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Why Patriotic Games do not Depend on Ideology

syg.ma team

It is generally believed that military-patriotic education in schools serves ideological ends. The folklorist Maria Gavrilova has been studying this phenomenon for years through the example of the Zarnitsa war game, which was actually once used to control the spare time of schoolgirls and boys in the Soviet Union. However, as Gavrilova’s research has made clear, despite the conservative agenda promoted by the state in modern Russia, these games are in no way sponsored or controlled. The games take on new forms and mutate, while at the same time reflecting a common problem in society: while patriotic events often serve as a form of consolation for the teachers of the older generation, to the children these rituals hold little meaning.

In this interview with Anna Mikheyeva, Maria Gavrilova speaks about the reasons why teachers see value in military-patriotic education, the resistance of games to attempts to endow them with ideological content, the reajctions of respondents to questions about patriotism, and the emancipatory potential of social and humanitarian research. The illustrations in this text are by Timur Aloyev.

This text was prepared and published as part of the syg.ma project, which was dedicated to searching for new knowledge about Russia, but we are working on broadening the scope. We are open to any proposals for cooperation or collaborative study. If you would like to discuss your own project or the work of your friends, acquaintances, or colleagues, please write us at hi@syg.ma.

This text was published in Russian in 2020, so we asked Maria to comment on how her own perception of the research has changed, and why it is still relevant:

“In addition to the collective trauma of February 24, which is shared by many people in Russia, I had a personal one: I realised that I underestimated the danger of the processes I was researching. It seemed to me that the teachers, who were engaged in patriotic education, were stuck in the past, and the only thing they saw as meaningful was the memorialisation of the Great Patriotic War, not participating in a new one. And, in fact, my hypothesis is partly confirmed by what is going on with Russian society and the army at the moment — many people are ready to perform symbolic actions like wearing the letter ‘Z’, but they do not want to go to war and know nothing about it.

My respondents and I did not agree in many ways, but I saw them as ordinary people who wanted something good, even if they chose peculiar ways for this. Not only did I want to understand them, but also to show that there are different ways to be patriots and that we actually have common goals. But everything has changed. Though my mind tells me that interesting processes are taking place in Russian education right now, it became very difficult for me to talk to the organizers of military-patriotic activities. It seems to me that they have blood on their hands. I do not want to abandon my homeland, and I do not think that any activism or research is useless here, or that we should erase people of opposite views from our lives. And even though I don’t have the resources to continue my research in this direction yet, I hope to return to it. I want to believe that someday our society will be interested in finding answers to the questions of why all this happened, and how we can continue to talk to each other. Maybe then the results of my work will be useful”.

Russian version of the text/Текст на русском

Research: Patriotism of Trauma and the Ritualization of Practice

My research deals with political propaganda, patriotism, and military-patriotic games, specifically the different ways in which they are perceived by schoolchildren and the teachers who organize them. When I was gathering material on traditional games in Moscow libraries, I came upon collections of game manuals produced in the 1920s and 1930s. In this methodological material, it was recommended that children play by taking on the role of the fascists, the bourgeois, and the Red army. Imposing such clearly propagandist activities on children in their free time felt like absolute madness to me.

For the authorities (which included teachers), children were blank slates, people without historical baggage. Much effort was dedicated to the fostering of this new type of human. A part of this process was the separation of the child from the family. General literacy, education, and after-school clubs became important to the government. For some time, the sphere of children’s leisure time remained untouched by ideology, but the necessity of maximal indoctrination continued to exist. It is precisely for this reason that we can find so many discussions in pedagogical materials of the time regarding the need to replace traditional children’s games with new ones—with, for example, games about the bourgeoisie. Such changes were meant to give children the opportunity to try out new roles and to inoculate them with an ideologically correct map of the world.

In some cases, these attempts led to quite odd results, with the very scenario of the games contradicting the content ideologists had sought to insert into them. It turned out that adapting games to a new ideology was not so easy; not all game-models could take on this modification of their content. These games had rebuffed such attempts, and this is where their generic particularity lies. The inner potential of these games for resistance interested me greatly, and led me to write an article on the topic for Anthropological Forum. Afterwards, I decided to continue studying the influence of ideology on games, but changed the subject of my research—instead of focusing on pre-war games, I began to consider post-war and post-Soviet games. This was how I came to study Zarnitsa.

