Belarus: Schools Teach Lessons in Patriotism

Educational reforms signal a fresh battlefront in regime crackdown.

Belarus: Schools Teach Lessons in Patriotism

Educational reforms signal a fresh battlefront in regime crackdown.

2017 Republican Pedagogical Council.
2017 Republican Pedagogical Council. © Ministry of Education of the Republic of Belarus
Tuesday, 28 September, 2021

Oksana (not her real name), was horrified when she received a letter announcing that select pupils in her ten-year old’s class would be receiving weapons training.

“A few days ago, all the parents received a message which said that six pupils from every grade had to be present at a shooting competition. They will also be taught to assemble a gun,” continued Oksana, who lives in the Belarus capital Minsk. The teacher had described the shooting range as a place to practice activities that “kids usually enjoy a lot”.

“But on what grounds does she make this assumption?” Oksana asked. “Is it really an activity appropriate for this age? Why aren’t we given alternatives?”

Fears are growing that the education sector is fast becoming another area of increased government control following the popular uprising that began in August 2020 in response to disputed elections won by Alexander Lukashenko, in power since 1994.

Education became one of the targets of repressions almost immediately after the protests began. Nearly 10,500 teachers have been sacked for expressing their political views, with 160 students expelled.

More recently, Lukashenko told delegates to an August 2021 educational conference that “no school is thinkable without politics, but there is only one politics that ought to be taught there, that of the state”.

He described education as the “stronghold of Belarusian statehood, a socially-important branch of economy” and said that in the upcoming academic year it had to be “reloaded”.

This reload has included new topics and new teaching roles. Subjects to be studied this year include “the basics of spiritual and moral upbringing and patriotism” and ‘pre-conscription medical training,” all administered by “war and patriotic education” leaders selected by school administrations, military commissars and interior ministry officials.

Sophia Filistrovich, deputy head of the Minsk regional executive committee, explained that this role should be filled by “an individual with an active civil position.

“They will also be responsible for the organisation of the youth’s patriotic upbringing and motivation of pupils to take part in campaigns, contests and competitions,” she continued.

Other moves include replacing school caretakers with policeman “responsible for school tranquillity and safety”.

Class discussions already held this year have included topics such as the integration of Russia and Belarus, and the supposed transparency of the August 2020 presidential elections.

One mother living in Minsk, who asked to remain anonymous, said that it was clear to some children that they were being cynically manipulated.

“My 11-year-old son said that the teacher was speaking of Belarus as the most wonderful and the best country in the world. ‘Mum, it was pure brainwashing!’” she said.

Teachers in Belarus can expect an average monthly salary of 1,022 BY (400 US dollars), and the profession has long been regarded as a vocation rather than a lucrative career. With thousands of teachers sacked or imprisoned for their political views, the Belarusian education system is already facing a severe shortage of staff.

Another mother who asked to remain anonymous shared her 16-year-old daughter’s impression of her first day at senior school.

“The headmaster - who has also recently become a deputy from the local precinct - was unexpectedly given the position of astronomy teacher at my oldest daughter’s class,” she said. “During his very first lesson he claimed that the Americans never landed on the Moon. ‘It’s because they are dumb,’ he explained.”

This further downgrading of the school system has alarmed educational experts who fear for the future of the country’s children.

“The fact that teachers were turned into goons is a national disgrace and getting rid of this trauma is going to take time,” former Belarusian State University lecturer Pavel Barkouski wrote on social media. “Now we are bringing our kids to teachers who can cultivate in them only in submission, helplessness and hatred of life that has made monsters of them– the culmination of the decimation of the education system we have been observing for the last 27 years."

This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

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