Kremlin brings Lithuanian children to military-themed propaganda camps
In late 2014 a scandal made headlines in Lithuania that young Lithuanian Russian-speaking students are being sent to Russian military youth camps. This incident reached attention of the highest government officials and the Intelligence community in Lithuania. Lithuanian society was alerted and saw this as a propagandist maneuver to indoctrinate young members of Lithuanian Russian-speaking community. In 2017, the mayor of Plungė (town in Western Lithuania) publicly apologized for allowing Lithuanian-speaking students to go to one of these camps. This story was widely heard in Lithuania and the it is still ongoing. The Vilnius Institute of Policy Analysis (VIPA) presents you the insights of this story and provides a better look of what these military camps actually are.
Youth Camp Soyuz
The youth camps Soyuz, Nasledniki Pobedy (RU: Союз, Наследники Победы; EN: The Union, The Heirs of the Victory) started as early as 2007 and are being organized annually. Their official website described these camps as:
“Soyuz is a International Youth Educational Event of Military Sports Organizations and Cadet Corps. The program of patriotic education, developed by Afghanistan's veterans, was recognized by the authorities of Russian Federation and its allies, but was condemned by some members of NATO.”
The motto of the camp is “When we are united – we are invincible”. (RU: Когда мы едины — мы непобедимы). The camp invites students from the post-Soviet countries to take part in a 10-day sports and educational program in various cities in the post-Soviet countries. The camp emphasizes military routine, cultural and educational programs. And this is where the main danger comes from: Russia’s official historical narratives are not objective. As Eurasianist far-right ideologue Alexander Dugin puts it, Russia has its own special Russian truth.
Another important detail is the list of the organizers and financial supporters. In the long list of names organizations with a strong historical and cultural bias can be found: “Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation”, “Foundation for the Promotion of Patriotic Education of Youth and Preservation of the Succession of Russian Military Intelligence Generations "Loyalty to the Fatherland" and “Regional public association for the preservation and strengthening of traditional spiritual and moral values, culture and patriotism "Dignity”.
When the story surfaced in 2014, the media talked about Lithuanian students being sent to Soyuz-2013 camp in Odessa, Ukraine and Soyuz-2014 camp in Russia. Two main Lithuanian schools were cited sending students to the youth camps: Vilnius Sofia Kovalevskaya high-school and Vilnius Kochalov gymnasium. According to the reports, in 2014 at least 10 pupils from Vilnius area were sent to the camp. Another incident surfaced in 2017, when the mayor of a Lithuanian town Plungė publicly apologized for letting Lithuanian speaking students go to a youth camp in Russia and admitted that these camps are propagandistic. The exact numbers of Lithuanian students who participated in these camps were not revealed by the Intelligence community, but it was confirmed that both Russian-speaking and Lithuanian-speaking students were present at the camps.
In 2014, the situation was not only widely discussed in the mainstream media, but also commented by high officials. Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė declared that these youth camps are a good example how third party countries are trying to influence Lithuania’s youth and urged the schools and students to be careful. At the same time, the Minister of Education argued that this had been an individual decision of the students’ parents and that Ministry of Education is not going to actively deny students the right to travel. Lithuanian State Security Department was reluctant to comment a lot on the situation, but assured that this was not the first attempt to influence Lithuanian youth.
Neither the children, nor they teachers have broken the Lithuanian laws. Both Ministry of Education and State Security Department agreed that these individual decisions were made by the parents and the right of free movement cannot be limited in any way. Nonetheless, the Minister mentioned that a stricter control over school syllabus will be implemented to ensure that the kids are not being influenced by propaganda in schools. Prosecutors stopped the pre-trial investigation on the youth camps on January 2017; no laws were broken by the schools or the students.
As mentioned before, the official website of the youth camp mentions the camps being organized since 2007 up to 2017. Since the camps are of similar nature with very similar agendas, we took a closer look to one of them – Soyuz 2013, Odessa.
