Emily Sherwin, excerpts:
The children here are aged between 10 and 16 and are divided into three battalions by age. There is only one girl in the whole camp. Some of the kids are still tying on their camouflage bandanas as they get into formation to rousing Russian rock music.
The instructors lay out what’s on the schedule for the day: There will be an exercise de-mining a field, practice assembling Kalashnikov machine guns and a session on moving with weapons. The day will end with a big game of paintball. The boys march off to collect their guns.
All the “Razvedbat” instructors have a military background. Some of them are even current soldiers. They say the scenarios here are based on the current Russian army operations. “Everything that I have brought back with me from the most recent local conflicts, everything that we saw there, everything that is new — we pass all that on to the children,” says camp instructor Aleksei. He prefers not to tell DW his last name.
“You don’t feel like a normal Russian citizen here. You feel like a soldier, maybe even in another country and on a secret mission. It’s totally different from normal life,” says Nikita. Though the occasional child is sent to learn discipline at the camp, the organizers say for many of the participants this is an “initial taster of military life.” The eyes of one 14-year old in the group brighten as he fantasizes about the future. “Maybe I’ll even become a mercenary,” he says, before being hushed up on the subject by those around him.
The two-week “Razvedbat” program includes first aid and map-reading skills, but weapons seem to play a key role here.
“Razvedbat” is a private camp and receives no government funding. The camp’s director, Olga Lagutina, says that the program is not focused on patriotism. Instead the emphasis is on physical fitness and on giving the boys a sense of team work and responsibility. “Of course at the end of the day they would protect their country and they wouldn’t go over to the side of the enemy. But we aren’t preparing them for war here. We don’t talk about war here,” Lagutina insists.
Still, the military camp certainly fits in with an overall mood in Russia. A government-funded survey from June shows that 92 percent of Russians consider themselves patriots, the highest proportion since Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000.
And a government directive on “patriotic education” of Russian citizens passed last year specifically praises military camps as an effective way of instilling patriotism in young people. Since 2015, the government even has its own official military patriotic youth movement, a youth army of sorts known as the “Yunarmia.” According to the Russian Defense Ministry, the movement has around 200,000 members.
At Russia’s military summer camps, children are trading city comforts for Kalashnikovs and camouflage. In a country where patriotism and nationalism are on the rise, DW found out why kids want a taster of military life.