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Tuesday, 6 August, 2002, 17:21 GMT 18:21 UK
Russian kids get sent to boot camp
Children at the camp practise firing
The children are taught military skills

It was an experimental military unit set up at the height of the Soviet war in Afghanistan.

To reverse mounting casualties among inexperienced conscripts, Russian generals set up "Kaskad".

In the woods near Moscow, the soldiers learnt survival skills, shooting, hand-to-hand-combat and "the art of destroying the enemy".

The difference was that some of these troops were just 10 years old.

Vanya Gladchenko., eight
Eight-year-old Vanya Gladchenko is already a veteran
That was in 1982. Twenty years later, Russian troops have long since left Afghanistan, but the kids of Kaskad are still training.

These days the cadets, aged 10 to 16, don't necessarily go on to join the army, but those who do, are far better prepared for conscripts' life than those who don't.

Russia's army is notorious for its brutal bullying and underfunding. Many of today's soldiers face the real prospect of active duty in war zones like Chechnya.


The kind of people who make it are those you can rely on, who won't let you down later on

Misha Tsybulevsky, 14,
The members of Kaskad all say they want to become soldiers in Russia's spetznaz, or special forces, units.

Misha Tsybulevsky, 14, has been attending the military courses for four years. When we met him at Kaskad's summer camp he had just crawled out of a swamp on his belly, clutching his model Kalashnikov, while his instructors fired volleys of blank shots and let off smoke grenades.

For Misha, Kaskad's spetznaz training provides the best preparation if you're going to be called up.

Misha Tsybulevsky, 14,
Misha Tsybulevsky says cadets learn to have courage
"You earn courage. The people who join the spetznaz are the best," he said, "not like people who smoke and drink on the street. Those people don't make it. The kind of people who make it are those you can rely on, who won't let you down later on."

The organisers of Kaskad stress the social role of the group. They claim the month-long summer camp in the forest outside Moscow keeps many children from deprived backgrounds off the streets.

But it's hard to escape the military thread running through everything the children do.

As Andrei Samotoin, himself a former spetznaz soldier and now one of the Kaskad leaders, points out, the army is very happy to have a supply of well-prepared youngsters to conscript.


We make patriots out of the kids who come here

Instructor
Vadim Volkov
"There's already a tradition that kids from our unit will go on to serve in various spetznaz units," he says. "Some of them go on to serve in Chechnya. They have a good reputation among officers and men."

It's no surprise, says Andrei, that for the second year running the army has supplied officer cadets from across Russia to work as instructors for these boy soldiers. Certainly they see themselves as a replacement for the network of now defunct Soviet youth organisations.

"We used to have the Komsomol and the pioneers. Now the kids do what they want. But we make patriots out of the kids who come here," says Vadim Volkov, one of the instructors.


I have a dream of becoming a commander and destroying all Russia's enemies

Vanya Gladchenko, eight
Queuing up for his mess tin of porridge at the camp's field kitchen is Vanya Gladchenko. He's only eight years old, but in Kaskad terms, he's already a veteran with four years' service under his belt.

The patriotic side of his education at Kaskad has already left its mark.

"I want to defend my motherland so that nobody insults it and to protect the Russian people," says Vanya. "For me, being a spetznaz is my life. I have a dream of becoming a commander and destroying all Russia's enemies."

Since 1982 more than 8,000 children have passed through the ranks of Kaskad. According to the commanders, in the last 10 years former cadets have fought in all the wars that have flared up across the territory of the former USSR.

And, they say, not one of them has been killed.

With more than 4,000 dead in the last two years of war in Chechnya, that's no mean feat.

See also:

31 May 02 | Europe
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