New wave: What is life like for teenage cadets at Russia's Soviet-era naval academy?

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The award-winning photographer Nelli Palomaki was granted exclusive access to the academy.

Early every morning, shy 14-year-old orphan Sergey joins his fellow fresh-faced cadets as they file out from their dormitories and march in unison to the main building at St Petersburg's Nakhimov Naval School, where they await the commanders who will lead them through another long day of induction and training.

Named after the 19th-century admiral Pavel Nakhimov, the establishment is the last remaining of three schools set up in 1944 for children of Red Army officers killed in the Second World War. Now home to several hundred students aged between 13 and 18, the academy exists to prepare its youngsters for a life of service.

It is to this fiercely disciplined martial world that the Finnish photographer Nelli Palomaki gained access last year and this, befriending and taking portraits of a class of cadets as they went about their daily tasks over the course of 18 months.

Strikingly, the portraits reveal an institution still firmly set in the traditions of a Soviet empire that once controlled territory from Budapest to Vladivostok – but which formally ceased to exist more than 20 years ago. Indeed, what is remarkable about the series is how it portrays a world almost identical to that captured by Life magazine in a shoot of Nakhimov cadets in 1944. "Time stops when you come here," reflects Palomaki.

At breakfast in the canteen – itself designed to resemble a ship's mess hall – the boys tuck into a hearty portion of belyash, the traditional greasy Russian meat pie, bulked out with potato and cabbage, still served by the kitchen here.

The working day begins next, with English lessons. While the classrooms have been updated recently, many elements of the lessons and naval training haven't changed for more than half a century. "They do all the same things that cadets did in the 1940s and 1950s," says Palomaki.

After English, physical training takes up much of the day, with exercises in the gym, long runs along the banks of the Neva River, or swimming in the cadets' pool.

Following an early-evening dinner, grizzled old commanders instruct the boys in many of the same skills that were taught back when the academy was first set up: knot-tying, semaphore, compass use. "Lots of the teachers are from the Soviet period, and lectures are given by old navy commanders," says Palomaki. "Most don't want to change the teaching methods they've used for so many years."

And hand in hand with old-fashioned values come old-fashioned attitudes to discipline. Did Palomaki worry that the school might be overly robust for its young charges? "Initially I couldn't stop thinking about child soldiers," she recalls, "and how kids being in a military school could only be a bad thing." k

But while the academy has had its share of allegations of violence and bullying – most recently with the convening of several inquiries in 2003 to investigate alleged abuse of cadets – what the photographer saw was more complex: "I did see plenty of shouting at cadets by the commanders, and sometimes it was so loud, I'd think, 'Oh my god, this is too much.' But I was talking to one of the teachers and, while they knew they had a bad reputation, they were trying to turn it around and clean up their act."

However, she adds, "Some of the boys were just too small and sensitive to be there" – not least, in her opinion, Sergey. "He was so quiet, and slower to learn than the rest, so the other boys often bullied him."

Yet Palomaki reports that in other areas, notions of respect are held high. For one, the boys clearly wear their uniforms proudly: "We're military men," Sergey would regularly boast to the photographer. And the manners of all the boys towards her were impeccable, even the youngest holding doors open whenever she passed by.

At the end of a packed day, the cadets troop back to the accommodation block, where it's an opportunity to catch up on homework and a little downtime. "This is the place where they live, and as it's their home, they're more relaxed, shouting, running – and bullying each other more freely," says Palomaki. "Bedtime," she adds, "is around 10pm." The dormitories – large, grey-walled rooms, closely packed with beds – take 20 cadets, who each have a bedside table to store their uniform and a tuck box for other supplies. "Everything was so neat; there's nothing extraneous in there but extra pairs of shoes, uniforms and towels."

It may sound an austere existence, but anyone thinking that the young men's identity has been quashed by the uniformity should think again. "If anything, I think it builds a stronger character, as they don't have their own clothes to hide behind," says Palomaki.

Although many of the boys will go on to join the navy, they all have other hopes and dreams. Some want to be artists or musicians, and when one cadet was asked what he'd do with $1m, the answer came back quickly and mischievously: "I want to buy a cool car and move to Miami." Maybe not everything here is so Soviet-era after all…

Nelli Palomaki's exhibition, Sons of Nakhimov, is at the Wapping Project Bankside, London SE1, until 21 December (nellipalomaki.com)

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