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)
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.