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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Summer Fun at the Border Patrol

NOVOMIKHAILOVKA, Southern Russia -- Those who once saw the Soviet Union as an aggressive and militaristic empire might be surprised to learn that for decades a key stretch of the nation's border has been guarded by unarmed children.

Since 1975, a 100-kilometer stretch of Russia's Black Sea coastline running between the towns of Tuapse and Gelendzhik has been under the watchful gaze of about 50 boys and girls, ages 10 to 15 -- who in the past have glared grimly across the waves at NATO member Turkey.

These children "are equipped with devices for long distance and night vision, for radio communication, and with all they'd need in case of a chemical or biological weapon attack," said Lieutenant Colonel Georgy Rogoza, vice chief of the Novorossiisk border unit that commands the teenage unit. "The only thing that the army has but that they do not are automatic weapons, which ought to be understandable as they are just kids."

The children are members of the Club of Young Friends of the Border Guard, an organization created in the 1970s by the Federal Border Service and the Komsomol. The aim, then as now, was to season future generations of young men and women dedicated to patrolling the border.

"The kids live a genuine military camp life," said Lieutenant Oleg Rashidov, who organizes each week's routine. "They start their day with a five-kilometer run and finish with the singing of military songs. Every day they devote two hours to hand-to-hand combat and at least five to physical training. They break only for lunch. Physical training subjects are mixed with lessons in law, history and topography."

It is an exhausting routine, said Yury Gribanov, 13, who is from the central Russian town of Lipetsk. "They feed us very well, but we do so much running and jumping that I haven't gained weight, on the contrary I'm thinner. I'm afraid that's going to upset my mama," he said. But Gribanov is considering a career in the border patrol, so at least he knew what he was getting into. Not so his colleague Maria Skhuro, 13, from Stavropol.

"When I came here, I thought it was going to be a typical summer camp, where I would simply swim and sunbathe with other boys and girls," Shkuro said. "When they handed me a uniform, gas mask and cap I nearly died of surprise."

Shkuro said she immediately asked to be transferred to a different camp, but then soon reconsidered. She still wakes up each morning with tears of trepidation at the grueling physical regimen to come, but adds, "It's 100 times more interesting here [than at a regular summer camp]. ... They've taken us up in helicopters and taught us to shoot from a real Kalashnikov assault rifle. And also, I've made friends with a great guy here."

Another happy camper is Albert Shapirov, 14, from central Russia's Ufa, who speaks fondly of living in a tent and cooking over an open fire.

"Most of all I like the training," Shapirov said. "I'm trying to learn as much as I can of the martial arts. My dream is to win the contest at the end of the [summer] and receive a watch from the director of the Federal Border Service."

The camp's children are drawn from the families of officers in the Federal Border Service.

"Coming from cold Russian regions, this place [on the Black Sea] is like a Hollywood or a Disneyland for them," said Major Vera Ivlicheva, who heads the club. "Many of them had never eaten such exotic fruits as watermelons and grapes."

But it remains a hard life -- witness "sea seals," a punishment for wayward campers. They must run 1 1/2 kilometers in salt water up to their necks, then perform calisthenics in wet clothes on the beach, and then engage in hours of martial arts training. Afterward, the children have difficulty climbing the hill back to the base camp.

Yet such discipline also has its rewards. Campers impishly recount the visit this month of a group of Italian scouts. The campers put on a display of physical fitness and fighting, then proposed a series of competitions. The Italians agreed only to a chess competition.