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Toy Soldiers: Photographing Russia’s Patriotic Youth Programs

Posted by on December 14, 2016 | Photographer Interviews

In April 2016, during a trip to Moscow, photographer Sarah Blesener stumbled upon a cadet class learning how to dismantle AK-47s and get in and out of biohazard suits quickly. This jarring sight, combined with a growing interest in patriotic ideology being taught to kids, inspired Blesener to document patriotic clubs, education and summer camps in Russia, eventually resulting in her aptly titled, ongoing series, “Toy Soldiers.”

Currently, about 200,000 Russian youths are enrolled in patriotic clubs—each with their own structures and philosophies—a number that is likely on the rise due to a program the Russian government recently proposed, “Patriotic education of citizens of the Russian Federation for 2016-2020.” Traveling by bus and train and living in tents at the camps, Blesener kept her gear as simple as possible, bringing only a DSLR camera, a couple of lenses, a monopod and audio equipment.

“Toy Soldiers” stems from Blesener’s larger desire to understand the world and foster empathy. “Photography is incredibly political, critical and necessary to address stereotypes, confront our own fears and weaknesses, and talk about issues that otherwise would be left on the sidelines,” she explains. Keen on continuing to investigate nationalism, Blesener, who is a recent graduate of the International Center of Photography, cites its dean, Fred Ritchin, as being a major influence on her ideology as a photojournalist. She plans to expand the work to include the United States and Europe, focusing specifically on how youth are taught these ideologies.

—Amy Touchette

All photos © Sarah Blesener

A fake grenade is launched, setting smoke in the atmosphere as students practice a drill with air-soft guns at Военно-Исторический Лагерь Бородино 2016, the Historical-War Camp, in Borodino, Russia. 29 July 2016. They are using air-soft guns for the practice and competition. Air-soft is a sport that replicates military action, but fires non-metallic pellets. Borodino is famous for a battle fought on 7 Sep 1812 - the deadliest day of the Napoleonic Wars. 350 adolescents are in attendance, ranging in ages from 11 to 17, and lasts throughout the summer. Students learn a variety of skills from tactical training in handguns, loading and unloading automatic guns, physical endurance, knife throwing, and others. The project statement of the camp says: "To awaken in the younger generation a keen interest in the history of the Fatherland, the glorious deeds of our ancestors, to facilitate the expansion of military-historical knowledge."

A fake grenade is launched, setting smoke in the atmosphere as students practice a drill with air-soft guns at Военно-Исторический Лагерь Бородино 2016, the Historical-War Camp, in Borodino, Russia. 29 July 2016.

 

A unit dresses to re-enact Soviet Russia during WWII as part of their historical education. Военно-Исторический Лагерь Бородино 2016, the Historical-War Camp, in Borodino, Russia. 26 July 2016. The camp offers reenactments of historical periods of war. Borodino is famous for a battle fought on 7 Sep 1812 - the deadliest day of the Napoleonic Wars. 350 adolescents are in attendance, ranging in ages from 11 to 17, and lasts throughout the summer. Students learn a variety of skills from tactical training in handguns, loading and unloading automatic guns, physical endurance, knife throwing, and others. The project statement of the camp says: "To awaken in the younger generation a keen interest in the history of the Fatherland, the glorious deeds of our ancestors, to facilitate the expansion of military-historical knowledge."

A unit dresses to re-enact Soviet Russia during WWII as part of their historical education. Военно-Исторический Лагерь Бородино 2016, the Historical-War Camp, in Borodino, Russia. 26 July 2016.

 

Students stand ready as a teacher observes how quickly they can dress in gask masks, 4 Apr 2016, School #7, Dmitrov, Russia. School #7 is a public school but offers cadet classes for those who wish to participate. The benefit of participating in cadet classes includes free lunch, while other students have to pay.

Students stand ready as a teacher observes how quickly they can dress in gas masks, 4 Apr 2016, School #7, Dmitrov, Russia.

 

Students train in firearms at Военно-Исторический Лагерь Бородино 2016, the Historical-War Camp, in Borodino, Russia. 24 July 2016. They are using air-soft guns for the practice and competition. Air-soft is a sport that replicates military action, but fire non-metallic pellets. The camp teaches information about the basic kinds of weapons, bases and firing rules, sniper rifles, and different type of weapons. Borodino is famous for a battle fought on 7 Sep 1812 - the deadliest day of the Napoleonic Wars. 350 adolescents are in attendance, ranging in ages from 11 to 17, and lasts throughout the summer. Students learn a variety of skills from tactical training in handguns, loading and unloading automatic guns, physical endurance, knife throwing, and others. The project statement of the camp says: "To awaken in the younger generation a keen interest in the history of the Fatherland, the glorious deeds of our ancestors, to facilitate the expansion of military-historical knowledge."

Students train in firearms at Военно-Исторический Лагерь Бородино 2016, the Historical-War Camp, in Borodino, Russia. 24 July 2016.

