The Cossacks — an ethnic minority of East Slavic people who recently helped Russia annex Crimea from Ukraine — send kids as young as 7 to military training camps to learn how to become “defenders of the homeland.”
Ukrainian photographer Maxim Dondyuk spent parts of the last four years attending a military training camp in Crimea to see how the pro-Russian, militaristic Cossacks train their young soldiers.
Dondyuk shared some photos from the project with us here, and you can check out more of his work on his website.
The training camp is called a “sich,” which is also the administrative and military center for Cossacks. It comes from the Ukrainian word siktý meaning “to chop,” as in to clear a forest for an encampment.
© Maxim Dondyuk
This training camp is located in and around Eski-Kermen, a medieval cave fortress located in a mountainous, forest region.
For two weeks, boys age 7-16 learn military techniques from Cossack officers who have fought in many conflicts.
The boys train with real weapons and live ammunition.
Because most Cossacks are devoutly Eastern Orthodox, religion is a major part of the camp. The boys say prayers during the day and are guided in Bible readings.
“If we train them to kill but don’t give attention to spiritual training, we educate an ordinary killer and not a defender of [a united Cossack] Motherland,” Dondyuk overheard one officer say.
A typical day begins with a morning run before moving on to breakfast and combat training.
More often than not, according to Dondyuk, the boys’ parents are former or current military officers.
Cossack communities are tight-knit. Most live in large clans of extended family led by an elder patriarch with the title Ataman/Hetman. Cossacks use the same title for the head of their military and the leader of the camp.
The boys also get training in hand-to-hand combat, climbing, and survival skills.
While most of the boys are Cossacks (and the camp is run by Cossack officers), the camp is open to anyone for 5 euros per day.
When Dondyuk first arrived at the camp, his impression was very negative. However, the longer he stayed, the more he appreciated what the officers were trying to do.
This particular camp has been around for 10 years. Some of the first attendees are already sergeants in the Russian or Ukrainian army, Dondyuk says.
Despite how long it has been around, most Crimeans and Ukrainians have no idea the camp exists. “This camp isn’t widely publicized,” Dondyuk told Slate.
In the past, Ukrainian authorities were highly suspicious of Cossacks, even going so far as to raid training camps for weapons and to accuse them of creating paramilitary groups.
© Maxim Dondyuk
In Russia, however, Cossacks have the status of a state-backed militia (which is how they have operated during the Crimean crisis). The fact that the group got better treatment in Russia spurred many Cossacks to help bring Crimea under Russian control.
© Maxim Dondyuk
After the events in Crimea, it is uncertain whether the camp will continue in its current form because of ongoing conflict in the region.
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