An ethnography focused on teachers came to form a large part of my research: not history, not methodological questions, but the teachers themselves, their views on the games, and their work with different game formats. I had always wanted to understand such people, those who were, at first glance, maximally distant from me in their political convictions and everyday practices. I wanted to grasp what they considered the task of a teacher to be, as well as what they saw as the purpose of their profession. And, of course, my interest in current social problems—those of patriotism, of memory, of national identity—influenced my chosen area of research. In particular, I have always been interested in understanding how patriotism and militarism have come to be so closely enmeshed in Russia and more generally in the the ways in which the combination of patriotism and militarism form a united complex that is characteristic of Soviet and post-Soviet pedagogical practices and mechanisms.

All of these teachers are earnest patriots. They love their country, their fellow citizens, and children. However, their expression of this sincere love can take on remarkable forms

The established concept of “military-patriotic education” is itself a confirmation of the deeply implanted connection of its two component ideas: it is difficult to imagine patriotic education without a military aspect. Every attempt of our government to inculcate young people and children with patriotism has had this bias towards militarism. And yet this cannot be considered the doings of government representatives only. Both the people in my circle and I associate patriotism with warmongering and, latently, with aggression. What interests me is why this understanding of patriotism is so widespread in Russia and how this association was formed historically. What practices brought it about and, more generally, what forms of patriotism exist today?

I have come to understand that there are two main sets of reasons that teachers see value in military-patriotic education. The first of these has its origins in inertia—many of the teachers who are actively involved in military-patriotic activities also began their careers in the Soviet Union. These teachers studied in Soviet schools, where they acquired and grew accustomed to a series of practices. They do not know anything different. For this reason, Zarnitsa seems natural to them. A common narrative for many of these teachers is the belief that in the Soviet period everything was as it should have been when it came to the love to one’s home country. It was during the nineties, in their view, that this all disappeared: we started to be ashamed of our origins and our traditions. When I began to study this and to work with documents, it became clear to me that the situation had in fact been quite different: people may speak more about military-patriotic education today, but budgets are infrequently set aside for it, whereas in periods like the nineties schools had budgets for these activities. This means that military-patriotic education is an unbroken tradition.

The second set of reasons emerges from loyalty to the authorities. It’s hard to say why, but teachers are in general quite loyal to contemporary Russian authorities. Russian schools are institutions where one encounters a distinctive militarization of consciousness and highly intimidated adults. Teachers readily fulfil the authorities’ requirements for military-patriotic education and do so without any kind of encouragement. These requirements are given by authorities from above, without concrete instructions, guidelines, or financing, and teachers are left to attempt to find ways to comply with these indistinct directives. When authorities make a requirement for patriotic education, people with a Soviet background have only two answers: Zarnitsa and military training.

The question of the financing of patriotic education is a separate one. In interviews, teachers often spoke about both their desire to enable students to participate in the Youth Army and their lack of any funding to do so. On the one hand, decrees come from above—“get as many schoolchildren into the Youth Army as possible,” but on the other, teachers find themselves explaining to parents that Youth Army uniforms must be bought at their own expense, as well as tickets and accommodation during training camps and competitions. But despite all this, teachers eagerly respond to the demands of the authorities. They would hardly do so in the complete absence of any inner motivation. One gets the impression they are in need of an object of pride, and the closest and most accessible is the Great Patriotic War.

If one searches for a positive side to this phenomenon, patriotism could be a potential answer. All of these teachers are earnest patriots. They love their country, their fellow citizens, and children. However, their expression of this sincere love can take on remarkable forms. One ought to remember that life for teachers has never been simple—not in the Soviet period, not in the nineties. And things have not become easier today: teachers are overwhelmed with record keeping and new requirements. If a person is severely traumatized and finds themselves in a state of oppression, they are predisposed to consider themselves objects of assault, and they are always searching for the “real” source of the threat. This is why one often hears from teachers that Russia is encircled by enemies and that Western countries are attempting to steal our victories. To schoolteachers, it seems that agents threatening our children are everywhere. The generational factor also plays a role: these teachers exist in a different informational environment and are susceptible to influence by particular media. To them, mobile devices are seen as a direect channel of enemy influence beamed into the minds of children. War games become the single available answer as to how to confront these changes: forcing children to run around forests is in fact a way of guarding them against universal threats.

