Students in the United States are known to bring their own guns to school. But starting next year in Russia, the government will be providing schoolchildren with assault rifles and grenades.
Under a recent decree by President Vladimir Putin, Russian schoolboys age 15 and up will be given mandatory military training classes, to better prepare them for eventual service in the armed forces.
Though schoolgirls won’t be expected to learn the ins and outs of automatic weapons, they will be required to learn basic medical techniques for helping wounded soldiers in battle.
In February, while campaigning for a tougher Russian military, Putin addressed students Russia-wide on national television, reminding them that Russia has always had a citizen-based army and that “it was people rather than the army who fought.”
“A man should know what the armed forces are, that’s a must,” he said. Apparently, that includes boys and girls.
Classes have not yet begun, as schools are still waiting for their shipments of weapons and other necessary supplies. But the Education Ministry says at the latest, everything will be ready for the new school year starting Sept. 1.
It’s not a new concept in Russia. Rather, it’s a revival of Soviet-style military training that was abolished in 1991. And though most Russians over age 25 learned in secondary school how to get the most out of a Kalashnikov and a box of grenades, today many parents and teachers are arguing that it is perhaps something their children shouldn’t be spending their time doing — especially by decree. Education professionals, meanwhile, fear the programs will drain resources from Russia’s already-strapped schools.
Nonna Chernyakova holds the rank of lieutenant in the Russian reserves. She can strip a Kalashnikov and reassemble it in a matter of minutes — handy skills she learned back in her school days. At the age of 14, in the far eastern city of Vladivostok, Chernyakova said she learned to field-strip and assemble Kalashnikovs, throw grenades, write propaganda leaflets and even interrogate captives.
Students would cheat on their military exams by drawing schemes of an American motorized infantry division on their legs from the knees upward, where their skirts covered the pen marks, she recalled. “Our thighs contained information about Russian weaponry that would have been a Godsend for any American spy,” she said.
But today, Chernyakova is the mother of a 13-year-old boy, and she doesn’t want him to spend his school years learning to kill so that he can later be sent off to someplace like embattled Chechnya.
Chernyakova is not happy that her son is gleefully anticipating the start of the classes in Vladivostok. “He envied me that I had a chance to shoot a rifle or dismantle a Kalashnikov,” she said. “He doesn’t understand that it is not a game people play for fun. Anything military has ultimate goal to kill people.”
Still, for some parents, the rejuvenation of military training in Russian schools is no cause for alarm.
Olga Losceva, 30, is not at all worried that her seven-year-old daughter may end up expertly firing a Kalashnikov at her Moscow school’s target range.
“I went through the classes myself,” Losceva said. “They were fun and not nearly as serious as most of our other classes. I had a blast learning to dismantle and shoot a Kalashnikov and it never led to anything bad. I don’t see any reason for my daughter to need to master a Kalashnikov, but I’m not afraid of it happening.”
“If anything, the classes are potentially a waste of time and the children just enjoy them because it means they’re not sitting in a boring classroom, listening to a boring teacher,” Losceva added.
In St. Petersburg, classes on what to do in case of an explosion or gas leak had been put on hold, but are now being revived for younger children in preparation for the real military training classes.
Anna Badkhen, a Moscow-based journalist whose 11-year-old sister is now getting a preview of the military training classes to come in St. Petersburg, said her younger sister, Sonya, has so far enjoyed these classes. She and her friends had “fun” putting on the white respirator masks and pretending their lives were in danger, said Badkhen. Sonya’s mother, Marina Badkhen, however, was less convinced. “On the one hand, I believe the children need to have certain knowledge about … how to act in an extreme situation,” Badkhen, 47, said. “On the other hand, the idea of the class turns my stomach, since it reminds me of the old times … of the militarization of the society.”
Some teachers are up in arms about the decree as well.
Pavel Mikov, a history teacher and an activist of the local Memorial human rights group in the Urals town of Perm, told The Moscow Times that mandatory military training tramples the constitutional rights of children who might be morally opposed to military service and war.
“The subject is designed for brainwashing,” he said. “It violates the most profound civil right — freedom of beliefs.”
According to the decree, which came from directly from the Defense Ministry and did not involve the Education Ministry, state schools are required to provide at least two to three hours of military training per week.
The Education Ministry has no objections to the decision according to its spokesman, who said it was “neither good, nor bad.” Moscow city education officials, however, are protesting the decree not on ideological grounds, but on economic ones.
Officials at the Moscow Education Committee, which oversees the city’s schools, say that the costs of rifles, gas masks and special classrooms for military training will take a hefty bite out of the already-meager education budget.
Russia’s schools are drowning in financial problems. Buildings are dilapitated, mildew pervades classrooms, computers are few, and many schools cannot even afford to offer their children lunch, or even cafeteria facilities for paid lunches. In Russia’s remote areas, like Siberia, classrooms often do not even have heat. Spending what little budget money there is on gas masks, Kalashnikovs and grenades would cripple these schools.
Even Russia’s estimated 650,000 orphans and 400,000 homeless children are not exempt from the decree.
For years, military units have been effectively “adopting” orphans and homeless children. Last February that practice was legalized by the government.
Under the new rules, Defense Ministry units and other security agencies can now take in boys as young as 14. The boys can stay as long as they want until they become adults.
Unit commanders are required to see that the boys are fed, issued uniforms and put through high school, which is compulsory in Russia. The boys are not obliged to perform military service.
The Ministry refused to estimate how many orphans are now in uniform, but Education Ministry officials estimated that thousands of boys will now find shelter in military units over the next few years.
So it is children who will raise up Russia’s military under Putin — the orphans trade in a life of starvation and loneliness for a nice new uniform, a place to sleep and promises of military glory. The schoolchildren strap on their gas masks and happily toss grenades to get out of math class — too young to know what they are preparing themselves for.