Lithuania’s Russian-language schools are under a microscope after students attend a boot camp for kids from ex-Soviet republics.
VILNIUS | Like kids the world over, lots of young Lithuanians are interested in guns. But to much of the country, pupils from two Russian-language schools in Vilnius dismantling and reassembling Kalashnikovs at a martial youth gathering in far-off Kyrgyzstan hardly looked like child’s play.
Indeed, the news of what a handful of ethnically Russian Lithuanian teenagers did on their summer vacation caused a brouhaha in the Baltic country, where always-bubbling tensions with Russia have come to a boil over the Ukraine crisis and ongoing trade and energy fights.
“Obviously, this constitutes a threat to Lithuania’s national security,” said Gediminas Grina, director of the Lithuanian State Security Department (SSD). “I suggest we not make our children hostages to the interests of other countries in that way.”
Youth from across the former Soviet sphere who attended the “Soyuz 2014 – Heirs of Victory” camp in the Kyrgyzstani town of Issyk Kul in August not only wielded Russian arms and wore Russian paratroopers’ camouflage gear. They also heard lectures on the glory of the Soviet Union, the menace of NATO and Western propaganda, and Baltic politicians tearing down the house of Slavic unity.
“That sort of a youth camp definitely serves as a means to preach a certain extremist ideology. Through brainwashing youth are actively recruited for aggressive actions,” said Nerijus Maliukevicius, a lecturer at Vilnius University’s Institute of International Relations and Political Science. “This is how Islamic extremists are recruited, through military exercises and indoctrination.”
To many ethnic Russians in Lithuania, the uproar is a tempest in a samovar – albeit one that has brought them under the microscope of national intelligence services. Since the story broke in Lithuanian media in early September, the Russian-language Vasily Kachalov and Sofia Kovalevskaya schools – from which 10 senior boys went to Issyk Kul, accompanied by a chaperoning teacher – have drawn scrutiny from Vilnius city agencies; the Ministry of Education and Science, which has authority over the schools; and the security service.
Lithuanian media reported that police searched the two schools on 3 December. Rita Aliukoniene, a Vilnius District prosecutor, told the Delfi news website the raids were related to an investigation into students’ participation in the Soyuz camp, but chief prosecutor Ramutis Jancevicius said at a press conference that the young people were not a target of the probe.
“We are talking about criminal activity noted in Article 118 of the penal code, about helping another country act against Lithuania,” Jancevicius told reporters. “Your colleagues … have shown reports from some schools where certain people were noticed visiting schools and trying to recruit children to go to a certain country for training.”
The security service has refused to comment on the searches, which were condemned by the Russian Union of Lithuania as a “public relations campaign” aimed at discrediting the country’s Russian population, according to the Baltic News Service.
“Unfortunately, with the focus on the schools, many in the community now feel that anyone of Russian ethnicity could pose a national security threat,” Ela Kanaite, president of Lithuania’s Russian School Teachers Association, said.
The father of one 17-year-old who attended the camp dismissed the indoctrination scare. “For my son, it was all about the spirit of a military camp and getting involved in real-life paramilitary exercises, not the politics,” he said. “For many here in Lithuania it’s nearly turned into treason. We want to be left alone as soon as possible, which I understand is hardly possible now with the scrutiny of the kids and their families.”
The father spoke on condition of anonymity and declined a request to interview his son, whom he said “has had enough already,” referring to media and law-enforcement attention to the camp participants.
In an October interview with Lithuanian news site Alfa.lt, security chief Grina said his agency had met with some the participating students’ parents and “the schoolchildren will effectively be objects of our surveillance now.” SSD spokesman Vytautas Makauskas told TOL the agency has provided “surveillance information” to the Education Ministry, even though the trips to Soyuz were not illegal.
“In a democratic country like Lithuania, which is based on EU values, the SSD cannot forbid citizens to travel where they want. However, issues of national security and legality sometimes are not identical,” Makauskas said in a statement. “Military youth camps in Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States aim to nurture individuals to defend the interests of those countries. Therefore, the department advises parents to consider whether their children could become unfriendly foreign states’ pawns in our state.”
INSTILLING SOVIET SPIRIT
According to Russian media, which covered Soyuz 2014 extensively, the annual event brings together youth from all the former Soviet republics, but a good deal of the coverage focused on kids from the Baltics. News outlets celebrated the work of Russian-language schools in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia in supposedly overcoming hurdles to bring their charges for what Russian-government-owned Rossiiskaya Gazeta called a “truly geopolitical” project.
