Since September 2016, Russian youths have had the opportunity to participate in “Yunarmiya” (YouthArmy), a “military-patriotic movement” created with support from the Defense Ministry. Organizers say more than 140,000 Russians between the ages of 8 and 18 have already signed up. In a special report for Meduza, Kazan-based journalist Ilnur Sharafiyev takes a deeper look at what YouthArmy is all about, learning about its wide but largely hollow presence across the country, and about allegations that some schoolchildren have been forced to join its ranks.
It was in April 2016 at a conference on planning for Victory Day celebrations when Russians learned that they’d be getting a new “military-patriotic youth organization.” The idea is the brainchild of Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, who wanted to gather into a single organization a wide array of state military-patriotic movements, along with Suvorov military boarding schools and cadet corps. President Putin has also endorsed the proposal. According to Shoigu, the new movement should “stimulate the interest of the younger generation in Russia’s geography and history, and its peoples, heroes, and outstanding scientists and military leaders.” At the same time, YouthArmy operates a lot like the “Russian Students’ Movement” — another state organization that would appear in October on a similar mission to cultivate young people’s respect for “intrinsic Russian societal values.”
“When it comes to the world being full of dangers, Soviet propaganda wasn’t all that wrong. And today we cannot close our eyes to the threat of international terrorism, local conflicts, and other issues,” YouthArmy leader Dmitry Trunenkov told the newspaper Kommersant, describing the movement’s goals. “As for military methods of education, our work with YouthArmy cadets doesn’t end there. The skills they learn in summer camp are dual-use: navigation, providing first aid to victims, setting up camp, building a fire, being able to scale obstacles — it’s all useful for any person.” Trunenkov added that many children “dream of linking their lives to the fate of the army and Russia’s law enforcement,” but the movement’s main goal is “to educate young people about the values of patriotism, respect for their forefathers, and for their homeland.” Kommersant’s interview with Trunenkov appeared in early October 2017 as part of a whole special supplement advertising YouthArmy.
Before becoming the movement’s leader, Dmitry Trunenkov was a professional bobsledder and even won a gold medal in the Sochi Winter Olympics, before he tested positive for doping and was suspended from competition for four years. He has called his disqualification a “provocation against all Russian sports.” Trunenkov’s spokesperson told Meduza that he was traveling for business and unavailable for an interview.
The people in charge at YouthArmy include other figures connected to sports, as well. TV commentator Dmitry Guberniev (who hosted the movement’s first public forum), former pole vaulter Yelena Isinbaeva, sports network Match TV general producer Tina Kandelaki, and Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu’s daugher, Ksenia, who previously worked on “Race of Heroes,” a military sports game. YouthArmy’s leadership also includes many people associated with the Defense Ministry, other relatives of high-ranking state officials (such as United Aircraft Corporation Vice President Alexey Rogozin, the son of Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin), and — for some reason — filmmaker Pavel Hoodyakov, the director of 2012’s “Odnoklassniki.ru,” which boasts 3 out of 10 stars on Kinopoisk.ru.
It’s not entirely clear what all these people do in YouthArmy. Kandelaki attends some of the movement’s public events, and Isinbaeva travels the country and gives presentations, also taking part in initiations. “I do everything I can, participating in the YouthArmy movement, promoting them. And I only have good things to say about them,” Guberniev told Meduza. “I have many duties within YouthArmy. I participate in almost all their hoopla, and I mean that in a good way.”
YouthArmy’s first induction ceremony took place in Yaroslavl on May 22, 2016, when the organization welcomed 104 schoolchildren as new members, but the movement didn’t start operating fully until September 1. In May 2016, YouthArmy held its first public forum at Patriot Park outside Moscow, staging an exhibition of military equipment and speeches by the movement’s leaders. At the end of the event, organizers gifted Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu a knitted tank.
News reports about YouthArmy appear almost daily on the websites of regional state-owned media outlets. For the most part, these are brief stories about how many children have joined the movement in different parts of Russia (98 in Kostroma, 200 in Rostov-on-Don, 13 in Rybinsk, and so on), with details about the particular festive events in which the new recruits participated. For example, new members took their oath aboard the “Aurora” cruiser, or took part in games in the Leningrad region or in a “historical quest” in the Lipetsk region. A column of YouthArmy cadets also marched down Red Square as part of the Victory Day procession on May 9, 2017.
