Source: The Sunday Times

September 3, 2000 RUSSIA

Russian children to train for war

Mark Franchetti, Moscow

RUSSIAN schoolchildren are to be sent to summer military boot camps to learn how to dig trenches and fire Kalashnikov rifles. The move is part of President Vladimir Putin's campaign to restore a sense of national pride to the country's beleaguered armed forces.

Basic military training was back on the curriculum for the first time since the Soviet era as pupils began returning from their summer holidays last week.

Alongside traditional subjects such as history and maths, they will be obliged to attend marching lessons and special courses on how to react to crises such as impending nuclear attack, terrorist bombs or hostage-taking. There will be special drills with gas masks.

The climax will come at the end of each summer term when all boys over the age of 15 will be made to spend a week at a military training camp, where retired army officers will teach them how to assemble and fire Kalashnikovs. They will also use mortars, practise various fighting techniques and dig trenches. Girls will be taught first aid.

Alla Timokhovskaya, the deputy director of Moscow's school number 620, said the classes in "military-patriotic education" would turn pupils into better citizens.

"We will take our kids on excursions to military bases and tank museums," she said. "They will receive lessons in patriotism, will study at even greater length the history of the second world war, and will meet veterans."

The Kremlin hopes the classes will help improve the poor standing of the Russian army, which has been plagued by corruption, desertion and underfunding since the collapse of communism and the break-up of the Soviet Union.

The move comes as Putin, a Soviet-era spy and former director of the FSB - the successor organisation to the KGB - prepares to increase military spending in an effort to restore national pride in Russia's crippled armed forces. They have been shaken by the Kursk disaster and setbacks in the war against separatists in Chechnya.

Compulsory military training and classes in patriotism were a staple diet in Soviet schools, where children were taught to fear the West and prepare to fend off a Nato invasion. The practice was abolished in 1991 by Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet president, as he dismantled the old communist system.

His successor, Boris Yeltsin, signed a decree in 1998 reintroducing the measures, but little effort was made to implement it. Putin,
however, has long been a supporter of the scheme and drew up detailed guidelines on its implementation on December 31 last year - the day Yeltsin resigned and Putin was promoted from prime minister to replace him.

While most European countries have abolished conscription, in Russia all men above 18 are expected to serve a full two years. Thousands of young conscripts have died in wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya.

Critics have seized on Putin's plans as reinforcing their view of the president as a man of authoritarian leanings who regards most issues through the needs of national security.

"Such initiatives to make children run around like soldiers and play with weapons are a full return to a Soviet military state," warned
Valeria Novodvorskaya, a human rights campaigner who has often clashed with the authorities.

"But since it's coming from Putin this does not surprise me. What else can we expect from a leader with a KGB mentality? Unless people protest and mothers refuse to send their kids to training camps, there is no doubt that our society will become more militaristic."

Some have also questioned the need for compulsory training, given that there are special army training camps where parents can send their children during summer breaks if they wish.

At Cascade, a summer boot camp close to Moscow, young Russians already undergo training that differs little from that for special
forces serving in Chechnya.

Clad in full camouflage uniforms, children as young as nine are put through a gruelling training course. It includes mock clashes and ambushes, and lessons in how to use weapons such as axes, knives and Kalashnikovs. Children are even taught how to handle a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.

Some of the children come from broken families, and the scheme is said to help them out of crime-ridden neighbourhoods and into the army.

"I teach the kids here that you can use almost anything at hand to kill an enemy: a stone, a piece of wood, a comb or even a spoon," said Gennady Karatayev, the commander.

"Our children should not be afraid of the army. It is important to make them understand that it is prestigious to serve in it. "It is not normal that mothers should hide their children from the army when they are called up, while terrorists are bombing our houses."

Additional reporting: Dimitri Beliakov