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Saturday 6 April 2019

photo essay

Patriot games

Hundreds of thousands of children in both Russia and the United States attend military training camps aimed at instilling national pride, religion and a possible future in the armed services

By Sarah Blesener

Patriotic education, often with a military subtext, forms the mainspring of many youth programmes in both Russia and the United States. In America, the dual messages of America First and Americanism can be found not only as a driving force behind adult political movements, but around the country in camps and clubs where young people are taught what it means to be an American.

Students take part in a show promoting their cadet school 18 at the local theatre in Sergiyev Posad, Russia. 

In Russia, patriotic clubs and camps are encouraged by the government. In 2015, President Vladimir Putin ordered the creation of a Russian students’ movement whose aim was to help form the characters of young people through instruction in ideology, religion and preparedness for war. The Patriotic Education of Russian Citizens in 2016-20 programme called for an 8 per cent increase in patriotism among the young, and a 10 per cent increase in recruits to the armed forces.

The show at Sergiyev Posad includes a demonstration of ballroom dancing. 

Beckon Us From Home is a photography project investigating how a nation instills patriotism and passes down traditions to new generations. This work initially developed from a project I photographed in Russia in 2016, where I published a similar project about Russian patriotic and military clubs.

Up to 300 boys from around the world aged between 12 and 18 attend a summer camp at Marine Military Academy in Harlingen, Texas. 

I had hoped this story would spark dialogue about issues of nationalistic rhetoric globally and the deeply polarising election year in the United States. However, it generated the opposite. Most responses from both the media and public were not self-reflective or inwardly critical, but instead echoed something along these lines: “Other people are nationalistic, but we are patriots.” With this in mind, I began photographing in the United States in early 2017.

Bailey Vanderpool, 11, of the Young Marines, attends a drug awareness meeting in Hanover, Pennsylvania. Nationwide, the youth group has around 300 clubs for children aged eight to 18. 

In these settings, around 400,000 American youth are taught annually what it means to be an American. In Russia, over 200,000 attend patriotic camps and clubs across the nation.

A celebratory cake at a ball for Young Marines and their families in Hanover.

In these microcosms of a changing nation, young people face the vulnerability of adolescence while simultaneously being stripped of individuality.

Army cadets take an ice-cream break during an urban operations training event at Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton, Wisconsin. 

Underneath overused words such as “patriotism” and “nationalism” we find fear, indoctrination, economics, religion, motivation.  Are we as societies fracturing? Where are we in terms of empathy? How are young people responding to our contemporary society, with all its changes in belief systems?

Elementary-school children at Utah Patriot Camp, in Herriman, Utah. It teaches the constitution, American values, military history and lessons on God’s word.

My hope is to open dialogue around the nuanced and complex ideologies being instilled in future generations.

Cadets in Appleton, Wisconsin, search a warehouse complex with trap doors and staged shooters. The houses and scenarios are all mocked up for the drills. 


Garett, an upper-ranking Young Marine, dances with his girlfriend at the annual ball in Hanover. 


Students train in firearms at Borodino, Russia, using air guns. The camp is attended by 350 adolescents, aged from 11 to 17, and lasts all summer. 


Students from School 18 in Sergiyev Posad wait behind the scenes during a show aimed at promoting their cadet programme.


Elizabeth Nelson, 17, waits for her friends after watching a football game in Omaha, Nebraska. She enlisted to the army the summer before her senior year of high school, and will go to boot camp three days after she graduates.


Students from five states around the Midwest visit the South Dakota Air and Space Museum during a week at the Civil Air Patrol Joint Dakota Encampment. 


Boys stand ready for inspection in Dmitrov, Russia, as a teacher observes how quickly they can put on gas mask.


Theodore Roosevelt Educational Campus celebrates its annual Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps Military Ball  in the Bronx, New York City.


A unit dresses to re-enact Soviet Russia’s role in the Second World War as part of the boys’ history education at the Napoleonic war site of Borodino. 


Gilbert (13) practises house-searching drill with the Wisconsin Army Cadets, during an urban operations training event in Appleton, Wisconsin, US. Young people are trained in various military skills to give them a foretaste of a possible military career.

A horse rider trains at the Historical War Camp in Borodino, the battleground where Russia fought Napoleon’s forces in 1812. Camp activities centre on battle re-enactments and the use of weapons.

Dmitri Antonets, 17, wearing a Russian Orthodox cross, escapes the heat during an afternoon off at the lake. The camp combines combat training with Christian doctrine.


Boots and fatigues at the Marine Military Academy summer camp in Harlingen.


Outside the annual Young Marines ball and awards ceremony in Hanover. 


Cadets from the Civil Air Patrol Joint Dakota Encampment at Mount Rushmore attend  a ceremony promoting two members of their unit and to watch a patriotic film.


Boys from Stavropol relax at a lake in Diveevo during an afternoon off.


Megan, Stephanie and Elizabeth, high school seniors, run to their cars in the church parking lot across the street from their school, after a football game in Omaha. 


A Second World War Soviet re-enactment at the Historical War Camp in Borodino. Some 350 adolescents aged 11 to 17 attend the camp to learn weapons skills and physical endurance, with the aim of awakening an interest in the Russian Fatherland and expanding military-historical knowledge.


Students stand for the Pledge of Allegiance at the Young Marines annual ball in Hanover, Pennsylvania, US. Young Marines, a patriotic education programme, has 10,000 students nationwide and focuses on  citizenship, patriotism and drug-free lifestyle.


Nerisa, a student from the Border Patrol Explorer Programme, sponsored by Learning for Life Boy Scouts and US Homeland Security. It helps train individuals in law-enforcement.


Boys at the Marine Military Academy summer camp in Harlingen. The academy hosts a summer camp for boys between 12 and 18 from around the world.


Cadets line up for drill at School #7, Dmitrov. 


Sarah Blesener

Sarah Blesener is based in New York City. She received the Alexia Foundation grant for her 2017 work in the United States, and was also a 2017 fellow with Catchlight, working with Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting.