“Childhood has its own way of seeing, thinking, and feeling, and nothing is more foolish than to try to substitute ours for theirs.”
–Jean Jacques Rousseau
We see childhood as the moment in our lives when our thoughts and actions are at their purest, since we have yet to be corrupted by the world and adult thoughts. This image of playgrounds, family, and discovering through life is disrupted by seeing a young boy carrying a gun like he would do with any other toy.
Rousseau’s words have no place in contemporary Russia, where the culture of arms has taken over the innocence of youth. The confrontation with NATO forces, the current situation in East Ukraine, and the bombings in Syria have led Vladimir Putin to intensify military education to the country’s children, this under the guise of preventative methods in case of future attacks.
The Ministry of Defense has resurrected what was once a Soviet institution known as Yunarmia, otherwise known as the young army, comprised of youths recruited from different clubs and military organizations. On May 22, 2016 the first members were presented. These battalions of children and teens between the ages of 10 and 18 were to receive their first lessons in weapons management and parachute jump. The ceremony included the 104 young soldiers swearing an oath to the Russian flag.
This occurrence led photographer Sarah Blesener to explore the heart of this initiative through a documentary project that captures the life of these children living in these military indoctrination camps. In an interview with Lens Culture, Blesener explains, “My project, Toy Soldiers, explores the subject of intergenerational war for adolescents in Russia. It focuses on non-governmental organizations —such as military-patriotic clubs, military sports associations, and the patriotic clubs formed under the umbrella of the Russian Orthodox Church.”
What will the world be like in a few years, when those children become adults whose actions are guided by extreme nationalism? According to the artist, “I believe that in order to find answers to these questions, the best place to look is at the generation that will be defining the future ideologies of the world we live in.”
Is it appropriate for a child to be instructed in the use of weapons simply to maintain the ideals of a nation’s military structure? By placing political needs before a life-in-progress, they turn the process of growing up into a power-hungry war machine. It turns reality into the plot of a science fiction movie, yet instead of fantasy, this is a real situation that should alert us to how the minds of future generations are being shaped.
In the recent history of Russia there are plenty of bizarre occurrences that blend fiction with reality. One is the story of the family who fled to Siberia and remained in complete isolation for forty years. The other is the story of the beauty pageant that helped the Soviet Union transition into capitalism.
Translated by María Suárez