Dispatch

Putin’s Boy Scout Army

Russia's government has revived and revitalized Soviet-era youth clubs to train a new generation of militarized patriots. But they're spending more time learning to throw knives than build campfires.

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MOSCOW — In a crumbling residential courtyard in north Moscow, within earshot of the buzzing Yaroslavskoye highway that leads out of the city, a group of camouflage-clad teenagers watch an instructor as he talks them through the basics of knife throwing.

“Hold the knife solidly in your hands; let it become part of you. Twist your torso, extend your arm, and let it slip from your fingers in one smooth motion,” he tells them, demonstrating the movements as he speaks.

Moments later the knife lodges itself in a board propped against the side of a nearby building, sounding a metallic clang as it settles alongside the other knives embedded in the wood. An old woman walks by with her shopping bags and casts an indifferent glance toward the group.

She’s not the only passer-by who shrugs off this kind of spectacle. Inhabitants of Moscow’s Yaroslavsky district have largely grown accustomed to the activities — from the throwing of knives to the polishing of Kalashnikov rifles — that take place in the area on weekday evenings. While they’re out walking their dogs or returning home from work, their neighborhood transforms into a training ground for the local military-patriotic club Avant-garde.

Providing army preparation and training in military techniques to teenagers of both sexes, clubs like Avant-garde preserve a centuries-old custom of instilling patriotic values and awareness of Russia’s history among the country’s youth. The nationwide network of clubs has been decentralized since the Soviet Union’s collapse and now answers to no single authority. Official statistics are unavailable, though most club leaders place membership at around 200,000.

Inside the federal drug rehabilitation center that serves as Avant-garde’s headquarters, 18-year-old Pavel Pushkin watches his peers stitch new patches onto their uniforms. The old ones, which carried the words “Russia’s armed forces,” are being replaced by fresh patches that feature a picture of a gold two-headed eagle, the symbol on Russia’s coat of arms.

Crowded into the room are kids who have traveled from different corners of the capital to attend the three-hour club session. Although most could have opted for a local alternative, with some 200 similar centers around the capital, Avant-garde has a reputation for being one of the most active among the capital’s clubs, something its members are quick to emphasize.

“This is the best club. It’s worth traveling all the way across town for,” says Dima, a wiry 17-year-old who joined the club in September 2014 and rides the subway for 45 minutes to attend sessions.

For Dima, military-patriotic education is a chance to develop skills not offered at his school. For others, like Pushkin, it provides ideal training for a career in the Russian armed forces. After five years at Avant-garde, where he has earned the rank of deputy commander, he is preparing to join the army on a contract basis in the next two months.

“All these years, patriotism and military education have been a hobby, but now I’m ready for the next step. I’m proud of my country and its history, and I want to serve it,” he says.

Pushkin became acquainted with Avant-garde in 2010 when its commander, 30-year-old Stepan Zotov, visited his school to promote the club. A fluent English-speaking law graduate from the prestigious Moscow State University and a member of far-right party Rodina, Zotov has been involved in Russia’s military-patriotic movement for more than a decade. Since founding Avant-garde in 2010, he not only runs sessions but also organizes military-style weekend outings open to members of the club as well as the general public, from tactical war games to trips to military museums. Attendees pay on average 300 rubles (about $6) to attend the trips, and the profits contribute toward the club’s operating costs.

According to Zotov, Avant-garde’s approach extends beyond pure military training. The focus is on developing patriotism through discipline, he says. “The first thing those who come to us learn is to suppress their pride and respect authority. What we do here may seem practical, but we are teaching more than just the military aspect. It’s not only about following orders — we are learning to control our spirit.”

The philosophy reflects the traditions of military-patriotic education, a movement that can be traced back to the youth sports organizations that arose throughout the Russian Empire in the mid-19th century. Its modern form, which combines military training with patriotic values, emerged in the 1980s, when Soviet soldiers returning from war in Afghanistan sought to reverse major shortcomings in the country’s system of military preparation.

The newly formed clubs were placed under the supervision of the Volunteer Society for Cooperation with the Army, Aviation, and Fleet (DOSAAF), a Soviet paramilitary sports body reinvented several times since its creation in 1927. Today, having inherited an extensive network of training facilities and equipment, DOSAAF functions as a semicommercial enterprise in Russia’s legally murky “state-public” sector.

Government funding disappeared with the Soviet Union’s collapse, but under President Vladimir Putin the movement has been undergoing a renaissance. Legislation signed in 2000 officially recognized the role of military-patriotic clubs, designating them “voluntary, self-governing, non-commercial groups formed under civil initiative.”

In 2010 Putin implemented a 10-year “federal system of military preparation for Russian citizens” that pledged to direct resources toward and expand the network of military-patriotic clubs. Several prominent public figures addressed an open letter to the president, denouncing the initiative as an attempt to create “an ideology based on a cult of government, nation, and army.” The text was posted on an Internet forum after initially being published on Grani.ru, a news site that was blocked in 2014.

