Army Camp Keeps Boys In Shape

ReutersA boy wielding an AK-47 at the army barracks in Balashikha in the Moscow region.
BALASHIKHA, Moscow Region -- A small boy dressed in camouflage gear struggles manfully to dismantle his AK-47, but his 10-year-old fingers are not quite able to reach the top of the gun.

His young neighbor stubs out a cigarette and lends a hand.

Not child soldiers but summer camp, Russian style.

At a military barracks in the town of Balashikha, just outside Moscow, Interior Ministry troops are providing 140 disadvantaged young boys with training in sports and military skills, civic responsibility lectures and cultural outings.

The camp is one of several around the country that takes on underprivileged children and teenagers -- many of whom suffer from neglect or abuse, or come from broken homes -- for 20-day stints during the summer.

The camp is organized into two sessions, each of which takes 70 young boys from 10 to 16 years old who are put forward by their local authorities in the Moscow region.

"I like it here because it's faraway from home," said Andrei Gusikov, a dark-haired 11-year-old who says he wants to join the army when he grows up.

"There they treat me badly, but here they treat me well. Here it's much better," he said, adding that he liked the regimentation of the camp, including the early mornings.

Colonel Vasily Panchenkov, head of the press office for the Interior Ministry troops, said the boys are taught "discipline and how to prepare for the army."

He said many of them were fed better at the barracks than they would normally be at home.

"These are children from troubled families, they drink, they smoke, some of them do drugs," Panchenkov said.

He added that smoking was forbidden at the camp, but it was not unknown for some of the "little hooligans," as he fondly refers to them, to sneak a quick puff when no one is looking.

Each stay costs about 4,725 rubles ($150) per head and all expenses are paid by the Moscow regional administration, which has put more than 660,000 rubles into the project.

"I think this is a positive approach, and this way their parents don't worry about them roaming the streets," Panchenkov said.

"Previously we had a wide network of pioneer camps in the Soviet Union -- I myself attended one," he said. "But now it is a question of finance. Now people can't afford to send their kids away, and they end up on the streets."

Apart from dismantling AK-47s, the boys, many of whom sport tattoos and closely shaven heads, play football and swim, complete assault courses and learn how to shoot rifles. Discipline is seen as paramount.

Officials stress that the program is not attempting to turn them into little boy soldiers and that cultural and sporting activities take up more time than the military-style training.

In the evenings, the boys watch old Soviet films and educational videos about the army.

Experts lecture them on the history of the armed forces, civic responsibility and the law, and a cultural program includes movie theater and museum visits.

Some 15 adults, including a psychologist and a doctor, work at the camp with the boys. And although the soldiers stress discipline, there is a playful atmosphere in between exercises.

And not all of the boys harbor military ambitions.

"In the summer you have to go to camp, so that's why I'm here," said Ruslan Belyayevsky, a freckled 10-year-old who alternately fidgets and mumbles or shouts out his answers.

"I don't want to go into the army. I want to study at university," he said.

The morning's exercises over, the boys march back to the barracks, watched over benignly by a giant poster of President Vladimir Putin, and past the grown-ups -- Interior Ministry troops being drilled in truncheon techniques.

At the barracks, an airy room closely packed with metal frame bunk-beds and a table-tennis table is home for the boys for the duration of their stay.

Next door is a recreation room with a television, board games and footballs. A large board lists the designated activities for each day and displays photographs of the boys in action.

And what does 11-year-old Andrei like most about life at the camp? "The food. Here I eat three times a day."