In a playground outside a shabby warren of cinder-block apartments in north Moscow, children play on swings and climbing bars as Stepan Zotov instructs a squad of teens in knife-throwing nearby.
Thirteen-year-old Andrei Polivoi is aiming his knife at a foam cushion about the size and shape of a human chest that’s propped up on a metal stair landing. Four of his five throws miss and clatter noisily onto the stairs.
“Not bad for your first try — attaboy!” Zotov proclaims with an encouraging clap on the disheartened boy’s shoulder.
It’s been five years since Zotov founded Our Army, one of thousands of “military-patriotic youth organizations” answering President Vladimir Putin’s call for preparing the next generation of Russian soldiers as the Kremlin flexes its military muscle abroad.
President Putin has been preparing for confrontation with the west for several years — long before his impulsive invasions of Crimea and east Ukraine. His call for youth paramilitary clubs was just one part of the preparations for what he considers a likely war against the west.
Inside the apartment complex, the five other members of the club gather unsupervised in a back room to practice breaking down and reassembling an AK-47.
“One minute, 32 seconds — ha! I beat you by one second!” a triumphant Margarita Maluchenkova, an 18-year-old with crimson-tinted hair, proclaims after timing the last of her male club mates with the stopwatch on her smartphone.
Maluchenkova — decked out in a green camouflage jacket, a sailor-stripe tank top, purple leggings and suede boots with 4-inch heels — says she joined Our Army in hopes of gaining an advantage in the stiff competition to get into fighter pilot training.
Russia now boasts a wide range of youth clubs. Some of them resemble patriotic clubs such as the Young Pioneers which were so useful to the Soviet Regime for recruiting the elite of the KGB, the Communist Party, the military, and national sports teams.
Others remind one of an Islamist terror training camp, meant to train wielders of destruction and mayhem.
And then there are those in-between, which combine patriotic indoctrination with useful weapons training.
It is a motley group, all in all. But the one thing that unites these clubs of Russia’s young, is their love of Putin, and their deep feelings of “us against them.”
Clubs such as Our Army have been cropping up across Russia at a fevered pace amid heightened tensions with the West and with former Soviet republics that have defected from Moscow’s orbit. In just two years, the loosely aligned groups have grown to involve hundreds of thousands of Russian youths between the ages of 13 and 18, their organizers boast.
At weeknight drills and weekend field trips, the teens undergo fitness training and instruction that give them a taste of military regimen as they prepare for armed forces careers or, for 19-year-old men, their year of compulsory military service.
So how do these clubs compare with Dangerous Child groups and communities? In terms of training in weapons, military skills, and physical fitness, there is a superficial resemblance.
A crumbling stucco building stands at the edge of what used to be a paratrooper practice field, now hosting a soccer stadium and a thicket of billboards. Inside the headquarters of the 88-year-old Volunteer Society for Cooperation with the Army, Air Force and Fleet, Igor Filimonov describes the ascendant youth clubs as a revival of proud tradition.
… At the former Young Pioneers Palace in the Sparrow Hills on Moscow’s southern flank, Olga Korovatskaya schedules facilities for 80 youth groups vying for use of the gyms, soccer fields and running tracks.
The after-school training three nights a week is a sort of dues to be paid before weekend visits to a shooting range or an airfield for parachute practice.
And yet, we see the same weaknesses in these Russian clubs which are so transparent within Russian society, culture, and national character.
Only about 30% of Russian kids are healthy enough to actively serve in the armed forces, according to pediatricians who have studied the issue. This deficit of healthy kids begins at birth and continues through adolescence. Physical training for teens is likely to help somewhat, but it cannot erase the problems of contaminated water, air, soil, poor nutrition, and very bad lifetime habits that begin at a very young age.
Next, focusing on Putin as a national idol, and instilling an “us against them” paranoia in the young ones, is not healthy psychologically. It harkens back to the Hitler Youth phenomenon, and the militarism that penetrated 1920s and 1930s Japanese society throughout.
In addition, this refurbished “Young Pioneer” “Hitler Youth” trend fails to prepare young Russians for their likely future of economic decline — caused by their very own national idol.
There is no training in business, entrepreneurship, basic economics and trade, and in creating healthy communities and societies. None of the more productive aspects of The Dangerous Child Method would be in keeping with Russian national character under Putin. In fact, independent initiative that is conducted outside of Kremlin auspices and approval is strictly frowned upon — if not outright forbidden.
And so we see the fatal shortcomings of Putin’s intolerance of a healthy and independent private sector and civil society — which he and his crony cohorts in the Kremlin feel would be too threatening to their control over the flow of wealth in today’s Russia.
There is no cure for these — and many other — shortcomings in today’s Russia. Any change whatsoever is likely to bring about an even more fascist and totalitarian mafiacracy than currently exists.
Dangerous Children are certainly taught military teamwork skills, and undergo intensive physical training. But they are also taught how to start a new business by the age of 8. They are required to master the skills to support themselves financially by the age of 18. They are trained in local, regional, national, and international trade. They are expected to become fluent in two additional languages besides their native tongues. They are trained to form Dangerous Communities of like-minded persons, and how to internetwork with other Dangerous Communities on various geographical scales.
The training of Dangerous Children focuses on a balance of competencies of the physical, emotional, social, technological, spiritual, and community skills. Dangerous children are well educated, mostly self-taught, and capable of taking over their own education at the same time they become financially independent.
Despite all of these differences, Putin’s youth indoctrination and military training clubs do present an interesting phenomenon, which are likely to leave an indelible mark on Russia’s turbulent future.
More on Putin’s attempts to organise Russia’s youth