Deadly charade of Russia's boy soldiers

Children as young as nine are gearing up for war, writes Phil Reeves

Tucked away in a silver birch wood in the Russian countryside, a handful of military veterans are merrily playing soldiers. But their troops are not; they are children, some as young as nine, who are being trained to take part in genuine war.

The children, all boys, study mine-laying, hand-to-hand combat, and karate. Their instructors videotape them as they crawl on their bellies through swamps, wearing steel helmets and carrying replica submachine guns that are heavier than the real thing. Every night boys do sentry duty, armed with rubber batons against intruders in the unlikely event that any outsider should feel inclined to creep past the electric alarm which surrounds the periphery.

They run for miles; they march everywhere. Such are the summer delights of the orphans and others - mostly sons of single mothers - unfortunate enough to be sent to join the Kaskad, a military unit for children, for their annual three- week summer camp at Boyarkino, 120 kilometres southeast of Moscow. One was particularly unlucky: two weeks ago, he died.

The outfit is run by a man who had no war of his own. Capt Gennady Korotayev, 36, was a deputy commander of a unit in the Russian army's political education unit for four years. After failing to persuade the authorities to send him to Chechnya, he has turned to his volunteer work: drilling and marching his children's army. That, and brooding over the terrible decline of the Russian army.

There is a bluff, swaggering air about the captain as he strides around camouflaged tents, wearing light green fatigues opened at the chest, carrying a long hunting knife at his hip. His aides show off a grenade launcher, albeit unoperational. They have a collection of disarmed mines for their mine-laying lessons, rubber knifes for fighting practice and air rifles for shooting.

Capt Korotayev is surprisingly lighthearted. A fortnight ago one of his group died. An announcement on the camp noticeboard shows a black and white photograph, the pudgy child's face of 16-year-old Valery Logvinov. In the pompous language of the pseudo-military, the legend says he was "a serious person, disciplined and hard-working", a "section commander" who "died in service". This refers to a boy who was supposed to be on his summer holidays.

A small bunch of yellow marigolds lies at the foot of the silver birch tree where the accident happened, next to the camp gate. Staff say he was run over by a truck, which the children were trying to push start in thick mud. The story is jumbled, but it is clear there was a break- down of supervision. Afterwards more than half the camp's inmates went home, but a corps of 18 boys stayed on.

The camp is run by a voluntary organisation, ROSTO (Russian Defence Sporting and Technical), a network across Russia that was set up under Stalin to forge a link between youth and military. Until the end of the Soviet Union, civil defence lessons - including drilling with wooden guns - were routine for every school child. It taps into a tradition which goes back to Peter the Great who, as a youth, created armed children's regiments.

The group, the captain boasts, is even tougher than Peter's children. "They just played around in those days," he says. "But we are getting ready for real war." They need no motto or mascot, he says. "We prove everything with deeds."

One such deed took place last summer when the group was dispatched to see if they could target a local electricity generating station. The captain says that they were out for 18 hours, pursued by 120 policemen and 20 security forces. They yomped across a river and over 96km of countryside before they returned. You see his kids are tough: "They are the best of the best."

They don't look that way when they shamble out of their tents and assemble for afternoon parade. They look the weariest of the weary, lean and sullen kids who have nowhere else to go. "Quicker, quicker," mutters the captain irritably, as one youth struggles to do up his boot laces.

Questioning them is not particularly enlightening. While we were there, they never seemed out of the earshot of their adult instructors. They say they are happy enough. What's it like here, we asked a pale and exhausted- looking boy called Kolya? He looked 10, but was 14. The daily regime cannot help. Bawled from their beds at eight with a military command of "Company, Get Up!", the boys line up on parade and are sent off, shirtless, on a three kilometre run. This is followed by a half hour of physical exercises, and - finally - breakfast.

The food, like almost everything else, appears to be army fare. "We had porridge for breakfast and fish soup for lunch," explained a fair-haired 10-year old boy called Alyosha, who was acting as sentry - complete with red armband, peaked hat, and baton - when we arrived. And dinner, we asked? "Oh, porridge," he replied. He was the only cheerful little boy we met.

The captain and his fellow vets come up with several justifications for this charade. It keeps the children off the streets, away from drugs and crime. It teaches them how to defend themselves in a hostile world. The children have fun - they are allowed to hold evening discos with girls from a nearby summer camp.

Their main thrust is that these kids will one day have to serve in the Russian military: better to be prepared than be cannon fodder. News that Boris Yeltsin has announced an end to military conscription by the close of the century does not appear to have reached the captain or his kids.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
The teaser trailer has provoked more questions than answers
filmBut what is Bond's 'secret' that Moneypenny is talking about?
footballDoes Hodgson's England team have an identity yet?
Lewis Hamilton secured his second straight pole of the season
f1Vettel beats Rosberg into third after thunderstorm delays qualifying
travel Dreamland Margate, Britain’s oldest amusement park, is set to reopen
Founders James Brown and Tim Southwell with a mock-up of the first ever ‘Loaded’ magazine in 1994
Threlfall says: 'I am a guardian of the reality keys. I think I drive directors nuts'
voices The group has just unveiled a billion dollar plan to help nurse the British countryside back to health
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: New Lift Sales Executive - Lift and Elevators

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A challenging opportunity for a...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss