It is well known that Russia sends relatively young men to fight in the war in Ukraine. Among other things, Putin is said to have recruited students from the country’s universities and colleges.
Several Nordic media are now reporting that the Russian youth army “Junarmija” will grow at record speed. The group is said to have now reached around 1.2 million members, but what does the group actually do?
– Junarmija was founded six or seven years ago and was based on military-patriotic clubs that already existed in Russia, so it is a kind of umbrella organization for military-patriotic upbringing. You could say they stand on two legs. One is ideological work which is about cultivating patriots, and in that case the history of the Second World War is particularly actively used. In addition, they engage in military training. The combination of the two is absolutely crucial for the business, says Håvard Bækken to Nettavisen.
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– Bigger problem
Bækken has led the Department of Defense Studies’ project at Junarmija and is one of the experts who has done the most research on the group. He still follows the development of the group closely.
– Much of what they practice is based on war history. The purpose is to create a youth and a generation who are loyal to the fatherland through thick and thin, and who are in practice loyal to the regime as well. Values such as discipline, respect for the elderly and propriety are very strong.
According to Bækken, the organization must have grown continuously since it was established.
– They have over a million members0, today. By Russian standards, Junarmija is not extreme. There are far more radical groups, which also focus much more on military training than Junarmija has. In Junarmija, they don’t become full-fledged soldiers, but get a positive relationship with war, and that’s a much bigger problem if you ask me.
– Junior high school students
British The Guardian writes that the group aims to have recruited 20 percent of Russia’s young people by 2030, which corresponds to around four million young people.
– Most are of secondary school age, but they are open to children up to eight years old. At the same time, there is really no upper age limit, and many remain members up to university age, says Bækken, and adds:
– Until very recently, it has been quite limited in the number of members, while the Soviet ones were semi-compulsory mass organisations. Now that is about to change. The fact that you have military-patriotic camps is not in itself rare in other countries either.
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Although the war in Ukraine is cited as one of the reasons why the group is growing as fast as it is, that does not mean that the rising membership is anything new.
– Junarmija has grown all the way since it was founded and has been promoted very hard. There is quite a lot of pressure placed on schools, the parents and the children, so not all participation is entirely voluntary. It is becoming a different type of organization than it has been, because Russia has plunged into war mode.
– Can you compare Junarmija with something you have seen throughout history in the past?
– If I have to compare it to something, I want to compare it to the Soviet forerunners. They have many of the same slogans, practices and symbols, but today’s group has nothing to do with Marxism.
Putin is behind it
Although the group is not supposed to be as popular as the Soviet groupings of the time, the Russian state and Putin’s Kremlin are still one of the main actors behind the group. Brækken says that the schools sometimes give notice that the pupils should join the group.
– The Ministry of Defense is the most important actor, so the state has a very direct role there. It is not necessarily a question of coercion, but pressure from the top down. Taking that as a starting point, it is actually quite striking that there are not more members.
In most of the photos circulating in Western media of the group, it appears that the children are in military uniform and doing military training. But is Junarmija a kind of military training?
– It is partly so, the question is whether the training is suitable as some kind of military education, which is doubtful. They may get an advantage when they go into regular conscription, but the training is very basic, with obstacle courses, marching, drill and the like. But they get to mount and shoot guns, and maybe throw a grenade too.
Become more skeptical
Brækken has conducted a lot of research in the area, and even conducted surveys among those who have been involved in Junarmija. He is not convinced that the young people who are part of the group will be as loyal as the Russian authorities hope for.
– What we know now is that young people who have lived under this for many years are the most skeptical of Putin’s militarism and his ideological project. There is little indication that this actually works. During the Soviet Union, it was a problem that everyone played along, but that it didn’t really work. In short; brainwashing does not work as well as we sometimes fear, he says and adds:
– The citizens will not allow themselves to be brainwashed, at least not to the same extent as during Soviet rule. The population has significantly greater access to information than at that time. It’s scary, but that doesn’t mean it’s fully functional. There is nothing to suggest that the members swallow the propaganda raw.
Nevertheless, there will probably not be fewer members in the time to come, and Junarmija will be just as much a part of the pro-war propaganda in Russia.
– The need to create internal support from the population shows itself in increased membership numbers, and Junarmija actively supports the war in Ukraine through everyday activities. These children and young people are a target group for the propaganda, but also a carrier for it. They somehow show that the youth support Putin’s direction for Russia.