This is a kind of instrument of defence. It appears that teachers feel they can insert whatever content they require into the game. It is difficult to say whether there is a way of changing the views that teachers from the older generation hold about patriotic education. Younger teachers seem to be more open for change. These younger teachers often say that the focus of the games should not to be on enemies and that one would be better off drawing children’s attention towards something else—local nature, for example.

Children perceive the games differently. To them, the Great Patriotic War is something quite distant and they see military-patriotic education as something symbolic. While for teachers the Great Patriotic War is part of an actual memory, an actual trauma, for children it is something from the realms of mythology. Even though they are embedded in the speech of the teachers and in the rules of the patriotic games, elements of militarism and aggression are often not fully understood by the children. In conversations with children, I was regularly met with an absence of personal opinion regarding the rhetoric of military-patriotic games. Up until a certain age, they would simply re-transmit the teacher’s approved point of view.

When my colleagues and I spoke with older students, it became clear that their teacher’s presence exerted a strong influence on a child’s speech. In their absence, a child could make statements in a diametrically opposed key. The children’s words were also influenced by their view of the figure of the researcher, most importantly, whether or not they considered them to fall into the same group as the teachers or not. Schoolchildren often see adults as a united group and maintain a kind of pre-meditated conformist modality in conversations with them: they say what they feel is expected of them.

That said, I have met children with a religious, quasi-ritualistic attitude to military-patriotic education. But even they would rarely respond to questions about their future plans with answers that showed an interest in a career with the police or military. Participation in military-patriotic games does not necessarily indicate the presence of militarized patriotic feelings. School children are the same as everyone else, normal people; few of them are so easy to indoctrinate. While within the patriotic context of the game they take part and work out a corresponding programme, outside of this context they put their personal interests—career, financial, social—first.

In conversations with adults who had taken part in Zarnitsa-type games during their school years, associations with political propaganda and militarism rarely surfaced. The respondents remembered how they had run through forests, whether it had been fun or boring—they remembered emotions associated with the game rather than its lessons or instructions. All the same, I consider aggressive rhetoric and militarism in the education of children and teenagers an unnecessary, morbid symptom. I believe that by getting rid of it life will be changed for the better.

Aspects of quasi-religiousness are noticeable in many patriotic practices. It is not the competition itself but its wider context that is important: uniforms, the search for patriotic and meaningful team names, the singing of songs, the theatrical scene, the laying out of flowers

From one side, military-patriotism can seem as something imposed from above. But this is, in fact, a distortion of reality, both in the Soviet case and in the case of modern Russian. There are nowhere near enough governmental resources to completely control what happens in schools.

Through all of my fieldwork and interviews, not once did I experience identical forms of military-patriotic games. Respondents might say “Yes, well with us it’s as it is everywhere,” but over the course of the interview it would turn out that their games actually differed significantly from those at other schools. These differences are interesting in and of themselves. Twice I interviewed teachers who recounted their Soviet experience of playing the Zarnitsa game divided into two teams, one of them “Russian,” the other “German.” Naturally, there was nothing of the sort in the directives from the Soviet authorities. And this “Russians against Germans” model itself brought about a series of unexpected consequences.

The outcome of a game that sets two teams in confrontation with one another is, of course, clear from the start: one team will carry the day, the other will lose. A situation in which the “Germans” win could not be condoned from an ideological point of view. As a result, it was necessary to either round up all the weaker players and put them on the “German” team from the beginning, to place this team in more difficult conditions, or to ensure that they lost in some other way. Any of these tactics would lead to a strong emotional reaction from the children: fights, conflicts, and arguments. As a consequence, what was achieved was not the unison of a patriotic foundation, but confrontation.