Boris Altshuler, head of NGO Right of the Child and one of the letter’s signatories, thinks the revival of military-patriotic training is part of a broader campaign against foreign influence and is often used to reinforce the anti-Western narrative projected in Russian media. “When you speak of military patriotism, you have to have an enemy. Encouraging a healthy lifestyle is great, but you shouldn’t accompany this with hatred towards the West. This is all part of a very negative trend,” he said.

The letter received no response, according to Altshuler, and the crackdown on opposition since Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012 has coincided with a growth in military-patriotic education. Some 200 clubs with about 10,000 members now operate in Moscow alone. Their names — Bright Rus, Patriot, Motherland — reflect a commitment to core values of patriotism, military preparedness, and conservative beliefs. DOSAAF no longer exerts any influence on their activities, but since electing former Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Kolmakov as its chairman in December 2014, the organization has been undergoing a major overhaul.

“There’s undoubtedly a lack of understanding and organization in the system, but these problems can be overcome,” said Vitaliy Gusak, a spokesman for DOSAAF.

Gusak said one of the aims of DOSAAF’s restructuring is better oversight of the federal program’s campaign to unify the motley network of military-patriotic clubs. Nevertheless, he declined to comment on details until after the meeting, slated for mid-May, of its review board, which will be chaired by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

Currently, each club functions independently and has its own philosophy. Some, like Dawn, based north of Moscow in the city of Khimki, focus on preparing teenagers for service in Russia’s special forces and military intelligence. Others, like Smolensk’s Plastun, named for a term for a foot scout in the Imperial Russian Army, revolve around the traditions of the Cossacks, members of a quasi-militant group famed for its fighting prowess and outlaw history that has re-entered public consciousness under Putin as a guardian of law and order.

Motivations behind the clubs diverge just as widely. Many have direct ties to the Russian Orthodox Church. At Volunteer, an Orthodox military-patriotic club for adults, faith is a core component. Its 30 members are split between full-time university students and professionals working in information technology, engineering, and construction in and around Moscow. Around half of the club’s graduates enter military service, but many have their own individual motivations for attending.

“Some want to become real men, others to join the army. But what differentiates us from other clubs is that we live our faith — we go to church and pray,” club leader Denis Tropin said.

The state has made various attempts to incorporate the movement into its campaign to rally public support. Banners of military-patriotic clubs have been visible in recent demonstrations organized by Anti-Maidan, a government-sponsored initiative whose proclaimed aim is to prevent a revolution in Russia like the one Ukraine saw in 2014.

In 2012, Rosmolodyozh, the state agency responsible for youth policy, offered to pay clubs to rehabilitate “extremists” who had taken part in protests against Putin’s return to the presidency in May of that year. Tropin and Zotov claim to have received such overtures from Rosmolodyozh. Both say they declined.

Today Rosmolodyozh and its “patriotic upbringing” wing, Rospatriottsentr, are at the forefront of the government campaign to raise patriotic sentiment among Russians. Under the federal program for the “patriotic upbringing of Russian citizens,” 1.85 billion rubles ($35 million) have been earmarked for the cause from 2016 to 2020. That’s more than double the amount allocated as part of the last five-year program and four times the amount spent between 2006 and 2010 — despite significant cutbacks in government spending on other sectors due to falling oil prices and Western sanctions.

The proposal for 2016 to 2020, released for a two-week public review on April 3, describes patriotism as “love for and devotion to one’s motherland, a yearning to serve its interests, and a readiness, to the point of self-sacrifice, to defend it” and argues that “efforts of geopolitical rivals to use socioeconomic problems to destabilize the political situation inside the country” necessitate a campaign to raise the level of patriotism in Russia. The aim is to increase by 2 percentage points each year the proportion of Russians “who take pride in their country” and raise by 10 percent the number willing to serve in its armed forces. A major part of the patriotism drive is the active involvement of school-age children, whose membership in military-patriotic clubs the document cites as crucial for reaching conscription targets.

In 2014 Putin signed an executive order to reinstate Ready for Labor and Defense, or GTO, a Stalin-era fitness regime. School No. 199 in Moscow’s Vorobyovy Gory district brought GTO back in September 2014. One Tuesday afternoon in March, its sports hall hosted a talk by Sergey Vshivtsev, a knife-combat expert. A father of four, Vshivtsev is a former member of the Special Rapid Response Unit, a Russian Interior Ministry force tasked with SWAT-style operations involving dangerous criminals and high-profile raids. He now works as a customs inspector and runs military-patriotic club Russian Battle in his spare time.

Vshivtsev receives money from Moscow’s Department of Education to lead military-patriotic classes in schools, and he was at School No. 199 to drum up interest among the pupils for the after-school sessions he runs. A group of about a dozen curious students watched as Vshivtsev and two assistants wearing T-shirts with the club’s logo offered a rapid-fire demonstration of Thai boxing and knife combat (using wooden knives) before producing a model Makarov semiautomatic pistol and explaining how it should be fired.

