They're In The Army Now

The boys asleep in their bunks could be any young teens at summer camp. But this is no vacation spot. At precisely 6:00 a.m., a Russian army officer storms in and barks out a wake-up call. Within minutes the boys have made their beds, pulled on their uniforms and prepared for morning exercises on the military base of the Kineshma Chemical and Radiation Defense Regiment.

The Russian Army--like most militaries around the world--doesn't exactly have a reputation for altruism. Indeed, it's better known for its cannon-fodder mentality, brutal hazing, bloated officers' corps, corruption and lack of resources. But the army has also assumed an unlikely social role: adopting and raising boys whose parents can no longer care for them.

It's a program introduced more from need than desire. In a country still struggling to overcome the profound consequences of the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russia is struggling to provide adequate services for the estimated three million children either orphaned or without proper family care. One solution: turning at least some of them over to the care of the military.

Child soldiers have existed throughout history, but Russia's current program dates back to at least the 18th century, when every military unit had its drummer boy or underage midshipmen. It continued during World War I and World War II, when many abandoned orphans were simply swept up from the side of the road and brought into army ranks. Some helped fight against the Nazis or became miniature intelligence gatherers, while most simply helped out with odd chores. The tradition became known as "syn polka" or "son of the regiment." Russia is hardly fighting a world war right now, of course. But it does have crushing social problems. "With the collapse of the Soviet Union, all of Russia became a social war zone," says Sergey Ptichkin, a Russian journalist who has written extensively about the revival of the army adoption system.

Since the mid-1990s the Kineshma base has been taking in boys as part of an informal agreement with the local mayor's office. In May 2001, the Ministry of Defense issued an order legalizing the "son of the regiment" habit, allowing the army to adopt and financially support up to eight boys per base in all regions of Russia. (There are no similar programs for girls on the street, whose numbers are significantly lower than those of the boys.) The boys are supposed to be at least 14, but this base in Kineshma recently housed a 12-year-old. In order to be adopted by the army, a boy has to have lost at least one parent and be in a family situation that is considered untenable. His relatives must agree to let the army take him, and a child cannot be brought in against his will.

The boys spend their days at school like any child, but their mornings, nights and weekends are devoted exclusively to military duties. Eight of the 16 now at the Kineshma base are supported financially by the Defense Ministry, the rest are supported by the local Kineshma administration, a manufacturing and textile region that fell on hard economic times in the mid-1980's. All of the 16 charges know how to use gas masks, shoot and clean a Kalashnikov, and run in foxholes. Even the youngest know the basics of how to drive a car. "This doesn't fall under the army's usual responsibilities," admits Nikolai Reznik, the Defense Ministry's official in charge of all boys adopted by the army.

Inevitably, the program has drawn its share of controversy. Many critics of the newly legalized practice agree that a military base is no place to raise young boys. But with other social services for children overburdened by grave financial difficulties and too many youngsters in need, the army sees itself as having no choice but to step in. The result is a state-sponsored military school for orphans, but one that the army insists in not about training super-soldiers for the future. "It is not our aim that our charges spend the rest of their lives involved with the army," says Reznik. But it is important, he says, that they "become defenders of the Fatherland, instead of filling the ranks of criminals." For that reason, Reznik says they are given special consideration for acceptance into military academies.

This odd military-social experiment has already resulted in more 250 boys receiving official support in army bases across Russia. That figure, however, does not account for the army bases that also accept boys financially supported by local administrations. The real figure of boys that are being raised by the army, even if not funded by them, could be closer to 500. That number is expected to double in the next few years.

Army officers are tasked with making sure the boys make it to school each morning--after they've completed their exercise drills, supervised vitamin popping and tooth brushing. Since there is little money to go around for clothes, the boys usually attend classes in their fatigues.

Do they prefer military life? One "son of the regiment" Sasha Luzin, 15, remembers little of his life before moving into the orphanage system at age five. "My mother came home drunk one night with a man. She locked me in a closet so I wouldn't bother them." Other memories include beatings and even more drinking. He is now at the Kineshma base with his close friend, Yegor Vinogradov, also 15, who lost his mother when he was 5. He and Sasha spent years on the streets. Although technically registered at an "internat"--or orphanage--both would drink and smoke, and make ends meet by sneaking into factories at night to steal and then re-sell light metals like aluminum. "An American wanted to adopt me. But I wanted to stay here in Russia, I don't know anyone in America," says Luzin defiantly.

Taking in a few hundred boys to be raised by the army won't solve Russia's social problems. But the "son of the regiment" practice is a small-scale solution that is already showing signs of success. Of the six graduates at the Kineshma base last spring, four have entered prestigious military academies and two are studying chemistry.

And between latrine duty and morning drills, there's certainly plenty of discipline. Some of the younger boys can find it tough--especially in the beginning. Artyem Yemelianov, who was 13 when he arrived at the base last year, never knew his father. His mother is sick, he says, pointing to his head to indicate that she is mentally ill. "I drank, I stole, I smoked. I liked my life," explains Yemelianov, the youngest of the charges in Kineshma. The army life is proving rough for him. He still likes to color pictures, a habit that alienates him from the older boys. Patched onto his camouflage uniform is a marker showing his blood type. His hands are blistered from morning exercises; his smooth freckled cheeks are still those of a child. "Pokemon, that's what he likes," says barracks mother Gylnara Ziangirova, a newly-qualified psychologist who visits the boys each day. "Not Kalashnikovs." Sadly for Yemelianov, though, right now his best option is learning to shoot.