Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Soviet Salute? Russian Schools Quick March towards More Military Training

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Soviet Salute? Russian Schools Quick March towards More Military Training

Article excerpt

They're regular Russian teenage students - nudging, giggling, and peering into smartphones while also glancing anxiously at the uniformed military veterans waiting to judge them from a nearby podium. Then, at a command from the drill sergeant - a fellow classmate - they form up, count off, and briskly march away in precision ranks, singing Soviet marching songs. You can almost picture the school's spartan sports hall as Red Square.

Military-style marching contests, once a regular part of the national curriculum in Soviet times, are re-emerging in Russian schools like here at Moscow's School No. 1465. For the first time last month, the school hosted a competition with about 10 student troops dressed in quasi-military uniforms vying for prizes handed out by the smiling war veterans.

Though it all appeared to be good-natured, the competition is part of a controversial effort to revive Soviet-era universal cadet training in Russian school. The move is strongly supported by the Russian Orthodox Church, which is returning to a highly visible and central role in Russia after decades of decline.

As this revival gains ground across the country, proponents, like school director Artur Lutsishin, argue that Russian society needs to heal its rift with the Army following the breakdown of the Soviet Union. The goal is not to prepare kids for war, he insists, but to foster a healthy bond between Russia's population and its troops and to restore the erstwhile prestige of a military career.

"We're not trying to make soldiers of these children, just good citizens who love their country," Mr. Lutsishin says. "For the past 15 years or so we have gradually been recovering our understanding that we live in a great country. Not the country that lost the cold war, but one that's equal to the others. It's only good that our state is paying closer attention to patriotic education."

Military-patriotic educationThat thought is seconded by one of the event's judges, retired Captain Alexander Kosev, who served many years in the Soviet Navy. He says he's proud to see, in his old age, the Russian military confounding the West with its adept performances in Crimea and Syria. And he's delighted to judge his first marching contest.

"This helps prepare children for life," he says. "It's physical training, it makes them fit, confident and ready."

Critics argue that the emotional touchstone driving the cadet movement is nostalgia for the USSR that has come as a result of tensions with the West and economic woes at home. But this yearning for the past is not necessarily a good thing, says Alexander Golts, an independent military expert.

"The USSR was a particular kind of country, in which the idea of patriotism was deeply connected with military training. You couldn't be a patriot if you didn't know how to shoot a Kalashnikov," he says. "In the Putin era, we are seeing a full revival of this kind of military-patriotic education."

"The aim here is to make it universal, for everyone," he adds.

Life of a Russian soldierCapt. Kosev and others say the Russian military went through a terrible ordeal following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and that its tribulations mirrored the implosion of society and a loss of national pride.

The defeat of the once vaunted Soviet military by US-backed mujahideen warriors in Afghanistan was the first of many blows in the 1980s and 90s that accelerated loss of faith in the faltering Soviet state and the subsequent new Russian Army. Worse, the new Army was dragged into the political squabbles of the Soviet twilight, participating in a failed hard-line attempt to seize power in 1991, and then bombarding the mutinous Russian parliament on behalf of then-President Boris Yeltsin in 1993. …

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