Russian children are being drilled for war – one million are members of the “Youth Army”

In Russia, not only reservists are being mobilized for the war in Ukraine. On another and more long-term level, active work is also carried out to mobilize patriotism.

All the way down to the younger age groups, and even some kindergarten children have in recent years become involved in military-patriotic activities.

“Youth Army”

The patriotic youth organisation, Junarmija, or “Youth Army” in Norwegian, has branches all over the country. Here, children and young people from the age of 11 are drilled in what to do in the event of war. They also receive training in weapon handling.

AUTOMATIC WEAPONS: A boy gets to hold an automatic weapon during a weapons demonstration in 2018. Photo: Pavel Rebrov

If they are asked to disassemble and reassemble an automatic weapon, they can do it in a flash, writesTV 2 Denmark who has visited one of the training camps of Junarmija.

According to the organization itself, they have over one million members. They call themselves a “movement”, and originally consisted of many different types of groups all over Russia.

– Some groups focus on sports, others are more focused on the military. In recent years, a lot of work has been done to make these different groups more equal, and to attract more children. They share training camps, for example, explains Håvard Bækken to TV 2.

In 2015/2016, some of these were merged into a large movement, and since then more have been added.

Bækken is a senior researcher at the Department of Defense Studies, and has done a lot of research on militarism and patriotic upbringing in Russia. He explains the background and objectives of the Russian Youth Army.

KALASHNIKOV: A boy takes apart a Kalashnikov rifle.  The picture from Junimija's beginning in 2016. Photo: Alexander Zemlianichenko

KALASHNIKOV: A boy takes apart a Kalashnikov rifle. The picture from Junimija’s beginning in 2016. Photo: Alexander Zemlianichenko

He has also seen striking changes in the organization’s activities over the past seven months.

Children and young people from 8-18 years

The children that TV 2 Denmark has met train on military obstacle courses and can put on a gas mask in seconds.

All children and young people between the ages of eight and 18 can participate.

– It is a stated aim to build military patriotism, and the focus is on healthy discipline and conservative values. Many consider it a good way to socialize children, especially those children who struggle with this before, says Bækken.

MARCHING: Here some of the older boys in Junarmija march during an exercise in St Petersburg on 19 July this year Photo: Dmitri Lovetsky

MARCHING: Here some of the older boys in Junarmija march during an exercise in St Petersburg on 19 July this year Photo: Dmitri Lovetsky

There has been an enormous recruitment process for several years aimed at, among other things, schools, sports teams and child welfare institutions. If the organization has one million members as they themselves claim, that means they have recruited approximately seven percent of the target group, according to Bækken.

– Another goal is to give children and young people basic military training and discipline, and tempt them to choose a military career, he says.

Whether they succeed with the latter is unknown. One can assume that children who have been part of Junarmija more often choose a military career path than others, but there may be several reasons for that – among other things, they recruit from the same social strata as the armed forces.

Bækken points out that similar military training of young people takes place in many Western countries as well, including the United States.

President Vladimir Putin poses with a group from Junarmija in 2019. Photo: Evgenia Novozhenina

President Vladimir Putin poses with a group from Junarmija in 2019. Photo: Evgenia Novozhenina

The youth army was created by a decree of Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2015 after Russia occupied the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea and Russian-backed separatists started hostilities in eastern Ukraine.

Supporting the soldiers

Since Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February this year, there has been a change in the activities of the Youth Army.

– At the start it was as if they pretended there was no war. Gradually, the young people have been activated to support the Russian soldiers. Among other things, letter campaigns are run. The children and young people write letters or draw pictures to the soldiers at the front to show their support, says Bækken.

The letters are folded into a triangle – a symbol that draws the lines back to similar letter writing during the Second World War.

– Young people create flash mobs, and often wear their uniforms to show their patriotism. They take part in ceremonies, lay wreaths and do other symbolic activities, he continues

Advertises

On the website of the Russian Ministry of Defense there is a whole section dedicated to the Youth Army. On the homepage the organization itself has the slogan “Education of citizens and patriots” over graphic videos of military ships, planes and vehicles in battle.

“Being a soldier and defending the fatherland is a job for a real man. Many dream of it already at a young age. Who doesn’t want to be strong, brave, learn to shoot a gun, drive a tank and pilot a warship or a fighter plane,” the page reads.

Russia’s defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, has participated in the organization’s events, and Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, has praised the movement.

RECRUITS IN 2018: New recruits are sworn in in Sevastopol in annexed Crimea.  Photo: REUTERS/Pavel Rebrov

RECRUITS IN 2018: New recruits are sworn in in Sevastopol in annexed Crimea. Photo: REUTERS/Pavel Rebrov

Disadvantaged children

– The youth army has branches in almost every school. When the children are introduced to the movement, they are very interested, says Jelena N., who is a secondary school inspector in Yekaterinburg to TV 2 Denmark.

According to Jelena, it is not necessary to have any special prerequisites to become a member of the Youth Army.

Everyone is welcome in the organisation, but Jelena N. says that, in her opinion, it is mostly children who are doing badly at school who join.

CRIMEA: Three years after the annexation of Crimea, new members are being recruited for the Youth Army in the city of Sevastopol on the Crimean Peninsula.  Photo: REUTERS/Pavel Rebrov

CRIMEA: Three years after the annexation of Crimea, new members are being recruited for the Youth Army in the city of Sevastopol on the Crimean peninsula. Photo: REUTERS/Pavel Rebrov

– They are attracted by the exciting things about the army. They like that they can get a nice uniform so they can show off and that they can take part in parades, says Jelena N. to TV 2 Danmark.

Teaching the “art of war”

One of the Russians who helps train the children in the Youth Army is Alexander Mukhatiev. He is a retired colonel and now heads the youth army headquarters in the Mari El region.

SWORN IN: Children and young people in Sevastopol in Crimea, sworn in to the Youth Army in 2018 Photo: PAVEL REBROV

SWORN IN: Children and young people in Sevastopol in Crimea, sworn in to the Youth Army in 2018 Photo: PAVEL REBROV

– I have started the Youth Army here in Mari-El, and am very positive about the movement, says Alexander Mukhatjev to the channel.

The colonel goes on to say that they teach the children the art of war, patriotism and many other things.

War in school

Immediately after the invasion of Ukraine, several Russian politicians talked about introducing basic military training as a permanent part of the school curriculum.

When the Soviet Union existed, military training was part of the teaching in schools, and the subject contained much of the same that the children in the Youth Army learn today.

APRIL: Girls from the Youth Army in St. Petersburg to the parade they will participate in on

APRIL: Girls from the Youth Army in St. Petersburg to the parade they will participate in on “Victory Day” on 9 May. The picture was taken on April 28, 2022. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky) Photo: Dmitri Lovetsky

In several of the Russian schools, increased militarization is already underway, according to Natalia N., a teacher at a school in Yekaterinburg.

She says that there are regular parades for the children and that ordinary school concerts now have a military theme.

– I remember a concert where children in uniform had to stand in pouring rain and sing patriotic songs for two hours, she says.

Attractive for poor families

The authorities have made it attractive for children and young people to use the organisation’s training camps, which are often located on the coast and in scenic areas.

VETERAN: Nikolay Bagayev fought during World War II.  Here he meets a group of girls from Junarmija in 2019 Photo: MAXIM SHEMETOV

VETERAN: Nikolay Bagayev fought during World War II. Here he meets a group of girls from Junarmija in 2019 Photo: MAXIM SHEMETOV

According to Danish TV 2’s information, the food is good, and according to the teachers, children from poor families can have experiences and stays that many parents do not have the opportunity to give their children.

– We take in children all year round on three or four shifts a month. There are between 100 and 120 children on each shift, says the head of the youth army in the Mari El region, Alexander Mukhatjev.

Among other things, the children play various military games and practice surviving nuclear attacks.

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