Military-patriotic clubs that train youngsters are on the rise in Russia in recent years. Prospekt Magazine visited one such training camp in the suburbs of St Petersburg to talk to its organisers
Amidst abandoned war relics and pieces of old artillery, a group of Russian youngsters is engaged in hand-to-hand combat training under the supervision of an aged instructor. They are at the Sestroretskiy Rubezh exhibition centre—an ensemble of old fortifications dating back to War World II, just north of St Petersburg. Nearby, another group of boys in military suits, equipped with paintball guns, is practising shooting positions with airsoft guns. A white bag hanging from a tree is used as a target during the exercises. The bag is marked by a drawn Nazi swastika and the words “strike the fascists.”
During the Siege of Leningrad (1941– 44), the frontline was just a few hundred metres away from Sestroretskiy Rubezh. It was here that the Soviet army held their ground against Finnish troops from 1941 to 1944, before launching a counteroffensive. A memorial grave dedicated to the fallen defenders of Leningrad can be found next to the exhibition centre.
Nowadays, Sestroretskiy Rubezh is not just a museum of military prowess but also the training ground for a new generation of Russian patriots. The territory of the museum regularly serves as a practice field for the Sestroretskiy Rubezh youth patriotic club. The organisation offers a selection of sports activities, military training, and patriotic education to youngsters aged 7-17, as well as excursions and historical re-enactments. The head of the club, Oleg Bushko, says that the organisation is self-funded and that its only source of income is the museum’s 100 rouble entry fee.
Today, Sestroretskiy Rubezh is hosting instructors from Rusich, a partner patriotic organisation. The group, counting six men in their early 30s in full military gear, provides military training to both children and adults. Rusich’s leader, Yan Petrovsky, is also the vice-commander of the Rusich task force, a homonymous group of Russian volunteers that fought in Eastern Ukraine on the side of pro-Russian separatists. Petrovsky has been accused of war crimes in Ukraine and is suspected of extremist activity in Europe. Despite his questionable reputation, his men hold him in high esteem as a veteran and a patriot of Russia.
“All Russians have patriotism in their genes; it’s just that not everyone can discover and understand those genes,” states Petrovsky. Rusich’s task consists of making sure that those genes are properly cultivated. According to one of Petrovsky’s subordinates, who is known by the pseudonym of Anhel’, patriotic organisations prevent young people from spending their time in ‘pernicious ways.’
“We encourage them to practice sports more, engage in physical activity, and hold up the positions of our State and our President,” he continues.
Another Rusich member, known as Kolovrat, points out the importance of military-patriotic clubs for defending Russia’s traditional values and the Orthodox faith.
Oleg, however, prefers to leave religion outside of Sestroretsky Rubezh and holds patriotism as its primary value: “There is no religion here, we were all born in Russia and we all need to defend it. That is what we do.”
Indeed, at Sestroretsky Rubezh, kids learn all of the skills needed to be qualified as defenders of the motherland. Under the supervision of Petovsky and his men, they practice different exercises ranging from how to recharge and draw weapons to how to neutralise hypothetical enemies.
Like many other military-patriotic clubs, Sestroretskiy Rubezh and Rusich are both part of the Voluntary Society for Cooperation with the Army, Air Force and Navy (DOSAAF). The organisation, headed by former Deputy Minister of Defense Aleksandr Kolpakov, imparts patriotic education and military training to Russian citizens on a voluntary basis. One of the organization’s major aims is to prepare youngsters to serve in the Russian army. Although DOSAAF has formally existed since 2009, similar autonomous patriotic organisations had started to spread in the late 1980s as a response to the decay of the state-sponsored ideology at the time. In recent years, the popularity of military-patriotic clubs in Russia has been on the rise, largely as a consequence of the country’s militarisation and the idea of ideological confrontation with the West. In 2016, Deputy Minister of Defense Nikolay Pankov stated that over 5,000 military-patriotic organisations were active in Russia, as reported by RIA Novosti.
“Today, the idea of patriotism, the idea of serving your motherland, is again acutely demanded by Russian society,” added Pankov.