When organizing games today, teachers tend to try to avoid situations of direct confrontation. If in Soviet iterations of Zarnitsa part of the competition included hand-to-hand combat, then modern iterations exclude them. Today, the most common form of Zarnitsa is a contest. Participants are divided not into two teams, but into five, sometimes even ten. These teams do not fight one another, but compete for points: they play laser tag, paintball, or search for treasure.

An analysis of situations in which teachers dishonestly score the games deserves its own separate attention. Last year, I asked my students at RANEPA to conduct interviews with students from their schools who had taken part in Zarnitsa. In an interview with a young girl from the city of Derbent in Dagestan, a case was described in which the teachers responsible for running the game had shown preferential treatment to their own school’s team. The children noticed this, but did not begin fighting among themselves: instead, they provided one another with emotional support and began resisting and reprimanding the adults for their dishonest behaviour.

One respondent from Moscow shared their experience of participation in an absolutely different form of Zarnitsa—a quiz on the history of the Fatherland. The game was timed to coincide with Victory Day celebrations. Participants wore white shirts, gathered in a playhouse, sang patriotic songs, and answered questions. When I asked about the competitive element of the game, I was met with complete incomprehension: to this respondent, the game had been a means of respecting the memory of ancestors; there was no place for competition in such a situation. In this example, then, Zarnitsa was a ritual. Aspects of quasi-religiousness are noticeable in many patriotic practices. It is not the competition itself but its wider context that is important: uniforms, the search for patriotic and meaningful team names, the singing of songs, the theatrical scene, the laying out of flowers. In modern iterations of Zarnitsa, in contrast to its Soviet iterations, it is precisely this performative rather than military aspect that becomes more and more powerful.

In methodological documents from the 1980s about organizing Zarnitsa, quiz questions were often of a more practical nature. They were related to the provision of first aid, the assembling of weapons, their disassembling, to geographical orientations, etc. In today’s quizzes, there are far more questions regarding collective memory and history: “What did Stalin say when he addressed brothers and sisters?”, “How many days did the siege of Leningrad last?”, “What is depicted on this poster from the Great Patriotic War?”.

I have yet to complete my research, but ultimately I hope to write a book on the practices and history of patriotic education in Russia. In the future, I hope to compare these practices with those of other countries, such as the Boy Scout movement in America and with similar practices in Nazi Germany and fascist Italy.

Research Field: Distrust in the Center, Ease in the Regions

I began my research by interviewing teachers. In conversation, they often used impersonal formulations that deprived them of agency: “This is how our life is organized,” “We are obliged,” “It’s imposed from above.” That being said, clear methodological instructions or recommendations are absent from the guidelines that these teachers are obliged to observe. The language of the directives has an abstract character: teachers are required to “strengthen” and “develop” the students and to “heighten the level of patriotism.” Teachers fulfil these vague requirements in different ways, utilizing content that is determined by their background, habits, and worldviews. In so far as teachers have differing life experiences, their fulfillment of given requirements often varies.

I was faced with mistrust on the part of teachers during the field stage of my research: they were constantly afraid of some kind of problem or verification. This difficulty was the most pronounced in Moscow. The only school I was able to gain access to in Moscow was my daughter’s school. But even there, I experienced many problems with communication. At first, I asked my daughter’s class teacher about patriotic education at the school. She told me about the school’s Museum of the Defender of the Fatherland. The founder and leader of this museum also ran a patriotic after-school club. This after-school club feeds students into the school’s Youth Army division and also runs the Immortal regiment and events similar to Zarnitsa. Thanks to my daughter’s teacher, I was able to contact the individual in charge of patriotic education at the school. But when I contacted and met with her, the issue of her absolute mistrust was immediately clear, apparent as much in terms of her body language and gestures as it was on a verbal level.

Usually, I enter into contact with respondents with ease. In my work on folklore expeditions and as part of many other projects I have often had to conduct interviews. As a rule, having agreed to a conversation, people readily open up to me. With this woman, however, the process of communication proved difficult. Even when I asked neutral questions of an abstract nature, she would markedly tense up and answer evasively. It seemed to her that I was either subjecting her to a severe test or that I numbered among enemy agents.