“Even though the Baltics have demonstratively stood with NATO and everything that aims to thwart Russia, even if it hurts the region’s economic, political, and social interests, for several years in a row schoolchildren from Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia have come,” Rossiiskaya Gazeta reported in August.
Behind the annual gathering stands a Russian organization, also called Soyuz – Heirs of Victory, which states a goal of nurturing “the spirit of international friendship” through the camps. On its website, the group calls the events “a yearly international and educational convention of youth military and sports organizations and cadet corps.”
One of the main organizers, Oleg Bakanach, has been described in Russian media as a former Interior Ministry special forces instructor. He boasts that Soyuz instills the Soviet spirit in Russian-speaking youth from across the former Soviet bloc.
“After the breakdown of the Soviet Union it became evident the republics, having gained independence, have been regressing and moving away from one another,” Bakanach told Russia’s News-Asia website.
Amid the uproar, officials at the Vilnius schools have been at pains to note that they have no official connection with Soyuz. Attending the camp, or doing anything else over the summer holidays, is “always up to the schoolchildren and their parents,” said Roza Dimentova, director of the Vasily Kachalov school.
She has apparently had to say it frequently. “Once again, I want to repeat it,” Dimentova told TOL in response to a request for comment. “Our pupils’ summer activities are not part of the school curriculum and the school does not bear responsibility for them.”
The principal acknowledged that her school has shared information with students on opportunities to the go to the camp. “The school constantly receives invitations to participate in various events, and some of the children opted for the camp this year,” she said.
Education Minister Dainius Pavalkis said he was previously unaware of the camp or the participation by Lithuanian pupils, adding, “The ministry has never supported, does not support, and will never support any events that are organized within the framework of the Commonwealth of Independent States.”
Pavalkis said he hoped the “ruckus” over Soyuz would deter Lithuanian youth from similar travel but added that “the eastbound trips, whatever their purpose, aren’t going to end all of a sudden. We don’t live behind the Iron Curtain that we had 25 years ago.”
Still, his department is aiming to nudge the deterrent along. In light of the camp controversy, the ministry, working with defense officials, “has instructed the headmasters of Russian schools on how to identify propaganda of other states and how not to get involved in their manipulations,” spokeswoman Danguole Barauskiene said. Pavalkis views the “participation of Lithuanian schoolchildren in camps abroad [as] not only an issue of education, but also a problem of national security,” she added.
Barauskiene said the ministry has also set aside 1 million litas ($359,000) to conduct “an inter-institutional civil education program” next year. The money will go the Lithuanian Riflemen’s Union, a paramilitary organization that was active between the world wars and relaunched in 1989.
Liudas Gumbinas, the head of the union and a lieutenant colonel in the Lithuanian reserves, said the organization has seen “incrementally growing numbers” of adult members as tensions with Russia have flared. He said the group does not actively recruit youth but does have about 3,500 school-age members, many of whom “joined this year.”
Gumbinas said he was not comfortable setting up the union as a political counterweight to the Russian military camps but that it is set “to make inroads” in Lithuania’s Russian schools.
“Definitely, we’ll go into the schools and talk to the youth. We’ve already visited some of the schools, and the children were quite interested in what we were offering them – a real-life boot camp with everything that type of facility can offer,” he said. “If young people really care for that kind of experience, they can get it in Lithuania.”
From her side of the controversy, Kanaite, of the Russian teachers’ association, is also wary of politicizing the Soyuz trips, which she called “irresponsible.”
“One would hardly talk about them if not for the timing this year,” she said, referring to the camp taking place amid the escalation of the Ukraine conflict and the Lithuania-Russia standoff on trade and energy. “In fact, there was a similar camp in Ukraine last year, and it stirred not a ripple.”
Kanaite worried that the splash the Soyuz camp made this year could grow into an anti-Russian tide.
“We should consider ourselves poor educators and a weak nation if we believe that youth participating in boot camps abroad will soak up the ideology and wield it against Lithuania,” she said. “I daresay our 18-year-old boys can sort the wheat from the chaff. But the shadow of mistrust, citing some camp far away, cannot be a reason to cast a shadow on the entire Russian community.
Linas Jegelevicius is a freelance journalist in Klaipeda, Lithuania. This article was originally published by Transitions Online.