One of the first things that pop up opening the Soyuz 2013 folder is a variety of schools and activities that will be available during the camp. Diplomatic games, the school of extreme and military medicine and the school of military scouts immediately catches attention and raises questions.
A large folder of photos and videos from the camp is attached to every event that was organized. These official visual aids gave us a chance to better understand what was happening in these events.
A large portion of the activities in the camp were physical. All the children were dressed in military uniforms, closely resembling the Russian military. Part of the uniform was the traditional Russian Navy, Marine and Airborne Troops’ undershirt – Telniashka (тельня́шка) and the Ribbon of Saint George (Гео́ргиевская ле́нточка) – an old Russian military symbol actively used by Russian-led separatists in Ukraine.
As we can see from the pictures, children and especially boys were competing in military games, such as wrestling, doing pushups in formations, running and completing tasks with weapons.
Amongst the pictures jousting, knife throwing and marksmanship competitions were observed. It is important to note that girls were involved in most of these activities as well.
An interesting, yet important observation is that the weapons that were provided to children in the camp were the famous Russian Soviet submachine guns - PPSh-41 (Пистолет-пулемёт Шпагина) – iconic weapons of the ‘Great Patriotic War’. This observation will be discussed more extensively in the following part.
The very idea of the ‘Great Patriotic War’ forms the cornerstone of Russian geopolitical outlook as well as current revanchist mentality. The symbolism and memory of the ‘Great Patriotic War’ validates a self-understanding of the USSR as both a victim and a victor of the WWII, completely disregarding some of the most important historical facts (such as the signing of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact in 1939) and war crimes committed by the USSR.
As we can see from the photos, the symbolism and imagery of ‘Great Patriotic War’ was prevalent throughout the camp. Children were dressing up in Soviet soldier or NKVD uniforms and reenacting scenes from the WWII. Soviet symbols were prevalent during the exercises and the dominant narrative portrayed Nazi Germans as the nemesis of the glorious Red Army soldiers.
On the lasts days of the camp, a huge WWII reenactment was staged on the beach. Groups of soldiers were reenacting a victory of brave Soviet soldiers against the evil Nazis. The NKVD element was predominant in this reenactment as well.
There are no videos of the classes or discussions taking place during the camp, but in the video a lot of educational posters with WWII thematic were visible.
Video source - YouTube
There is little doubt, that the historical narrative presented in the camps was highly biased and pro-Soviet. By the looks of it, the official footage from Soyuz 2013 reveals its aim: a certain education of youth from the post-Soviet countries.
A few official photos on the website confirm the presence of Lithuanian students. During the march in Odessa, students wore the traditional clothes and carried the flags of their countries. A Lithuanian flag was observed next to a female student dressed in outfit resembling Lithuanian official clothes.
The same student was seen posing in the square next to a memorial and looking at local souvenirs. The identity of the student is not going to be revealed.
A few other photos were found of the camp participants presenting their works and ideas on stage. These photos once again confirm the presence of Lithuanian students in the camp. It is known that both male and female students were present in the camp.
Furthermore, Estonian and Latvian students apparently were also present amongst the participants. Whether the students were native Russian speakers is unknown.
The scandalous story of Lithuanian students in Russian military youth camps is not over yet. Even though the court ruled that no laws were broken when these children were sent and the State Security Department took no active actions to prevent these trips, this phenomenon remains a threat for Lithuanian youth and Lithuanian national security in general.
It is not surprising that Russian speakers from the ex-Soviet Union are being invited to these camps. It is vital for the current Kremlin regime to hold the dispersed Russian speakers under their information dome. Nonetheless, the fact that native Lithuanian speakers have also been invited illustrates that the Kremlin’s ideological reach is extensive.
Lithuanian government decided to take soft measures against this hybrid threat, by urging teachers to be more vigilant and think twice before sending students to these and similar events. Apparently, the Kremlin once again found a grey zone to manipulate without activating the neighboring state’s judiciary system. The fight for Russian speaker’s hearts and minds continues.
Lukas Andriukaitis is Associate Analyst at Vilnius Institute for Policy Analysis and a Digital Forensic Research Associate at Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.
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