Work with another organization was a little easier. In Moscow, the International Children and Youth Academy of Hiking and Local History organizes a patriotic, interschool game called “Guards of Russia.” As they are not tied to a single school, employees of this organization are not under the same intense pressure from the authorities and are not obliged to keep the same strict records. Besides, they had already been holding this game long before the government turned its attentive gaze to this sphere in 2014. For these reasons, they were much freer and more open in conversations with me.

I also noticed that the smaller the city, the more easily people entered into contact and the freer they felt during interviews. But all the same, one cannot do without personal contacts: it was always necessary to already have a personal relationship with at least one teacher. This teacher would then help reach other respondents and convince them that myself and other researchers from the team posed no threat. And, of course, this imposed limitations.

Over the course of a number of expeditions to small cities, my colleagues from RANEPA and I conducted interviews as part of a study of Victory Day celebrations. On Victory Day, one can easily meet schoolchildren and teachers in any central district. One can approach them, propose an interview, or simply ask questions, and, generally they answer questions readily. That being said, they can sometimes have the impression that the person conducting the interview is acutally an inspector from Moscow and in such cases they try to embellish reality. All the same, in conversation one notices their greater ease and it is far easier to interact with them.

As for documents, access to them is far easier to organize. Materials about military-patriotic games, publications in the press and on social media—all of these are freely available. School teachers quite actively share lesson plans, methodological articles and proposals, and reports about events held online. Here, the problem of data processing became acute, as there was so much material. At present, I am working with contemporary materials and publications. In the future I plan on turning to Soviet-era archives. I have contacts at the Palace of the Pioneers in Vorobyovy Gory, and their archive contains a significant amount of material that is relevant to my research.

Trajectory: the Problem of Interdisciplinarity

I studied at the historical-philological faculty of RSUH and quite actively took part in the Laboratory of Russian Folklore run by Andrey Borisovitch Moroz. They taught us the philological classics: Mikhail Leonovich Gasparov, Eleazar Moisevich Meletinsky, and a number of other important figures in this field. All the same, our education was fragmentary; few courses were given and others simply did not take place. Difficulties also arose with my research specialization. Quite often, students are not able to officially select the subject of the research they are actually carrying out and I was also not able to do so. The traces of this disparity run through my academic biography. As well as Russian folklore, I was interested in literary theory: textual criticism, literary critical categories, and historical poetics. Finding a way of productively combining these interests was difficult. In the end, I decided to dedicate my coursework to the traditions of Russian games and this is the direction I follow to this day.

In my doctoral work, I searched for intersections of games and literature: subjects, characters, and images. When I discussed this theme with my supervisors, the majority of them met me with incomprehension. In the poetics department of my doctoral faculty, the only person who saw potential in this line of research was my supervisor Samson Naumovich Broitman. When he died, I began to experience problems. Already at the initial defending stage, my senior colleagues noted that my theme did fit into our speciality and that I would need to defend my thesis at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Humanities.

My family and close friends met my attempts to return with incomprehension. They didn’t see any potential of earning money in academia, so they considered my decision selfish and saw academic study as a strange distraction. But I felt I had to do it and I returned

At first, I attempted to amend my work, but this got me nowhere and I fell into despair. At the same time, I experienced important changes in my personal life: I got married and gave birth to my daughter. My academic work was put on pause for five years. I tried to work in journalism, to make a family and a home. At some point, it became clear to me that I would not be happy until I returned to academia. My family and close friends met my attempts to return with incomprehension. They didn’t see any potential of earning money in academia, so they considered my decision selfish and saw academic study as a strange distraction. But I felt I had to do it and I returned.

Sergei Yuryevich Neklyudov, the head of the Centre for Typological and Semiotic Folklore Studies, played an important role in this. Without his support, without his belief in my work, I would not have been able to complete my research. For three years, I did not belong to any institution and worked as an independent researcher. I attended Sergey Yurevich’s seminars and wrote. After all these years of work, in 2018 I finally defended my dissertation at the Institute of Russian Literature. After defending my work, I published it as a book, titled The Poetics of Traditional Eastern Slavic Games.

