Ah, summer camp. Who doesn’t look back fondly on lazy days spent riding horses. Playing tug-of-war. Hiking through the woods. Field-stripping an AK-47 and heaving dummy grenades.
That’s how they roll in Russia, where some 200,000 students between the ages of 11 to 19 hone their survival skills and learn a little history in free camps and after-school clubs under the Patriotic Education of Russian Citizens in 2016-2020 program. “People in Russia kept saying, this is like the Boy Scouts,” says Sarah Blesener, who photographed the camps in Toy Soldiers. “This is not the Boy Scouts.”
Blesener, who is from Minneapolis, Minnesota, caught her first Russian military class while visiting Moscow in April. Intrigued, Blesener checked out six cadet classes, training camps, and after-school programs in Moscow, Borodino and Diveevo.
She found kids going on 12-hour drills in the woods to urban tactical training. The Orthodox Warrior program combines combat training with religion. Local priests judge competitions in Cossack knife-fighting after blessing the participants with holy water. In another program, students dress up as Russian soldiers facing Napoleon’s army in 1812. Still other students reenact battles against the Germns in World War II.
While it might seem extreme, Blesener found the student’s fervent patriotism not unlike those of Americans or Britons. “The nationalistic rhetoric is very similar,” she says Blesener. “In Russia, it’s a lot more tangible, but we do have a lot of people who think that we’re the best country in the world.” Blesener wants to document similar camps in the US, but hopefully without the rifles.