual and Moral Culture of the Peoples of Russia”.
And to ensure everybody got the message, the Kremlin’s favourite propagandist Vladimir Solovyov invited dozens of children onto his primetime TV show this week.
“Buying a car and buying a flat is all wonderful and great, but it is not a purpose,” he said, dressed in dark green pseudo-military fatigues, as he paced across a stage.
“We are the greatest country because we have the greatest destiny!”
The school children, sitting on sofas and beanbags, looked stunned. They just stared back at Solovyov, whose programme is more usually filled with analysts calling for the nuclear destruction of Britain.
The second part of this bizarre double act to brainwash Russian school children played out nearly 700 miles away in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, which Putin visited on Thursday. There he held an informal chat with a group of school children.
Everybody looked deeply uncomfortable. Putin sat awkwardly in his chair, twirling a foot. Some Russian children didn’t even know that there was a new bridge connecting mainland Russia with Crimea, which he had annexed from Ukraine in 2014, he told them.
Putin laughed at the thought and smiled ruefully. The children looked frightened, not sure if the Russian leader had just made a joke or a threat.
According to a new poll, Putin’s war is still popular in Russia despite the economic hardships and the high casualty count.
His propaganda machine is working on overdrive and any form of dissent is dangerous.
Even so, some people still do what they can to push back. Anya, a nurse living in Moscow, is one of them. In a telephone conversation, she described Ukraine as a free country compared to authoritarian Russia.
After reading about the introduction of state propaganda and saluting the flag in schools, she decided to take her daughter out of the state system and enrol her in a private school. And Anya had enjoyed the first day at her daughter’s new school this week.
“The school didn’t obey the rules,” she said. “We drank tea and ate cake and talked about the need for critical learning. We talked about how all human life is valuable and nobody has the right to take it away.”