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 to try out military life.
Morning exercises and a canteen breakfast of omelets and oatmeal: At "Razvedbat" military camp in a forest outside of Moscow, the day begins as it does in thousands of other Russian summer camps. But then the 30 kids get into their uniforms. In Russian, "Razvedbat" is short for reconnaissance battalion — and the camp's symbol is based on Russia's military intelligence emblem.
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 demining 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.
Despite the driving rain, battalion one starts the day clearing a building of terrorists. They have suited up in helmets and climbing harnesses. The teenagers abseil down a structure with air guns and jump through windows. "Clear!" they yell. The instructors tell them to shout louder.
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.
'On a secret mission'
One of the boys in the unit is 15-year-old Nikita from Moscow. His parents aren't in the military, but he says he is considering becoming a soldier. Nikita explains that the camp is his way of finding out if the army is for him in the long run.
He says he likes the sense of adventure here, though he admits that sleeping in the tents can sometimes be cold and he misses being in touch with his family and friends. The camp only allows the boys a half an hour a day with their phones.
"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 taste 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.
Boys with toys
The two-week "Razvedbat" program includes first aid and map-reading skills, but weapons seem to play a key role here. The camp participants practice loading and reloading Kalashnikov machine guns, assembling and disassembling them, and moving with them. Of course, there are rules: The guns aren't loaded with real bullets and they cannot be pointed at people — apart from during paintball. The boys are clearly enthused. Nikita admits: "I've always been drawn to weapons."
"If it were up to me I would make the boys sleep with their weapons," Aleksei explains between exercises. "A man should always have a weapon. After all, it's his job to protect the weak, to protect women. If he doesn't have a weapon he's basically not a man anymore."
His colleague, another instructor, is more critical. Aleksei Skotnikov thinks for the youngest kids here "it's too early" to learn about guns, since they should develop a sense of responsibility for weapons, rather than feeling they are part of a game. But he explains: "I think from around the age of 14, you need to start introducing children to weapons. If a boy is strong enough to hold a weapon in his hands then he should know how to use it," adding that Russia needs "a strong generation" of "decent children," particularly since a whole generation after the Soviet Union wasn't brought up properly.
A patriotic push
"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.
Falling on fertile ground
Patriotism may not officially be on the agenda at "Razvedbat" camp, but it has clearly seeped through to the teenagers here. At the end of a long day, the boys in unit one gather around the campfire with an instructor to talk about their impressions.
"Patriotism is important to me," Nikita tells DW earnestly. "And here at the camp that also plays a role — if you have that feeling already, it develops here. It's impossible to be here without being patriotic."