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Russia’s littlest soldiers How the government teaches kids to love the Motherland and to fight for it

Source: Meduza
Photo: Aleksandr Astafyev / Bird in Flight

Support for the army and the desire to serve the nation have reached an all-time high in Russia. The Defense Ministry says that applications to military universities have doubled since 2014. The competition for places has reached six applicants for every slot available. Among girls, that figure is 30 applicants. This kind of militarization starts very early in Russia, many years before kids start applying to college. Today, Russians are sending their children to military-patriotic clubs which get boys and girls ready for military service, teach them to love their country and to fight for it, using a rich variety of weapons. On assignment for Meduza, Ilya Rozhdestvensky of radio station Echo Moskvy finds out how the state prepares young Russians to give their lives for the Motherland.

The “St. Spyridon the Triumphant Orthodox patriotic club” was established in 2011 at a cathedral in the town of Lomonosov, located just outside of St. Petersburg. Local kids aged 5 to 17 arrive for training in the evenings. The younger group arrives at 5, and the older groups come to the cathedral at around 7. The kids are taught by a mixed martial arts coach to fight, to handle weapons, and to survive under difficult conditions. The aim is to prepare them for service in the Russian army and to “bring children into the church through sports and through the strengthening of Orthodoxy.” A few hundred organizations like this are officially registered in Russia, but the number of unregistered groups could be in the thousands. Millions of rubles are spent on their activities.

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Military-patriotic education of the population, as it’s known in Russia, is regulated by the government through a special program. The current arrangement came into effect in 2010, but the Ministry of Defense is preparing a new plan for 2016-2020.

The aims of the program are ambitious: it should make citizens feel great responsibility for the fate of their country, prepare them to defend the Motherland, spark interest in the history of Russia, and make Russians proud of historical heroes.

The efficiency of the program is measured using 14 parameters, including “the number of young people called to serve in the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation” (the program stipulates this number should grow by 10 percent) and “ the number of Russians who are proud of their country” (this number should increase by 8 percent by 2020).

A shooting gallery in a St Petersburg high school in 2010.
Photo: Aleksandr Astafyev / Bird in Flight

The program states that work with children must begin immediately after their birth. Between ages 0 and 6, the state is supposed to “help the child in forming the correct understanding of the greater and lesser Motherland, as well as in forming a basic system of spiritual values of love, kindness, labor, friendship, and honesty.” Military-patriotic and military-sporting clubs will be key for achieving these goals. They are supposed to boost the prestige of military service and to decrease the number of future draft dodgers. But there are plans beyond the clubs. If the new plan is approved, the Ministry of Education, the Federal Agency on Youth Affairs, and the Ministry of Culture will also be required to implement parts of the plan, as well as the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Labor, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Security Services (FSB), the Federal Agency on Press and Mass Communications, and several other ministries.

The Ministry of Defense has already mastered the art of patriotic education, thanks to the help of the Voluntary Society of Cooperation with the Army, Air Force and Navy (known by its Russian acronym DOSAAF). The organization is headed by the former First Deputy Defense Minister, Aleksandr Kolmakov. DOSAAF enjoys a broad presence in nearly all of Russia’s regions, with the number of local branch offices approaching 10,000. In the past year alone, the organization held 6,500 military-patriotic events and 8,000 sporting events. 200,000 people have taken the “Ready for Labor and Defense” test, a government-run program that gives young people certificates proving a basic level of physical fitness and skills. The exercises themselves are fairly trivial. High school students march in formation, play “Zarnitsa,”and take part in shooting competitions using rifles, pistols, bows and arrows, and crossbows. They take part in radio-direction orienteering competitions, motocross races, and parachuting.

Military-Industrial Commission of Russia’s DOSAAF presentation, 2011
Veniamin Menshikov

DOSAAF has existed in its modern form since 2009 and is tasked with preparing high school students for the army. Afterwards, students can enroll at the military recruiting office and undergo training in order to serve as specialists in the army. Under Anatoly Sergyukov (who served as Defense Minister in 2007-2012, and was sacked due to a corruption scandal), the list of specialisations was limited one category: drivers. Irina Dorokhova, a DOSAAF spokesperson, told that the organization now plans to train petty officers, pilots and snipers as well. The building of the Moscow Naval Sport-Technical Center has a shooting gallery where one can train with a Dragunov sniper rifle, as well as a full military ship deck modelled on the Northern Fleet.

