Inside Russia’s cartoonish propaganda website designed for kids
It has been almost six months since the world watched in horror as Russia invaded Ukraine under the false pretense of protecting Russia from possible aggression. But Russia’s presidential website may have been laying the groundwork for years.
Aptly named kids.kremlin.ru, the website is a chilling example of internet propaganda aimed at indoctrinating children. Dripping with cartoonish illustrations, gamification and nationalistic information about the country’s constitution or who protects citizens’ rights”when the president sleeps“…it is apparently designed to prepare children for war from their earliest days.
“The Russian government is trying to meet children where they are and talk to them in their own language,” says Samuel Christopher Woolley, a writer, researcher and professor who focuses on propaganda and using the internet to mitigate the ‘public opinion.
The website is divided into several self-expanding sections, including a sensational WWII crash course that unfolds like a story on film. “For four years, our country lived a harsh and terrible military life,” reads one of the chapters when I switch to Google Translate. “Imagine that strangers, armed to the teeth, speaking an incomprehensible language, impudent soldiers suddenly burst into your town or village, entered your house, did what they wanted, and there was no no one to protect you,” said another.
In a painfully ironic place on the site, the government focuses its attention on the consequences of the war on Russia. Spanning eight pages, the so-called “Army” segment relies on fear and blatant misinformation to indoctrinate children. One page even seeks to justify the need for armed forces in a country that claims to have no intention of conquering anyone. Driven by an army of soldier pawns parachuting across the screen, “The State must be strong and armed,” it reads. “Otherwise it might itself be conquered by other countries, and then it would lose its independence and sovereignty and not be able to protect us.”
This messenger is designed to look like a board game with figurines and animations. Its logo consists of a castle painted in primary colors, and even the loading bar looks like colorful candies. It feels like a video game at times, as evidenced by the character you choose on the homepage to “guide” you through the site. “It’s a bit like Minecraft, it’s supposed to be a kid’s game,” says Woolley.
Judging by the Wayback Machine, the website went live since at least 2009but the first mention of the Army segment dates back to 2018. For Woolley, the timing is no coincidence: he points out that in 2018, Russia had established a large military presence in Crimea and was facing international pressure to withdraw.
“Russian citizens were exposed to a great deal of anti-Russian sentiment online, despite attempts by the Kremlin to control access to foreign information and news,” Woolley said. Perhaps the government added the section to legitimize Russia’s military aggression and convince children that the occupation of Crimea – and now Ukraine – is valid.
Russia (and before that, the Soviet Union) has a long history of influencing young people under the guise of education, cultivating them to be part of the country’s propaganda efforts – or, as the calls Woolley, “part of Russia’s machine against the world.” These include youth army training camps, nationalist summer campsand even “camps where [Russia] leads children to learn to code or use social media in ways that manipulate public opinion and spread their own form of propaganda,” according to Woolley.
Ultimately, these efforts are about getting ready and preparing young Russians for battle, whether in the traditional sense of war, or through social media and the spread of misinformation on the internet. The latter could have particularly dire ramifications.
“If it’s the government that’s spreading the propaganda directly, it gets caught very quickly by Facebook, Twitter or YouTube,” Woolley says. “But if it’s kids posting government content themselves, then that’s a lot more powerful and a lot harder to take down because it could be considered free speech.”