She calls them “Toy Soldiers,” distinguishing them — for now — from the child soldiers who, tragically, have become ubiquitous in African conflicts. The children and teenagers documented by Minnesota native Sarah Blesener are not engaged in combat. Rather, they are members of Russian “patriotic clubs,” engaging in field exercises, learning to use modern weaponry as part of the government’s effort to stir patriotic fervor in Russian youth. Indeed, a program called the “Patriotic Education of Russian Citizens in 2016–2020” is intended to increase new recruits to the Russian army by 10 percent.
Sarah Blesener’s Russian project, presented here, is the first-place winner in the most recent SDN Call for Entries on Documenting What Matters.
Blesener was well prepared for her work documenting the mili-tarization and nationalism of young people in Russia and the former Soviet bloc nations. She majored in linguistics and youth development at the University of University of North Central in Minneapolis, MN and after graduation she studied Russian at the Bookvar Russian Academy in Minneapolis. She began doing documentary work while in college, traveling to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake to photograph the work of the NGO Healing Haiti. Blesener is a graduate of the Visual Journalism and Documentary Practice program at the International Center of Photography in New York and is represented by Anastasia Gallery, also in New York.
By promoting a revival of Soviet-style military patriotic education, the Russian authorities have also implicitly validated a vigilantism movement that combines radical nationalist groups.
—Marlene Laruelle, Co-director of PONARS-Eurasia
In many countries across the world, the refugee crisis, the influx of asylum seekers, and illegal immigrants from other countries have nourished nationalist sentiments. Though these developments didn’t affect Russia directly, they had one visible impact: a re-emergence of nationalism and patriotic fervor.
As is the case in other affected countries, nationalist sentiments are not new to Russia. Yet, nationalism in the country is of a complex nature. To understand it better, one has to dig deeper into Russia’s history, keeping in mind the complex diversity of a country with over 185 ethnic groups. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 has been marked by a feeling of humiliation and the search of many Russians for a national identity. While Russia has become ethnically more homogeneous, it also experienced a serious demographic crisis. Leonard Zeskind, president of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights and author of Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream wrote in an article published in The Huffington Post “The end of the Soviet Union occasioned a period of dire — famine-like in some instances — economic circumstances. Society was in crisis and the birthrate declined sharply and suicides were up. As the Baltic states, Ukraine, and Georgia and others peeled off one by one, ultra-nationalist organizations promoted their own plans for restoring the “greatness” of the past. Racism against people from the Caucuses countries and regions became overt and commonplace. Once again, anti-Semitism emerged, as conspiracy theories about Jews supplemented the standard anti-Zionist rhetoric of the Soviet era.”
Two types of Russian nationalism
Against the backdrop that Russia has dwelled upon its national identity for decades, with questions like “Who are we?” posing up in the people’s minds, it is important to note that there are two different types of Russian nationalism: The first type (Rossiiskii) is a non-ethnic nation model and defines “Russian” very broadly. It includes significant cultural and political rights to non-Russians, but held together with a high degree of common values and traditions. The reintegration of the territory of the former Soviet states is the key theme of these nationalists. The second type of nationalism is understood as “ethnic Russian” (Russkii), a much more exclusive and even racist ethnic Russian nationalism with the overall goal to prevent immigration from unwanted groups.
Putin’s military-patriotic education
A rise of nationalism and patriotic enthusiasm in Russia emerged with the Ukrainian revolution and the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Furthermore, according to a survey by the independent polling institute Levada Center, the levels of respect and confidence Russians feel towards their armed forces rose and in turn fueled the popularity of so-called military youth camps. As follow-up, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and his government made a military-patriotic education curriculum the norm across the country for adolescents, offering a range of training from military tactics to maintaining assault rifles, provided by the revived Soviet-era organization Yunarmia (Young Army) that was re-established in 2015 by the Russian Defense Ministry.
Another anchor point of Putin’s military-patriotic education curriculum is a program by the Russian Ministry of Education with the title “Patriotic Education of Russian Citizens in 2016–2020”. The initiative aims to encourage young citizens to feel a responsibility for their country, prepare them to defend the motherland, and promote religious values. So far, hundreds of government-funded, often Orthodox Church-sponsored patriotic clubs, with names like Bright Rus, Patriot or Motherland, teach over 200,000 youth across Russia to handle weapons to defend the homeland.
Three other earlier “Patriotic Education of Russian Citizens” programs were also created, in 2011–2015, 2006–2010 and 2001–2005. The first program “included various militarized activities (events in military-patriotic clubs, military sports programs, and events commemorating the heroic deeds of Soviet soldiers in World War II), the dissemination of propaganda in the mass media, the publication of patriotic literature, encouragement of relevant pedagogical research, and, above all, efforts to “actively counteract any distortion or falsification of national history,” according to Sergei Golunov, professor at the Center for Asia-Pacific Future Studies at Kyushu University.
