High School Students Learning ABCs of War
Clack clack clack. Polished nails run over tiny pins and latches. Suddenly, the deadly Kalashnikov rifle is deadly no more, its stock and barrel and sundry springs strewn across a spotless tablecloth.
"Good, take your seat," the instructor said, and the 15-year-old female student sporting a simple dark uniform sat down, surrounded by her peers.
Training for underage guerrillas? No. Just a recent lesson from the Basics of Military Service class at a run-of-the-mill Moscow high school.
The class is part of the Fundamentals of Safety of Vital Activities program that students -- from first grade through graduation -- are now mandated to attend.
Eliminated in the 1990s in the wake of the Soviet collapse, the basic military training course returned to schools across the country in 2004. The major differences between then and now?
"This course is much less demanding and less ideological," explained Oleg Maslennikov, a teacher at Moscow's School No. 1571 who instructs students in small arms, air warfare and other areas.
As a dozen 10th-graders in Maslennikov's class assumed formation, one of the students bellowed: "Attention!"
Over the course of the following 45 minutes, Maslennikov lectured students on the design of a rifle cartridge and hand grenade and what happens when these weapons are fired or detonated.
Students assembled and disassembled a fake Kalashnikov rifle, discussed what it takes to be a good soldier, and watched a short movie about the Russian Ka-50 Black Shark attack helicopter.
The class also touched on the major challenges facing the Russian armed forces and the possibility of war with neighboring Georgia.
Maslennikov noted what the class did not include that was part of the Soviet curriculum -- for instance, marching drills and timed assembling and disassembling of Kalashnikovs.
Still, critics say the course instills an unhealthy military instinct in teenagers and is a waste of time.
"This course is a part of the state-backed strategy to improve the image of the Russian Army in the eyes of young citizens," said Alexander Shishlov, a senior member of the liberal Yabloko party who headed the State Duma's Committee on Education and Science from 2002 to 2003. "The brainwashing does not solve the problems facing the Russian Army."
The Army's image has taken a beating with reports of brutal hazing and neglect at the hands of senior officers. Anger spiked this year with the torture of private Andrei Sychyov that led to the amputation of his legs and genitals.
Dmitry Badovsky, a researcher at the Institute of Social Systems at Moscow State University, insisted that, the Army's problems notwithstanding, the military basics course is essential to identifying future military personnel and helping them develop fundamental skills.
Just as in Soviet times, all 10th grade boys are required to spend five days in the field as part of their training. At School No. 1571, boys spend this time in the barracks of military units stationed in the Moscow region.
"Boys need to see with their own eyes what the army life is," Maslennikov said. "And they see that many fears of the Army are overblown."
One student, Slava Ustselemov, sporting a fresh crew cut, said the course had strengthened his desire to join the army.
Badovsky acknowledged that for those who have no desire to become professional military officers, the military preparedness course might be little more than a burden.
In Maslennikov's class, there were few complaints.
"I would even add more stuff on how to deliver first aid," student Alexei Chekmarev said.
Maslennikov said the course had provided instructors with a lot of latitude.
Herein lies a real danger, said Alexander Tarasov of the Feniks think tank, who worries army personnel will bring "brutal habits" into the classroom.
He cited the 2003 case of a 16-year-old student in Surgut who died after his instructor ordered the class to run a cross-country race wearing gas masks.
Tenth-grader Dmitry Pirogov seemed unfazed. "A man should be a patriot, and this course provides knowledge that helps develop patriotism," Pirogov said.
Marina Vargamyan, School No. 1571's principal, said the course should be viewed in the context of the larger fundamentals program. "This course not only arms students with knowledge about how to behave in critical situations, ranging from fires to rape threats, but also helps them integrate socially after school," Vargamyan said.