Students practice shooting air soft guns at a Historical-War Camp in Borodino, Russia. Borodino is where the deadliest day of the Napoleonic War was fought in 1812. 350 kids attend the camp, ranging in age from 11 to 17. It teaches campers about weapons, bases, and warfare. The project statement of the camp says: "To awaken in the younger generation a keen interest in the history of the Fatherland, the glorious deeds of our ancestors, to facilitate the expansion of military-historical knowledge."
Campers practice shooting air soft guns at a Historical War Camp in Borodino, Russia. Borodino is where the deadliest day of the Napoleonic War was fought in 1812. 350 kids ages 11 to 17 attend the camp. It teaches campers about weapons, bases, and warfare. The project statement of the camp reads: "To awaken in the younger generation a keen interest in the history of the Fatherland, the glorious deeds of our ancestors, to facilitate the expansion of military-historical knowledge."Sarah Blesener
Students practice shooting air soft guns at a Historical-War Camp in Borodino, Russia. Borodino is where the deadliest day of the Napoleonic War was fought in 1812. 350 kids attend the camp, ranging in age from 11 to 17. It teaches campers about weapons, bases, and warfare. The project statement of the camp says: "To awaken in the younger generation a keen interest in the history of the Fatherland, the glorious deeds of our ancestors, to facilitate the expansion of military-historical knowledge."
A unit dressed to re-enact Soviet Russia during WWII as part of their historical education at the Historical-War Camp, in Borodino, Russia on July 26, 2016.
Schoolchildren line up for drills at a public school in Dmitrov, Russia. Drills are not mandatory but those who wish to participate receive free lunch, while other students have to pay.
A student in his practice uniform as part of the drills.
A classroom wall at School #7 decorated with legacies from Russian history, starting with Vladimir Putin on the far left.
Vika Meshkova, age 14, from Radyukino. Russia, poses for a portrait. The camp is free for all kids to attend.
Vladimir Ribak, age 14, from Moscow poses with a real but non functional gun used solely for drills.
Campers range in age from 11 to 17.
Students play a game of UNO in their tent between drills.
Военно-Исторический Лагерь Бородино 2016, the Historical-War Camp, in Borodino, Russia. 24 July 2016. Borodino is famous for a battle fought on 7 Sep 1812 - the deadliest day of the Napoleonic Wars. 350 adolescents are in attendance, ranging in ages from 11 to 17, and lasts throughout the summer. Students learn a variety of skills from tactical training in handguns, loading and unloading automatic guns, physical endurance, knife throwing, and others. The project statement of the camp says: "To awaken in the younger generation a keen interest in the history of the Fatherland, the glorious deeds of our ancestors, to facilitate the expansion of military-historical knowledge."
A camp group from Stavropol plays in the lake during an afternoon off at "Orthodox Warrior" camp, which takes place in Diveevo, the center of pilgrimage for Orthodox Christians
Commander Boris Vasilivitch and Gleb Metlin, age 6, from Stavropol wait to begin a twelve-hour drill in the forests surrounding Diveevo, Russia.
Artyom Baklashkin, age 17, a student of the local secondary school in the village of Diveevo, stands guard in an abandoned building with a group known as the "Survivalists". They meet weekly after school with their physical education instructor, and train to survive future wars and post-apocalyptic life. They are using air-soft guns for the practice and competition. Air-soft is a sport that replicates military action, but fires non-metallic pellets.
An apartment building from the 1970's in Dmitrov, Russia.
Campers practice shooting air soft guns at camp in Borodino, Russia.
Oleg Shaula and his girlfriend Nadya Gross from Stavropol relax in a tent during the first day of the hand-to-hand combat competition at the "Orthodox Warrior" camp.
Evgeni (Jenya) Riabyxin, age 22, from Stavropol studies a map during a twelve-hour drill in the forests surrounding Diveevo, Russia.
(left) Nastya Gobritskaya, from Moscow and Alina Klikova from Medin rest between tactical drills at the Historical-War Camp, in Borodino, Russia.
Campers at target practice. The smoke is from launching fake grenades.
Campers practice shooting air soft guns at a Historical War Camp in Borodino, Russia. Borodino is where the deadliest da
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Sarah Blesener
1 of 22

Inside Russia's Military Training Schools for Teens

Oct 19, 2016

One morning this spring, Sarah Blesener, an American documentary photographer, got a chance to visit a school in the Moscow suburb of Dmitrov, where lessons in basic military training are available to students a few times a week. She was expecting to see kids in uniforms, saluting the flag and doing drills, much like the courses one might find in U.S. high schools that offer programs for cadets. Instead she found a classroom of students, some as young as 11, learning to assemble and load Kalashnikov assault rifles. Out in the schoolyard, a safety lesson focused on the proper use of biohazard suits in the event of nuclear or chemical fallout.

