This article originally appeared on VICE AU.
In 2013, before Russian troops annexed Crimea from Ukraine, a photographer by the name of Kyrre Lien was granted rare access to a boot camp for Cossack children. There, around 150 kids as young as eight were trained to shoot AK-47s and defend themselves with fists, all in a complicated display of nationalism and regional paranoia. Cossacks are an East Slavic-speaking minority group, traditionally from Southern Russia and South-Eastern Ukraine, and the camp catered to parents who wanted their offspring raised according to Cossack military tradition: self-governing, self-sufficient, and willing to defend their homeland with violence if necessary.
At the time, the general who operated the camp and the parents who'd enlisted their children believed NATO was their biggest threat. Many of them described themselves as Putin-loyalists, which is ironic as the camp no longer exists. When Ukraine was annexed in 2014 the place was shut down and its Cossack benefactors became bitterly divided by nationality. So in the end their enemy wasn't in Brussels, but Moscow.
We spoke to Norwegian photographer Kyrre Lien about what he saw during his time at the camp, and what he learned about the highly complex politics of the region.
VICE: What compelled you to document this youth military camp in the first place?
Kyrre Lien: I grew up in Norway, so for me to see young kids down to the age of eight carrying rifles and weapons in a military boot camp—I just found that fascinating and strange. I ended up getting on the first plane from Norway, although it took several weeks to find the right contacts and gain access.
Can you describe what you found when you got there?
The camp consisted of 150 kids, in 30 or so tents. They were there for two weeks and in Crimea it gets really hot in summer. Like 30-35 degrees and the heat during the day was very intense. Around the camp, there were really high mountains and steep cliffs. There was a lot of greenery and it was really a beautiful valley.
How were you received when you first arrived?
Sceptically. It took a few days to really talk to the kids because they were a bit shy. When I do a story like this I don’t want to judge anyone. Instead I really want to understand what drives them. So I just wanted to listen, and the people who were running the camp understood that. Of course, they knew what they were doing was a bit controversial as well. They'd faced a lot of criticism from the Ukrainian media at the time.
Tell me about the people who ran the camp. What were they like?
The main guy running it, he described himself as General Esaul and he was really strict. He told me that the children "will fight so that NATO never will reach our borders.” I remember one day he approached one of the boys who was eight years old. The general threw him to the ground, then pulled him up again, and pretended to slice his throat. Of course that's a pretty extreme way to teach an eight-year-old anything. After that the kid came up to me and said he really missed his mum and dad.
Shit. How did the other boys react to this?
A lot of the boys were fine with the idea of being at camp. Of course, some of them were afraid and surprised to see something like this happen. But at the same time, they seemed to be quite willing to train and to do this.
Can you tell me about the daily routine while you were there?
So what would usually happen is everyone would get up really early in the morning. We'd then go out marching up in the mountains for five hours, which is quite hard in 35 degree-heat when you're eight years old. Then they'd do shooting training, with rifles, and knife training, and self-defence training. The kids would patrol the camp around the neighbouring mountains and the camp itself. But they would be normal kids in a way. They would play. I remember one of the days was steaming hot and one of the commanders came in with a huge packet of ice-creams. You could see all of the kids just streaming towards him and getting one each and suddenly they just looked like kids and not military soldiers.
At night they ate dinner together and the general would make speeches about the Cossack values. The kids were told how the Cossack had been strong warriors since the 16th century. Then when night fell they all brushed their teeth and many of the young kids put on their pyjamas and got into bed. While the kids were sleeping, they also had night patrols, where three of the children were equipped with Kalashnikovs, knives, bulletproof vests, bulletproof helmets, and then patrolled the camp area.
What was the craziest thing you saw at the camp?
I think for me it was just seeing small boys carrying rifles—weapons that are made to kill. And watching children being taught how to kill people. I found that quite shocking.
What was the toughest aspect of training for the kids?
I think some of the toughest training they did was just physical exercise. I saw eight-year-olds doing intense push-ups or lifting heavy lumber. In one of the photos you can see a group of kids running with lumber that's been assembled to resemble a tank. So they were running inside this really heavy structure and you could see the kids struggling while behind them the general was yelling ‘’Come on slaves.’’ He yelled that at them while this heavy patriotic Cossack music was being played in the background.
Were there any girls at the youth camp or just boys?
I think I can say about 95 percent of the kids there were male. There were some females—I remember there was a sniper team that consisted of two young girls. One of the evenings we went up with them on top of the mountains taking pictures. They were both dressed in this really heavy camouflage in order to blend in with the environment, and they both had a rifle swung around their shoulders.
Did you find that the kids saw themselves as Cossacks?
I found that the youngest kids didn’t have an interest or a knowledge about it. But the older kids were really proud to represent the Cossack beliefs and, in a way, represent their people. You could see that the people running the camp were super hardcore Cossacks. As one of the leaders said: “We teach the kids to become true Cossacks: fearless man ready to defend their mother land." He said, "This generation is lazy and dependent on alcohol, cigarettes, and narcotics. We want to change that."
Interview by Mirjana Milovanovic. Follow her on Instagram: mia_.m