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Putin's Teenage Army: Inside Donetsk's Youth Warrior Training Camps

VICE News visited a patriotic youth camp in Amvrosievka, eastern Ukraine, where children are trained in fighting with knives, hand-to-hand combat, and how to operate guns at the local school.

by Veronika Silchenko
Jun 8 2015, 4:00pm

Imagen por Veronica Silchenko y Roman Stepanovych/VICE News

Amvrosievka is a small sleepy town in eastern Ukraine around 40 miles from Donetsk and only 12 miles from the Russian border. Yet the conflict that has been raging in this region for the last year has come close to Amvrosievka only once, on June 15, 2014. Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russia rebels continue to blame each other as to who was responsible for the shelling that night.

Since then, most locals here have only found out about the world through Russian TV. But they have also seen military vehicles travel through on their way to the frontlines — vehicles they believe come from Russia.

VICE News traveled to Amvrosievka to meet children in a patriotic youth club that we first encountered on a Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) anniversary parade earlier this year, where they were marching, dressed in paratrooper uniforms, and waving a large DPR flag.

They have been trained in fighting with knives, hand-to-hand combat, and how to operate guns at the local school in Amvrosievka for the last five years. And they invited us as to see them participate in a regional competition called "Future Warrior."

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The idea of these subjects on a school curriculum might seem strange to Westerners, but in Ukraine and Russia it is just heritage from a former reality. During the Soviet Union years, every citizen was supposed to be "prepared" for a nuclear attack and able to protect the motherland if was needed.

Over the past 25 years, the patriotic lessons have slowly disappeared, but it seems like the conflict in eastern Ukraine has given them a new lease of life.

Many things have changed since Amvrosievka became a part of the self-proclaimed DPR last year, the school principal told VICE News. "We always felt more Russian, it only makes things easier now," she said, smiling to me, knowing that I'm Russian.

I asked about education in the Ukrainian language, but she turned away and said that none of the parents wanted their children to study in Ukrainian. "We've also done away with Ukrainian geography lessons, and teach instead the geography of Donbass," she said. Is that limited to the current DNR-controlled territory, I asked. She smiled: "It is our real borders, the whole region as it used to be!"

Related: Beauty Amid the Chaos: The Donetsk Opera Offers Relief to a City in the Grip of War

Oleg Alexandrovich, the youth club trainer and a Soviet army veteran who served in Afghanistan, met VICE News in front of the school. Oleg founded the club in Amvrosievka with his wife Nataliya five years ago — when the motherland was still Ukraine.

"Of course our main goal is to instill an idea of patriotism in our children, because it is necessary for the young generation," said Nataliya, who used to be a history teacher. "The young generation must be brought up using heroic examples. Every human story is a great example! Around 150 people have been through our club in five years, [and] many of them became soldiers," she added with pride.

A song was played at the club. "What is a Soviet paratrooper? A Soviet paratrooper is power, beauty, and honor!" it went. The children showed off their military prowess as Nataliya continued, displaying a colorful book full of pictures of soldiers holding babies, hugging their wives, and receiving flowers from the happy people around them. I asked if there is a danger of romanticizing war, especially now, when the streets of Donbass are full of soldiers and guns.

She seemed confused. "We needed patriotism always. Not only now. Love for your motherland always existed and always will exist. It is a holy thing we are doing!"

And yet, I questioned, the children were previously taught be patriotic to Ukraine. "Oh yes…" said Nataliya, with disappointment. After a thoughtful pause, she continued: "Some of the children who we used to teach are now serving the army of Russian Federation. We are proud of our former pupils. Their military careers make us feel we do not live for nothing, we have a continuing generation."

Before we left Amvrosievka, Nataliya showed us a video she and Oleg made with the children. In some of the footage they are all standing with flowers near a local Holodomor monument, dedicated to the man-made famine of the Ukrainian nation in 1932-33, which Russia has never fully accepted. I asked Nataliya how she would explain the probable disappearance of the Holodomor from future history books.

"Russian text books have a little bit about it," Nataliya replied. "I know not everything is great, but we are moving in the right direction," she said, before changing the subject.

Related: On The Line: Simon Ostrovsky Discusses the Latest From Russia and Ukraine

Tagged:
Europe
VICE News
russia
Vladimir Putin
DPR
donetsk people’s republic
war and conflict
Donbass
amvrosievka
nataliya alexandrovich
oleg alexandrovich