Marlene Laruelle, co-director of PONARS-Eurasia and research professor at the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies (IERES) at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, underlined that “by promoting a revival of Soviet-style military patriotic education, the Russian authorities have also implicitly validated a vigilantism movement that combines radical nationalist groups that train youth for warfare, mixed martial arts clubs, and Orthodox street patrols.”
An international problem
It is a thin line between “pride in one’s home country” brand of patriotism to an extreme sentiment of “we are better than any other country” nationalism. With his “America First” campaign, the elevation of self-proclaimed white nationalist Steve Bannon to his chief strategist, and his praise for Vladimir Putin, U.S. President Donald Trump pulled at the heartstrings of many right-wing nationalists. Within Europe, the refugee crisis, fear of financial instability, and a growing disillusionment with the European Union has fueled the rise of far right parties including Germany’s Alternative For Germany, France’s National Front, the Dutch Party for Freedom, Greece’s Golden Dawn, Jobbik in Hungary, the Sweden Democrats, Austria’s Freedom Party, Slovakia’s People’s Party-Our Slovakia, and The Danish People’s Party to just name a few of the most prominent. These parties promote extreme platforms of right-wing political values and policies touting anti-immigration and anti-European Union positions.
Certainly nationalism unites, but it unites people against other people. The challenge moving forward for countries dealing with nationalist sentiments is to find a way of life inclusive of all the identities within their borders.
For more information
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)
Levada Analytical Center (Levada-Center)
Furkan Temir is a self-taught Turkish photographer, born in a small town in eastern Turkey in 1995. He is currently living in Istanbul and is a member of the VII Mentorship Program. Interested in photojournalism as well as art, he uses mixed media to create documentary work on the Middle East, particularly focusing on socio-political changes in contemporary Turkey.
Caterina Clerici: How did you become a photographer?
Furkan Temir: I was born in a really small town in eastern Turkey. When I was 7, I went to the cinema in the city center, and for the first time in my life, I saw the cinema screen. That’s when I decided I wanted to make movies. My mother was a literature teacher and she told me if I wanted to make movies, I had to read a lot. So I became really obsessed. When I was 14, I was reading Tarkovsky’s cinema theory and he was always talking about the frame. I understood that if I wanted to make movies I had to learn photography as well, but I was so young and didn’t have a camera. So I started looking at photos on the internet — three or four hours a day. I became obsessed and almost watched everything in the archives of the agencies.
CC: What drew you to photography?
FT: I understood that photography can give me a chance to understand the world and to travel, it can connect with reality. When I started getting into photography, art photos or artistic pictures were a bit too far away from me, I was really young, so I decided I wanted to go into photojournalism.
CC: What was your first photojournalism project?
FT: We moved to Boursa [in Turkey] and I started to document my little city and the things happening there. Then, the Gezi Park protest happened and that was the first time I worked as a professional photographer. I was working for a Turkish photo collective, Agence Le Journal, and my photos were published in TIME, The Guardian and Stern. After the Gezi Park protest, I went to Syria in 2013 for the first time. The war was just starting at that time. I was 17, and I was 18 the first time I went to Iraq. I have made several trips to Syria and Iraq since then.
CC: What made you want to cover the events in Syria? I read in an interview you did with the New York Times’ Lens Blog that one day you told your family you were going to school and instead you went to Syria.
FT: My aim was documenting the refugees on the border, how they arrived, what they were doing. Then I met with a few guys who knew some smugglers and asked me if I wanted to go to Syria. I said yes and I went.
CC: What about the first time you went to Iraq?
FT: In Iraq, my aim was going to Kirkuk. At this point, there was a fight between the Kurdish Peshmerga and ISIS, and I had a small assignment from Le Monde. I was going to the frontline.
CC: Is it harder for you to be objective and detached when working on the frontline or with refugees from a conflict that affects you a lot more than it does to any Western photographer, who doesn’t necessarily relate in the same way to the grievances and the politics of the region?
FT: It isn’t really hard. With the Peshmerga, for instance, I was spending all my time with them because I didn’t have assignments or money, and because the only way to take these pictures was living with them. I am not sure if I was objective or not, but I’m sure I was inside the story, and I tried to protect the photojournalism ethics of course.
CC: Was it harder to document the suffering of people who were really close to your home?
FT: Absolutely. Syria and Turkey share a border which is drawn by the governments. I don’t see this border. For me, Iraq and Syria are close to my home.
CC: What were the most interesting stories or people you met there?
FT: On the Syrian border, I saw a funeral, the only one I had seen after my grandfather’s. It was a really strange thing because I was crying for other people that I didn’t know, but I felt their pain. And I feel like it was a really similar pain to my grandfather’s funeral. This was a bit hard. It became impossible to stop crying as I was shooting because it was too intense and these people were also giving me access to shoot some photos [in a moment of grief].
CC: Have you kept in touch with some of these people?
FT: Not in Syria or Iraq, but I did with some of them in Turkey by chance. In 2015, I was in the Newroz celebration. It’s the biggest spring celebration for Kurds and it also has a political meaning. At this moment in Cizre, the Newroz celebration was so big. One year after, when I went back to document this celebration again after the war between PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) and the Turkish army, and reconnected with a few civilians I had met there the year before. This time, half of the city was totally destroyed.