The biggest headlines YouthArmy has grabbed, so far, are related to its role in the reenactment of the storming of the Reichstag, which it helped stage on April 23, 2017. According to Defense Minister Shoigu, the spectacle was supposed to recall the USSR’s victory against German fascism. In Germany, however, politicians were uneasy about Russian youths storming models of German government buildings.
One of YouthArmy’s sponsors is the state bank VTB, which has already allocated 150 million rubles ($2.6 million) to the movement. Trunenkov says his organization has arranged sponsorships from three other state banks, as well: Rosselkhozbank, Gazprombank, and Sberbank. Russia’s federal budget doesn’t say a word about funding for YouthArmy.
According to YouthArmy’s website, the movement has set up shop in every region across the country. In October 2016, YouthArmy arrived in Tatarstan, where local Deputy Education Minister Larisa Sulima said at a press conference for the organization that there is continuity between YouthArmy and the USSR’s children’s and youth groups: “We can’t completely reject our own history. There was a strong education system in the Soviet Union, and a strong tradition of working with schoolchildren. We ourselves are products of this system.”
Organizers say there are several ways to join YouthArmy. If a school already has a military-patriotic club, students can apply there. If it doesn’t, kids can turn to school administrators. Teachers and class leaders often address students about the movement, and sometimes schools even get a presentation by regional representatives of the movement.
Meduza learned that YouthArmy compulsorily inducted an entire class of students at High School Number 94 in Kazan in early September, only notifying the parents afterwards. In response, parents wrote a group complaint to the school’s principal, but now, after everyone in the class was recruited and made to swear the oath, YouthArmy has gone silent and there hasn’t been any more activity. The school’s principal refused to speak to Meduza, but two parents of students forced into joining YouthArmy confirmed the incident, though they declined to comment, saying they didn’t want to draw more public attention.
The brother of one of these compulsory recruits says he first heard about YouthArmy last school year, when he found out that his sister’s class was being awarded the movement’s special uniform. “In early September, the whole class was lined up and everyone swore an oath. One of the students read it aloud from a piece of paper, and the rest of the class repeated the words together,” the brother told Meduza. “There was this military training instructor there, too, and he told everyone that they’d have special classes on physical fitness and army discipline. Later, they’d all have to pass a test on ‘labor and defense readiness,’ he said.”
Afterwards, the brother told Meduza, his sister’s class teacher said at a meeting with parents that joining YouthArmy would be voluntary, though the whole class had already been recruited at this point. “At this meeting, the teacher handed out permission slips, where parents could consent to their kids joining the group — all after the class had taken the oath,” he said. “Some of the parents refused to sign, and instead wrote a letter to the principal about refusing to let their kids join.”
By the time the teacher approached parents with the permission slips, however, her students had already participated in one YouthArmy event. “It was during normal lesson hours, though before they said it would only be extracurricular. The military training instructor was there again, and people were training. Afterwards, the class teacher shared photographs in a group chat with parents, writing sunshiny comments on images of their children dressed in YouthArmy uniforms.” The brother says there haven’t been any further exercises since then, and the very subject of YouthArmy has stopped coming up. Some parents apparently returned their children’s uniforms.
Roughly the same thing happened at a school outside Moscow, according to the brother of another student, whose parents refused to speak to journalists. The brother told Meduza that his sister’s class was recruited into YouthArmy without notifying parents, and the class was later asked to buy the organization’s uniforms. Afterwards, marching drills were made part of the class curriculum.
Most of the students and parents Meduza managed to contact, however, didn’t complain about compulsory recruitment into YouthArmy. “I didn’t join, but I have the option,” one ninth grader told Meduza. “Our school has a study group for military-patriotic stuff, where people do general training: physical fitness, learning weapons, participating in themed events, and doing military games, for instance. Students can join YouthArmy through this group, if they want, by taking the oath. I talked to my only classmate who’s joined. Joining doesn’t really do anything. When he joined, they didn’t tell him anything about benefits or something. They’re supposed to issue you a uniform for free, but he still hasn’t gotten it. They don’t have any special events, except for what they do at school. The whole thing isn’t very popular, and, like I said, they didn’t give us any information about YouthArmy. A couple of times at school assemblies they promoted the school’s military-patriotic club, and that’s it.”