“We can offer you trips to military bases and training in close combat, and once we get you up to a certain level you can take part in regional competitions. I have many friends in the army, so you can meet many interesting people,” Vshivtsev told the kids. After a little prodding from their friends and a few embarrassed sniggers, everyone signed up.

Maxim and Alexander, both 15, were particularly excited. Alexander had been collecting knives as a hobby for the past year and said he had been looking for an opportunity to learn the basics of knife combat. “Our friends prefer to drink and smoke, to go out and cause trouble. This is much more useful,” he said.

While Vshivtsev was quick to dismiss any ties between his club and the state, he sees the crisis in Ukraine as only the latest sign that Russian children should be protected from corrupting ideas. “We teach children to survive in the present circumstances, to not let them fall for nationalist and fascist views. There’s a difference between nationalism and patriotism, and that’s what we’re teaching them. The focus is on getting them off the streets, not backing Anti-Maidan,” he said.

Rosmolodyozh did not respond to repeated requests for comment on its relation to the military-patriotic movement and Anti-Maidan. A Rospatriottsentr spokeswoman said the organization is too busy with preparations for World War II victory celebrations on May 9 to answer questions.

However, connections between the war in Ukraine and Russia’s military-patriotic clubs may be even deeper and more opaque than Anti-Maidan. Since the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine began in April 2014, opposition media have reported on members of military-patriotic clubs traveling to Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions to fight for the separatist insurgency.

A November 2014 investigation by Novaya Gazeta featured interviews with members and leaders of several Orthodox clubs, including Volunteer. The report claimed that many graduates head to the conflict zone as volunteers, often against the advice of those who have trained them. Another report in February by TV channel Dozhd featured comments from colleagues and students of club instructors who had died fighting alongside eastern Ukrainian rebels.

Gusak of DOSAAF claimed he is not in a position to comment on the reports, and many club leaders were reluctant to discuss the connections with the Ukrainian rebels. Nevertheless, the movement as a whole has been strongly affected, having lost many charismatic instructors and young club graduates to the war.

For teenagers at Thunder, a military-patriotic club based in the town of Elektrogorsk, 50 miles outside Moscow, the war in Ukraine has been close to home. On May 26, 2014, Sergey Zhdanovich, a 48-year-old veteran of Chechen wars and former police officer who helped out at the club, died at the airport outside separatist capital Donetsk during a two-day battle against Kiev’s forces. Today Zhdanovich’s former club has been renamed to the S. B. Zhdanovich Military-Patriotic Club Thunder.

“Sergey was really liked by the kids, and it was their wish to dedicate the club to him. We got together and decided to change the name in his honor,” said the club’s 25-year-old leader, Yegor Chernalov, who knew him personally. Zhdanovich did not inform the club’s members about his plans before leaving, Chernalov said. “He didn’t mention it openly. He talked about making a trip for an extended period, but where exactly and why, he did not say,” he wrote in an email.

Zotov of Avant-garde is candid about the conflict in Ukraine. He sees it as the continuation of a long civilizational struggle between Russia and the West, a struggle between inherently incompatible ideological systems that he believes Russia must do all it can to win.

“I’ve taken part in that war myself. I don’t see myself as a hero — it’s my duty as a man. And if thousands of people like me go there and do their part, we will be unbeatable. My older graduates and graduates of other clubs have certainly also felt this calling,” he said, adding that he spent one week in the conflict zone as part of a private humanitarian convoy bringing clothing and medical supplies.

“It’s pointless to go [to the conflict zone] and just carry crates. They have plenty of people like that already. We need people who have special training, knowledge, and experience. And many such people need no persuasion to go there,” he said.

When asked how he would feel if Pushkin, his 18-year-old deputy at Avant-garde, went to Ukraine to fight, Zotov was unequivocal: “I would be proud.”

Pushkin, though, is less sure. “Some of us may want to go there, but we’re not at the right age so no one will let us go. If I’m needed, I’ll go there. But right now I’m more needed here to help,” he said.

For Tropin the question is personal. Volunteer has lost two of its members to the war in Ukraine, and another is currently fighting for rebel forces in Luhansk. Of those who lost their lives, one was a 27-year-old instructor who that Saturday was scheduled to run a training session in Moscow. Like Zhdanovich, he died at Donetsk’s airport. The other headed to Ukraine as a medic. He was 19.

“They didn’t tell me beforehand; they just left. Then I found out they were dead,” Tropin said. “When younger members of the club ask me my opinion, I say, ‘Nothing stops you from going.’ But this is not our war to fight.”

Photo courtesy of Denis Tropin

Matthew Luxmoore is a journalist focused on Eastern Europe who has written for Al Jazeera, The Times, the New Republic and other publications.

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