According to Dokhorova, the number of students wishing to train under DOSAAF has grown in recent years, but not everyone is taking advantage of the opportunities presented by the organization. The budget of DOSAAF has never been revealed, but according to the former head of the organization Sergei Mayev, in the last five years the their funding has increased by five billion rubles ($87 million), amounting to total of 14.7 billion ($256 million) annually.

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Patriotic education doesn’t come cheap for the government. This year, there are 12 large-scale patriotic programs funded through the federal budget, amounting to almost 168 million rubles ($2.95 million) in spending. In 2016 and in 2017, the majority of them are not supposed to get any funding, and the total allocated funds were to shrink by a factor of three. But if the “Patriotic Education of Citizens of the Russian Federation: 2016-2020” program is approved, the funding will grow: 1.68 billion rubles for the whole period ($29 million), which is about 336 million ($5.87 million) a year, an increase of almost 100 percent.

“Conscript’s Day” in a regional youth club as part of the military-patriotic education program. A timed competition of assembling and disassembling an assault rifle. St Petersburg, 2010.
Photo: Aleksandr Astafyev / Bird in Flight

Military-patriotic events enjoyed significant funding before as well. On the web portal “Goszakupki,” where government tenders are posted online, one can find over 2,000 tenders linked to organizing festivals, clubs, competitions and everything else related to educating patriotism in the last four years. There are tenders for printing handouts for club meetings, making flags, and for organizing everything from children’s activities, to tournaments, camps, excursions, paintball competitions, and parachute jumps. Based on Meduza’s research, the total sum of these orders comes out to more than 25.5 billion rubles ($445 million).

Most of the money, or about 19 billion rubles ($330 million), was put aside for building the “Patriot Park,” dubbed “military Disneyland” in English-language media, in the town of Kubinka just outside Moscow. The park isn’t just for children. Recently, it hosted the international forum “Army 2015.” The territory of the park encompases almost 66 square square kilometers (for comparison, the total area of the tiny state of San Marino is only 61 square kilometers) and boasts tank grounds and airfields, as well as a number of educational-military clubs, areas for paintball games, concert halls and camp grounds for tourists. All of this was created within little over a year. On June 9, 2014, governor of Moscow Region Andrei Vorobyov and Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu laid the first stone, and by June 16, 2014, President Vladimir Putin led the opening ceremony.

Only a small amount of the funds go to the hundreds of small clubs and organizations across Russia. Officially, according to the Unified State Registry of Legal Entities, there are more than 400 military-patriotic organizations today. The registry makes it look like there have been two waves of growth of military-patriotic organizations in Russia, one at the outset of the 2000s, and one between 2011 and 2013.

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It’s impossible to tell how many military-patriotic organizations actually exist. There are at least a few dozen “Vytyaz” (Russian for “Knight”) clubs alone. The names “Citadel,” “Thunder,” “Almaz,” “Rusich,” and “Grad” (hailstone) are also also popular. They are all similar: they accept girls and boys into their ranks up until the age of 18, teach them military exercises, take them camping in the woods, teach them to use weapons, go on parachute jumps, and some clubs even offer special exercises using training versions of heavy military equipment. Their websites usually feature pictures of kids in camouflage and military paint holding Kalashnikovs in their hands. The organizers of these clubs maintain that they’re not simply preparing children for the army: “The real warrior is not one who knows how to fight or aim a weapon, but one who is ready to sacrifice themselves for defending their faith, their Motherland or their loved ones.” Graduates of the clubs say it’s thanks to them that “life goes on, and Holy Russia stands and will continue to stand.”

M. Abezyanin Camp. Astrakhan Cossack Youth Organization, 2014
Pokrov TV

It’s worth noting that some of these organizations are located on state-owned property. For example, in Moscow, knife fighting lessons called “Russian melee” took place in the under the roof of a professional education facility called “Vorobyovy Gory,” owned by the city’s Department of Education. The group was made up of members over the age of 18, but the school’s VKontakte social network page says there was a children’s group too. The club trained in camouflage and in outfits stylized to look like ancient Russian warrior clothes.