 

Students escape the heat and watch war films at Военно-Исторический Лагерь Бородино 2016, the Historical-War Camp, in Borodino, Russia. 26 July 2016. Borodino is famous for a battle fought on 7 Sep 1812 - the deadliest day of the Napoleonic Wars. 350 adolescents are in attendance, ranging in ages from 11 to 17, and lasts throughout the summer. Students learn a variety of skills from tactical training in handguns, loading and unloading automatic guns, physical endurance, knife throwing, and others. The project statement of the camp says: "To awaken in the younger generation a keen interest in the history of the Fatherland, the glorious deeds of our ancestors, to facilitate the expansion of military-historical knowledge."

Students escape the heat and watch war films at Военно-Исторический Лагерь Бородино 2016, the Historical-War Camp, in Borodino, Russia. 26 July 2016.

 

A unit dresses to re-enact Soviet Russia during WWII as part of their historical education. Военно-Исторический Лагерь Бородино 2016, the Historical-War Camp, in Borodino, Russia. 26 July 2016. The camp offers reenactments of historical periods of war. Borodino is famous for a battle fought on 7 Sep 1812 - the deadliest day of the Napoleonic Wars. 350 adolescents are in attendance, ranging in ages from 11 to 17, and lasts throughout the summer. Students learn a variety of skills from tactical training in handguns, loading and unloading automatic guns, physical endurance, knife throwing, and others. The project statement of the camp says: "To awaken in the younger generation a keen interest in the history of the Fatherland, the glorious deeds of our ancestors, to facilitate the expansion of military-historical knowledge."

A unit dresses to re-enact Soviet Russia during WWII as part of their historical education. Военно-Исторический Лагерь Бородино 2016, the Historical-War Camp, in Borodino, Russia. 26 July 2016.

 

Igor Fast (14) from Stavropol practices shooting before the start of "Orthodox Warrior" camp. They are using air-soft guns for practice and competitions. "Orthodox Warrior" camp takes place in Diveevo, the center of pilgrimage for Orthodox Christians in Russia, 31 July, 2016. The relics of one of the most revered saints, St. Seraphim, are celebrated on the 1 of August, attracting pilgrims from all across the country. The participants of the camp train not only in martial arts and tactical training, but unite under their Orthodox faith. Various competitions are held throughout the week, including Cossack dagger training and military tactical training. Attendees come from all across Russia, including regions like Stavropol.

Igor Fast (14) from Stavropol practices shooting before the start of “Orthodox Warrior” camp. They are using air-soft guns for practice and competitions. “Orthodox Warrior” camp takes place in Diveevo, the center of pilgrimage for Orthodox Christians in Russia, 31 July, 2016.

 

Students from Stavropol rest in their tent before sleeping at camp. Without electricity, the students use their phones and flaslights to play games. "Orthodox Warrior" camp takes place in Diveevo, the center of pilgrimage for Orthodox Christians in Russia, 3 August 2016. The relics of one of the most revered saints, St. Seraphim, are celebrated on the 1 of August, attracting pilgrims from all across the country. The participants of the camp train not only in martial arts and tactical training, but unite under their Orthodox faith. Various competitions are held throughout the week, including Cossack dagger training and military tactical training. Attendees come from all across Russia, including regions like Stavropol and Saint Petersburg.

Students from Stavropol rest in their tent before sleeping at camp. Without electricity, the students use their phones and flaslights to play games. “Orthodox Warrior” camp takes place in Diveevo, the center of pilgrimage for Orthodox Christians in Russia, 3 August 2016.

 

Dmitri Tanaga (16) during a drill in the forest with his teamp from Stavropol. The group is practicing for an upcoming "fake war" between groups at "Orthodox Warrior" camp. They are using air-soft guns for the practice and competitions. "Orthodox Warrior" camp takes place in Diveevo, the center of pilgrimage for Orthodox Christians in Russia, 1 August 2016. The relics of one of the most revered saints, St. Seraphim, are celebrated on the 1 of August, attracting pilgrims from all across the country. The participants of the camp train not only in martial arts and tactical training, but unite under their Orthodox faith. Various competitions are held throughout the week, including Cossack dagger training and military tactical training. Attendees come from all across Russia, including regions like Stavropol and Saint Petersburg.

Dmitri Tanaga (16) during a drill in the forest with his teamp from Stavropol. The group is practicing for an upcoming “fake war” between groups at “Orthodox Warrior” camp. They are using air-soft guns for the practice and competitions. “Orthodox Warrior” camp takes place in Diveevo, the center of pilgrimage for Orthodox Christians in Russia, 1 August 2016.

 

Schoolchildren line up for drill on a Monday afternoon at School #7, 4 Apr 2016, Dmitrov, Russia. Drill is not manditory at School #7, but takes place before classes start at 8:00 and at 15:00. School #7 is a public school but offers cadet classes for those who wish to participate. The benefit of participating in cadet classes includes free lunch, while other students have to pay.

Schoolchildren line up for drill on a Monday afternoon at School #7, 4 Apr 2016, Dmitrov, Russia.

This article originally appeared in Emerging Photographer Winter 2016.


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