On a Thursday afternoon, six teenage boys gathered in an abandoned warehouse in the town of Diveevo, Russia and the drills began. The group, called “The Survivalists,” meets weekly to practice tactical skills and defense strategies. Artyom, who at 17 is one of the oldest of the group, was helping Daniel, 11, hide in the corner room with his plastic weapon and prepare for a surprise attack. Their instructor calmly tells me that the group is not looking for war, but is preparing young patriots to be ready for the future.
Over 200,000 Russian youth are currently enrolled in patriotic clubs, 10,000 in Moscow alone. Each club functions independently with their own structures and philosophies. In 2015, the Russian government proposed a program called the “Patriotic Education of Russian Citizens in 2016-2020” which envisions an eight-percent increase in patriotic youth over the next ten years, and a ten-percent increase in new recruits for the Russian armed forces.
In Russia, as in many places, there is a thin line between devotion to place and the feeling of superiority or aggression towards “outsiders” — between patriotism and nationalism. Because youth are easy targets for new ideologies, for the last year I have been focusing my work on clubs, camps, and alternative youth groups that combine patriotic education and gun training with a mix of fun that makes the whole experience seem like a game.
With the nationalist tide rising in both the United States and Russia, my intent is to raise questions about how beliefs and traditions are passed down to younger generations. I want to challenge ideas of patriotism. And I want to examine youth culture and movements beyond politics, tapping into the vital essence of youth: camaraderie, bonding, and how our identities are constructed at a young age.
Nationalistic tendencies and biases are part of the make-up of most of us, whether we like it or not. However, I agree with George Orwell when he states, “whether it is possible to get rid of them I do not know, but I do believe it is possible to struggle against them.”