It was far from immediately that I began to work in my area of speciality. At first, I collaborated with the Monitoring of Current Folklore group and its leader, Alexandra Arkhipova. Afterwards, I joined the Laboratory of Theoretical Folklore at the RANEPA at the Institute of Social Sciences. Gradually, I began to work in different places and on different projects. At present, I am an academic worker at the Centre of Urban Anthropology at the Moscow School for Social and Economic Sciences and I teach at the RANEPA at the Higher School of Economics. While conducting research for my doctoral studies, I began to come across pedagogical materials. School teachers were the first to begin to be interested in games, but their research was chiefly of an applied nature. It was the work of teachers on ideological adaptations of folklore, their attempts to give new ideological dimensions to traditional games, that prompted me to study the anthropology of pedagogy and teachers. I would be very interested to study the history of the ideologization of folklore games, but such studies are only plans for now.

Method: Social Science as an Instrument of Progress

In my work, I often meet people with political convictions that are opposed to mine. Some people in my circle see ideological enemies in schoolteachers and try to remain aloof and avoid entering into communication with them. I notice a similar tendency on the other side of the communication barricade. Still, both groups are patriots of their country. It is precisely in their love for their native country, in their desire to serve its interests from altruistic feelings, that I believe common ground can be found. Competition can be relegated to other spheres.

In my opinion, the difference between these two types of patriots—militaristic and pacifistic—lies in their different views of the future. The former are scared of the future and prefer to turn to the greatness of the past. The latter are not scared of the future and as a result they are more likely to speak critically and call attention to the shortcomings of the present political system and its institutions. These criticisms illustrate a desire to correct the worst in order to change the situation in the country for the better. In my opinion, what is lacking in contemporary conservative patriotic rhetoric is a view of the future and attention to current processes. Without this, the rhetoric gives the impression that currently there is nothing taking place, that things were better in the past, and that everything will only deteriorate in the future.

The deadly connection between patriotism and militarism seems to me, personally and as a citizen, to be a significant problem, a social malady that must be treated. Patriotism can be peaceful: considering oneself a patriot in no way necessitates a constant search for external enemies and conflicts. But in order to reform destructive practices, it is necessary to define how they come about, what are the motives behind them, and whether or not they have any value.

Some of my colleagues in social science express an opposition to researchers translating their theoretical knowledge into practical activities close to everyday life. They fear that such activities call into question academic detachment, thereby making researchers politically engaged. Such a danger does exist and it cannot be discounted. All the same, I consider representatives of the social sciences to be in some way obliged to Russian society: social and humanitarian studies have an emancipatory potential. At the very least, we can formulate and draw attention to social problems, find possible reasons for their occurrence, and propose means for their resolution.

I consider myself a social optimist: I believe that destructive practices are often driven by the best of intentions. Social and humanitarian researchers are able to understand these motivations and propose different means of realizing them. It goes without saying that I do not see myself as a healer of social ills. But I contribute to knowledge and I believe that if others do the same, then together—be it millimetre by millimetre—we can methodically and jointly encourage social progress. If I began to hand out advice to teachers or even simply to comment about their work, I would risk scaring them away. And, in any case, I do not have the required competencies to be able to teach them anything. But if they express interest in my position, I tell them the truth, trying to be as tactful as possible and to soften any corners of my statements. I do not enter into open arguments with them and I respect their points of view. I show them through my respectful attitude that I am not an enemy. I hope that my knowledge on the one side and my respect and empathy on the other might enable smoother communication.

* * *

Maria Gavrilova is as a senior researcher at the Center For Theoretical Folklore Studies, a researcher at the Centre for Urban Anthropology of the Moscow Higher School of Economics and Social Sciences, and a teacher at the RANEPA and the Higher School of Economics. Popular texts based on her research on Zarnitsa, and traditional values can be found on The Knife, and an academic article about propaganda games of the 1920s and 1930s can be found in Anthropological Forum magazine. In addition, Maria wrote has written a book about traditional games that can be found on Labyrinth.

Maria can be contacted on Facebook or by email.

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