“Our whole class is only boys,” Alisa Rodina, the mother of a seventh grader in Belgorod, explained to Meduza. “As soon as they told us about YouthArmy, everyone supported the idea immediately. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with patriotic education. Their curriculum hasn’t changed much, but they added training exercises at the local military compound. The boys go there after class or on a Saturday. Everything is discussed with the parents, and the counselor at the base builds [the program] around the kids. There are marching drills, history lessons, shooting practice, and other exercises. Right now we’re getting ready for the oath. The boys will recite it and get their certificates. Basically they’re making real men out of them. At first, the kids were a bit scared when they saw everything. They were shy and didn’t like the uniform. But after a week they boys started taking pride in being YouthArmy cadets. They were featured on TV, and they started training at the military compound. They’re boys; they like this kind of thing. They dream of getting to learn automatic weapons.”
Rodina is counting on her son to get priority enrollment at a military academy. She says YouthArmy representatives promised this to students and their parents. Igor Korovin, the movement’s regional director in St. Petersburg, has advertised the same advantages for YouthArmy participants, saying that every member is granted a report card showing their courses and achievements. These records, Korovin tells parents, can help them get into universities supervised by the Defense Ministry.
Rodina’s only complaint was that YouthArmy’s uniform is quite expensive. She says the class sewed their own uniforms, but she’ll likely have to buy the rest of the outfit for winter, when it gets colder. “I’d like to have sponsors, of course, but that’s just how it is, for now.”
Joining YouthArmy has worked roughly the same way in the Russian exclave Kaliningrad. “My students studied hand-to-hand combat in one of our martial arts clubs. The club attended a regional summer camp, where the guys decided to join YouthArmy,” Darya Kolbina, a local private school teacher, told Meduza. “The schedule hasn’t changed much. Students go to lessons in martial arts, and they spend some time on marching drills. [With YouthArmy], I haven’t seen any curriculum as such, and I haven’t heard anything about special bonuses for signing up. These students’ parents are well-off, and they bought the uniforms themselves. But I know that principals at other schools approach local officials and businesspeople for money in the form of sponsorships, to cover all or some of the uniform costs.”
YouthArmy says its uniform shortage is due to how fast the movement is growing. “We’re relying on help from the regions,” Defense Ministry representatives told the news agency RBC in May. Parents are also welcome to buy the uniforms on their own: the whole package, which consists of clothes, shoes, bags, and a first aid kit, costs 20,000 rubles ($340). According to RBC, the online store selling the uniforms is tied to Evgeny Prigozhin, the Kremlin-connected entrepreneur believed to be behind Russia’s infamous “troll factory” and a Russian mercenary group currently active in Syria. Prigozhin’s companies have won many Defense Ministry contracts (primarily for food, housing, and communal services). Prigozhin is also a co-founder of “Megaline,” one of the largest military contractors in the country.
YouthArmy is also trying to recruit future teachers. Daniil Semenov, a sophomore at Moscow City Pedagogical University, told Meduza that the school started telling students in September how to conduct extracurricular activities with YouthArmy cadets. “They told us they recruit kids starting at age eight, and that we should instill in them a sense of patriotism,” Semenov said. “We should know things about civil defense, like first aid, so we can teach the kids. These weren’t strict orders or anything — they just told us that it’s something we should be ready to do. I’m fine here. I’m an outdoorsman, and I’ve got experience with civil defense stuff, but a lot of my classmates don’t even know how to put on a hazmat suit or to administer first aid. If a teacher comes along and doesn’t know how to do any of this, and he’s supposed to teach an elective in YouthArmy, what’s he supposed to do?”
Semenov says school principals can designate specific faculty members to teach the YouthArmy elective, and the organization’s presence at a school can influence who is selected. “For example, say I want to start a military-patriotic study group, but I want to do it independently. They’d probably be asking me constantly to join YouthArmy, because it could help the school’s status,” Semenov says.
As far as Russia’s Defense Ministry is concerned, YouthArmy has fulfilled its strategic goals for the year. “I stress that we have never and will never issue instructions to accelerate the growth of YouthArmy’s ranks by force,” says Deputy Defense Minister Nikolai Pankov. Reserve Major-General Alexander Borodin, who serves as YouthArmy director in Tatarstan, told Meduza that the organization doesn’t have a program in place yet. While that’s being developed, he says, school instructors are conducting the exercises they consider necessary. Borodin admits that his group faces other challenges, as well: admissions offices at military academies still don’t take into account YouthArmy membership, and the organization is running short on resources, though Tatarstan’s Education Ministry has allocated 6.6 million rubles ($113,400) in annual assistance.
Asked about rumors that YouthArmy is forcing schoolchildren to join its ranks, Borodin insisted that the movement only accepts volunteers. “We’ve just started ploughing the first furrow,” he said. “The entire field is still ahead.”