Youth patriotism in Russia — What is it really?

“Is it true that Americans are afraid of Russians? That they hate us?” I had walked into my colleague’s English class, and, noticing an awkward hush among the students, had told my life story in a couple of minutes, highlighting my lifelong interest in Russia, beginning when I first went to Russia when I was just about their age. I thought maybe these students, sitting in a sunny room in an arts magnet school in the far Northern city of Petrozavodsk, would ask me about a singer they had seen on Youtube, or about pets or food. But instead, a thirteen year-old girl with bright eyes, a high forehead, and dark hair raised her hand and asked about American attitudes toward Russians.

So. Here we go again, I thought. Growing up during the Cold War, the hostility between our countries had weighed me down a lot. Gorbachev and Glasnost lightened the world tremendously: it had been 30 years since I had felt the terror about nuclear war that depressed me as a teenager. But the anxiety I saw in the girl’s face reminded of my worry at that age, my fear that political leaders with their own agendas would screw up the world I was entering into.

Students’ questions kept coming: “We listen to music from all over the world, but we don’t think people listen to our music. Why not? Is it not good? Is it because people can’t understand Russian?” “Why don’t people in other countries want to learn Russian? Is it really so hard?” “Why, when Russians are portrayed in movies, are their accents so bad?” “We have stereotypes of Americans as fat and stupid. Are these images true? (You aren’t offended, are you?!)”

I wished I could say to these kids, NO! Americans aren’t afraid of Russians! We like your music; your accents aren’t that weird, and it’s a lie to say that we’re fat and stupid! It’s my role as a guest, isn’t it: to reassure, entertain, and appreciate my hosts. But I can’t pretend that there aren’t truths in the stereotypes. So, I admit the parts that are true, and try to communicate that there is more to us, more to them, more to everything than simple associations can convey.
Irina's class

But I have been noticing an awful lot of stereotypes coming up in my own responses to what I’m seeing here. For instance, my host Irina and her students show me a charming video about this school, featuring the students’ and teachers’ many collective activities: dancing, building artful snowpeople…and shooting? The image of these kids in camouflage and gas masks running through the woods with rifles appalls me. When I learn that some of the kids I meet go to military after school programs rather than the music or dance programs I am used to, my view of these kids warps. I instantly assume they must be part of the new Russian youth ultra-nationalist movement that, according to American news stories I read, are being trained to inherit and continue Putinesque policies. Suddenly the stereotypes fill my head and start funneling my impressions of the students in front of me: I look for signs that fit my idea of militarized youth as machines, unquestioning and dangerously obedient.

I didn’t even realize I was carrying around so many prejudices about Russian patriotism. Where were my assumptions coming from? I started to realize how deeply media images and stories had penetrated my perception – some held over from when I was a kid, and certainly some recent stories. A tone of distrust, alarmism, and judgment had somehow become normal enough that I hadn’t even noticed it and its effects on me. I had allowed ideas to take hold in my brain without questioning them – sounds like fat and stupid to me!

If, in talking with young Russians, I wanted to urge them to look for multiple aspects of Americanness, Russianness, human complexity – I had to develop multiplicity in my own perspective. I needed to try to understand words, behaviors, and events in a greater range of meaning and contexts.
Putin and me

So, it was helpful to come across readings that opened up some of this range for me. For example, in her study of patriotic youth programs, Marlene Laruelle* emphasizes that in the context of Russia today, “patriotic” doesn’t really mean what we in the West think it means. For many participants and leaders, patriotic programs foster independence and care for the local community, not intensified nationalism. Laruelle talks about military clubs that defend young people who don’t want to enlist. She tells stories of young people in military archeology clubs who in their search for remains of WWII soldiers realize that the state didn’t give all their soldiers a proper burial. These young people participate avidly in patriotic clubs, but are decidedly anti-patriotic. “These patriotic practices,” Laruelle says, “are flexible, multidimensional, and open to diverse readings and levels of engagement. Patriotic narratives and practices are marked by a rejection of abstraction. They involve no messianism or ‘great-powerness’, but instead draw on living examples, local or familial heroes, life stories and sites to visit and cherish” (p. 25). This close look at how people actually understand patriotism in their local contexts made me realize that my understanding of patriotism was one-dimensional and abstract, based in hype, rhetoric, and my own fears.

Our young people are capable of constructing new stories about self and other, of growing the trust and respect that our interdependent world requires. It would help if we older folks stopped letting our own fears and assumptions get in the way.