CC: Why are you so interested in covering the Middle East and the area where you’re from?
FT: I’m more connected to this region because I was born here and I grew up here. I’m still so young; I would like to understand my region first, and then in the next couple of years, I would like to travel out of the Middle East as well.
CC: You started off being interested in cinema, so you’ve always been interested in working with mixed media. Has your idea/vision of photojournalism changed, and are you shifting more towards artistic photography?
FT: I see myself as a storyteller and I’m trying to use all the techniques that I find to express myself. At this period of my life I am painting a lot, and my current documentary project, which I started a year ago, includes more artistic photography and video. It’s about the idea of Turkish Paradise and the post-truth era in Turkey — how a new vision of the country and its society is being pushed forward. I’m using the term ‘post-truth’ for its political value, but the project is about aesthetics and architecture. After the AKP (Justice and Development Party) party won the election in 2003, they tried to shape Turkey politically but also breaking from the past to create an ideal society with a new architecture and aesthetics. My project focuses on these changes all around Turkey. They renovated everything and built things anew. I’m trying to understand the story behind it and how these aesthetic changes affect people’s lives.
CC: Is this a way to literally fabricate, and impose, a new vision of society?
FT: Actually, I don’t know. My aim was to give answers, but I have even more questions now. It’s a very contemporary journalism project — it’s mixed media with archives, some new media works from Google Earth, some archival pictures, some black and white and some colors. It’s really mixed. I’m just putting everything on the table with a lot more questions.
CC: Do you think that photojournalism has lost its power, since people are so used to seeing those types of images, and that maybe art can sometimes convey a stronger message?
FT: I do, but I also strongly believe in ethical journalism and I love it as a way to tell stories. I’m mixing [media] because I’m born in this new age, with these new rules, and I wouldn’t know another way of approaching this profession. I was born in 1995 and I’ve grown up with computers, so I have to use VR and mix new technologies to tell more powerful stories. But it doesn’t take away from classical photojournalism. These are just tools.
CC: After spending a few years working in photography, do you still think it holds the power to change things?
FT: I strongly believe that photography can change things. First of all, it’s an action. Every act in the universe has some sort of consequence. It’s impossible not to change at least something. Maybe it can be hard to see with our eyes, but look at history. Maybe it’s not changing today, but I’m sure someone will be affected in the future. When you see the front page of The New York Times, like millions and millions of other people every day, maybe just one person looking at that picture and feeling something will bring change.
N.B. This interview was edited for clarity.
ZEKE is published by Social Documentary Network (SDN), an organization promoting visual storytelling about global themes. Started as a website in 2008, today SDN works with more than 1,500 photographers from around around the world to tell important stories through the visual medium of photography and multimedia. Since 2008, SDN has featured more than 2,000 exhibits on its website and has had gallery exhibitions in major cities around the world. All the work featured in ZEKE first appeared on the SDN website, www.socialdocumentary.net.
Spring 2017 Vol. 3/No. 1
Executive Editor: Glenn Ruga
Editor: Barbara Ayotte
Interns: Kelly Kollias, Laney Ruckstuhl
Social Documentary Network Advisory Committee
Barbara Ayotte, Medford, MA
Senior Director of Strategic Communications
Management Sciences for Health
Lori Grinker, New York, NY
Independent Photographer and Educator
Steve Horn, Lopez Island, WA
Ed Kashi, Montclair, NJ
Member of VII photo agency
Photographer, Filmmaker, Educator
Reza, Paris, France
Photographer and Humanist
Jeffrey D. Smith, New York NY
Contact Press Images
Molly Roberts, Washington, DC
Senior Photography Editor
Steve Walker, New York, NY
Consultant and educator
Frank Ward, Williamsburg, MA
Photographer and Educator
ZEKE is published twice a year by Social Documentary Network
Copyright © 2017
Social Documentary Network
Print ISSN 2381-1390
Digital ISSN: Forthcoming
ZEKE does not accept unsolicited submissions. To be considered for publication in ZEKE, submit your work to the SDN website either as a standard exhibit or a submission to a Call for Entries. Contributing photographers can choose to pay a fee for their work to be exhibited on SDN for a year or they can choose a free trial. Free trials have the same opportunity to be published in ZEKE as paid exhibits.
Photographers and writers featured in this issue of ZEKE
Anna Akage-Kyslytska, Ukraine
Azad Amin, Iran
Sarah Blesener, United States
Emma Brown, United States
Caterina Clerici, United States and Italy
B.D. Colen, Canada
Nikki Denholm, New Zealand
Ariz Ghaderi, Iran
Saeed Kiaee, Iran
Kelly Kollias, United States
Mehdi Nazeri, Iran
Paolo Patruno, Italy
Laney Ruckstuhl, United States
Anne Sahler, Germany and Japan
Sadegh Souri, Iran
Frank Ward, United States
Cover photo by Mehdi Nazeri from Poverty in Wealth. Bandar Abbas, Iran.