Her photo of one the students that day, who stood for a portrait in a gas mask and bulky rubber gloves, became the first in Blesener’s study of what Russians refer to as military-patriotic education. Through a series of speeches and official decrees, President Vladimir Putin and his government have recently made this curriculum the norm across the country, offering adolescents a range of instruction in ideology, religion and preparedness for war.

In one of his first decrees on this approach to education, Putin ordered the creation last fall of a nationwide “Russian students’ movement,” whose aim is to “help form the characters” of young people “based on the system of values that is intrinsic to Russian society.” Reports in the Russian media cast the decree as a revival of the Young Pioneers, the official youth movement of the Soviet Communist Party. The Russian Defense Ministry then followed up on this program in April with the creation of what it called the Young Army, a network of youth associations that now provides training in military tactics and history in many of Russia’s regions.

Students practice boxing and martial arts after school at the Diveevo Public School gymnasium on Apr. 6, 2016 in Diveevo, Russia.Students practice boxing and martial arts after school at the Diveevo Public School gymnasium on Apr. 6, 2016 in Diveevo, Russia. Sarah Blesener 

In her photo series, Blesener focuses on two military summer camps for kids aged between 10 and 17. The first one, held near the hallowed battleground of Borodino, where Russia fought the invading French forces of Napoleon in 1812, centered around battle reenactments and the proper use of weapons, ranging from knives to assault rifles. The second camp, called Orthodox Warrior, combined combat training with strict adherence to the Orthodox Christian faith, which has come to play an increasingly important role in Russia’s official ideology.

Priests dressed in the robes of the Orthodox clergy presided over the latter camp, taking the campers to pray at pilgrimage sites in the mornings and then judging their competitions in knife fighting and marksmanship in the afternoons. “It was a bit surreal,” says Blesener. “The Orthodox religion was mixed into the military training, which I’ve never seen before.”

But in Russia this has become commonplace. In one of his more striking pronouncements on the need for patriotic education, Putin argued in 2012 that Russia is in the midst of a “fierce competition” with the West over the very soul of the Russian nation. “This is an absolute reality, just like the struggle over mineral resources,” Putin told a televised gathering of officials from the worlds of education, religion and the armed forces that September. These battles in the spiritual and ideological realms, he warned, could lead to “catastrophe for entire states, to their weakness, collapse and, ultimately, to the loss of sovereignty and to fratricidal wars.”

With the outbreak of war in Ukraine less than two years later, that statement began to seem prophetic. Ukraine’s revolution in the winter of 2014 brought a pro-Western government to power, and Russia responded by invading and annexing the region of Crimea while stoking a separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine. The resulting conflict devolved into a fratricidal war that has claimed nearly 10,000 lives and caused a profound rupture in Russia’s relations with the West.

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Student GuardA student of the local secondary school in the village of Diveevo, stands guard during tactical training with the Survivalists, on April 6, 2016. Sarah Blesener 

In the past two years, that war has also caused a resurgence of patriotic fervor and nationalism in Russia, which has in turn fueled the popularity of the military youth camps that Blesener documented. More broadly, the levels of respect and confidence that Russians feel toward their armed forces has spiked since the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. A survey published in February by the Levada Center, an independent Russian pollster, found that 58% of respondents want to preserve the military draft – marking a record level of support for that once-despised institution. The same survey found that 81% of Russians have faith in their armed forces, a jump of more than 20 percentage points compared to before the conflict in Ukraine.

Much of that newfound admiration has come thanks to the Kremlin’s control over nearly all mass media, which have put a heroic gloss on Russia’s military exploits in Ukraine and more recently in Syria. But the official propaganda against Ukraine and its Western allies that has also saturated Russia’s news outlets in recent years did not play much of a role in the camps that Blesener photographed. Nor did the instructors seem to encourage kids to admire Putin personally. “His name was hardly mentioned,” she says. “It was more of a reverence for the Russian motherland itself.”

And despite the focus on military training, the organizers of the camp never specified what enemy the students should prepare to fight. As one of the instructors told her when asked about this, “We have no secrets from the world. We don’t want war. But we are preparing for war.”

Sarah Blesener is a documentary photographer based between New York City and Moscow. Follow her on Instagram.

Josh Raab, who edited this photo essay, is an associate photo editor at TIME. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter.

Simon Shuster is a TIME correspondent based in Berlin. Follow him on Twitter.

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