*Marlene Laruelle (2015) Patriotic Youth Clubs in Russia. Professional Niches, Cultural Capital and Narratives of Social Engagement, Europe-Asia Studies, 67:1, 8-27.

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Immersion Education, or Down the Rabbit Hole

The biggest bowl of cookies I have ever seen sat on the table between us, and as its layers descended, we learned more and more about the layers of “The World of Edutainment.” “Klasno!” My colleague Vadim kept saying – something like “what class!” My sense of the word is that it communicates aesthetic admiration as well as excitement about an idea.

Vadim Riskin and I are in St. Petersburg, Russia on a Eurasia Foundation funded fellowship; our charge is to learn about how organizations, schools, and government policy approach youth development. We are serving as advanced practitioners for the US-Russia Social Expertise Exchange,* in the Education and Youth Working Group. On first day here, and our host Mikhail Epshtein and his colleague Valerii Puzyrevskii have brought us to The World of Edutainment. Across the street, they point out, from the hospital where Pavlov conducted his famous experiments.

We were in the physical center of Nanoschool; the place is airy and inviting, with touchables everywhere, from rope puzzles on the walls to tangrams and books on tables (and a beanbag loft which I eyed longingly as I struggled with jet lag). Playing at the interactive math museum and with the elaborate and beautiful physics-detective board games our hosts Mikhail and Valerii had created would have kept me engaged for a long time.

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This external center was, however, only the tip of the iceberg. Nanoschool extends out along lines that extend across Russia, touching hundreds of schools and tens of thousands of students, in virtual and live settings, with dynamic points of connection that continue to extend on their own. Dewey’s image of education as “the live creature” comes to mind: the structures that Mikhail and his colleagues have created to engage young people in real-world problem-solving are highly generative.

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Mikhail, Valerii, and the other staff at “Nanoschool,” are committed to experiential education through-and-through. They have formed a partnership with RusNano involving high school students in solving real-world problems. They have two main goals: providing authentic learning experience to students, and halting the “brain drain” that is slowing Russia’s development. In one of these projects, 10,000 students from all over the country take part in year-long online learning forums developed in collaboration with RusNano; then the most committed students come for a summer camp focused on solving an actual problem RusNano is dealing with.

Summer camps and after school programs are the living heart of youth development in Russia. “Supplemental” (дополительный) programs are as much part of the conversation about education as schools, if not more so. In the U.S., where such programs are more auxiliary, the overwhelming focus is on schools, in terms of policy, training, and personnel. But in Russia, the emphasis on “supplemental” programs corresponds to a general understanding that education spreads across multiple sites: in-school education is only one dimension. Out-of-school education, which is less regulated and more innovative than in-school learning, is an integral part of how, what, and why students learn.

Mikhail and Valerii and other educators run a number of such camps and programs, but they also integrate the innovative play of camp into school. At Epishkola School, the 7-18 year old students and their teachers participate in a week-long camp that focuses on a key idea. The large-scale roleplaying game involves intensive collaborative interdisciplinary work that is physical, social, and intellectual. It is an “immersion” experience and experiment. The theme one year, for example, was “Chaos and Order.” Young people wrestled with ideas of physics, literature, philosophy, math, and history as they worked their way through a living social maze of order and chaos. Experientially digging into the complex world of The Dictionary of the Khazars, they navigated ideology, loyalty, passion, and treachery in their interactions with one another — with the help of intellectual lifelines that scientific and philosophical thinking offers to human society.**

A book Valerii wrote opens by emphasizing the interdependence of education and philosophy: “Philosophy without education is like a body without legs, education without philosophy is like a body without eyes.” The “Immersion” camp Valerii has designed with Mikhail embodies this systemic interdependence. It is all designed to bring young people to the rabbit hole: immersion into a new amazing world that stretches and changes the brain and the self. I am getting a whiff of it just sitting here hearing about it.

But at this point we have been sitting for hours; the cookies could tide us over only so long. Our stomachs are empty and our brains are full. We head out of The World of Edutainment to a corner restaurant for mushroom soup and piroshkis.

*The views and opinions expressed in this blog are mine and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SEE or Eurasia Foundation.

**Mikhail and Valerii wrote a book about this “Immersion” pedagogy: Mezhpredmetnye integrativnye pogrzheniia. St. Petersburg: Shkolnaia Liga Rosnano, 2014.