In the Vorobyovy Gory summer camp, children aged 10-12 were picked out to play in a military brass band the repertoire of which included military marches, the Russian national anthem, and old communist-era songs like “Katyusha” and “We Аre the Аrmy of the People.” The band was set up by Vadim Masterskikh, who heads the Moscow branch of the All-Russian Military History Movement. He’s been involved in the recreationist movement and occasionally gives public lessons in Moscow schools about “history and bravery”

“Military history recreation is a very effective teaching technique. It allows people to start connecting the dots. To make them realize that they can’t spend their whole life playing with Kinder Eggs or Pokemon,” Masterskikh explains.

“Conscript’s Day” in the local youth club is part of the program of military-patriotic education. St Petersburg, 2010.
Photo: Aleksandr Astafyev / Bird in Flight

Some clubs offer training in “Ratoborchestvo” or “Ratoborstvo,” a system of fighting said to date back to ancient Slavic tradition. Fighters have to face each other wearing a blindfold; they learn to dodge bullets and knives, to cross difficult terrain, and to take cover from objects which are hurtled at them. The training looks pretty unusual: young people wearing tight balaclavas have to crouch down while someone throws bricks at them from behind. During group knife-fighting exercises, they silently circle the room, bumping into one another and and stabbing where they figure their attacks are coming from. They stand blindfolded in the courtyard, making strange gestures with their hands. Usually the club enlists people over 18, as the fighting involves real pistols, assault rifles as well as knives and sabres. But occasionally, 16- and 17-year-olds also join.

Orthodox societies often practice Ratoborchestvo, and they also accept minors into their ranks. They place more emphasis on religious elements than the other ordinary military-patriotic clubs. They also have peculiar names: “The 8th Detachment of the Saintly Martyr Aleksandr Peresvet,” “The Saint Alexander Nevsky Special Forces Vanguard,” “The Alekseev Vanguard of the Church of the Birth of Christ in Mitino,” “The 15th Detachment of Saint Noble Prince Daniil Moskovsky ‘White Castle’,” and “The Brotherhood of Orthodox Pathfinders ‘Sim Pobedishi’.”

These organizations not only train children to serve Russia, but they also claim to save them from “the aimlessness of the streets and computer addiction.” The Orthodox-patriotic club “Dobrovolets” (which translates to “Volunteer”) regularly runs simulation exercises involving liberating prisoners. They also host survivalist competitions, where “prisoners” run from “punishers” and spend several days in the woods without food or water. Events in the east of Ukraine are given special attention here, and Igor Strelkov, former Defense Minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, is an idol for many of the young members. In October 2014, the military society “Styag” held a “conference” of clubs under the banner “Help Novorossiya!” (“Novorossiya” refers to territories in the east of Ukraine which Ukrainian separatists are fighting for).

St. George’s parade – “Children of victors.” 2015.
The Brotherhood of Orthodox Pathfinders.

The organizations complain that they can’t count on the support of the government. Some of them exist thanks to the largess of Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Orthodox church supports other kinds of educational projects for children and adults as well. For example, the Church is funding spiritual enlightenment centers which focus on explaining that “the form of enlightened cooperation between the Church and society, based on Orthodoxy, true Russian culture, and the proud traditions of Russian military glory are the best way to facilitate the moral growth of every person, even the only slightly religious, and to instill proper patriotism, which is an essential component of the blossoming of Orthodoxy and the Fatherland.” The Church receives two billion rubles ($35 million) from the federal budget for organizing these facilities.

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Of course, Russian parents themselves are not averse to giving their children a good patriotic education, even without getting involved in clubs and organizations. Anyone can dress their child up in a military uniform. This is a particularly popular activity on May 9, Russia’s Victory Day which celebrates Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. In 2015, several “Red Army soldiers” young enough to still have pacifiers dressed up in full military uniform. The practice has been institutionalized in parts of Russia: for the past six years, the city Rostov-on-Don has been hosting a Parade of Children’s Forces. “The parade is led by a motorized column of kindergarten-sized military vehicles, followed by a march of the honorable guard of the Southern Military District,” reads a local press release.

Ilya Rozhdestvensky


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