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

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

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 (

Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

Arts and Entertainment

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
Arts and Entertainment
The audience aimed thousands of Apple’s product units at Taylor Swift throughout the show
musicReview: On stage her manner is natural, her command of space masterful
Arts and Entertainment
Channel 4 is reviving its Chris Evans-hosted Nineties hit TFI Friday

Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade (1989)

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
A Glastonbury reveller hides under an umbrella at the festival last year

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Miles Morales is to replace Peter Parker as the new Spider-Man

Arts and Entertainment
The sequel to 1993's Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has stormed into the global record books to score the highest worldwide opening weekend in history.

Arts and Entertainment
Odi (Will Tudor)
tvReview: Humans, episode 2
Arts and Entertainment
Can't cope with a Port-A-loo? We've got the solution for you

FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets

Arts and Entertainment
Some zookeepers have been braver than others in the #jurassiczoo trend

Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant

Arts and Entertainment
An original Miffy illustration
Arts and Entertainment
Man of mystery: Ian McKellen as an ageing Sherlock Holmes
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Kitchen set: Yvette Fielding, Patricia Potter, Chesney Hawkes, Sarah Harding and Sheree Murphy
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Evans has been confirmed as the new host of Top Gear
Arts and Entertainment
Top of the class: Iggy Azalea and the catchy ‘Fancy’
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

    Making of a killer

    What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
    UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

    Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

    Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
    Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
    Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

    No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

    Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
    Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

    Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

    The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
    Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

    Something wicked?

    Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
    10 best sun creams for body

    10 best sun creams for body

    Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

    Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
    Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

    There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

    The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

    Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
    Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

    One day to find €1.6bn

    Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
    New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

    'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

    Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
    Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

    Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

    The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
    Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

    Historians map out untold LGBT histories

    Public are being asked to help improve the map