Russian teens find love of country

As 60th anniversary of the end of World War II nears, patriotic clubs try to engage youths disillusioned by recent wars*.

Her thin arms flying, Annia Katchenko disassembles an AK-47 assault rifle in seven seconds.

She picked up the skill at a "patriotic education center" in Volgograd - the renamed city of Stalingrad, site of the epic World War II battle. The teen, with her sparkling pink eyeshadow and waist-length hair, also learned how to reassemble her weapon in a snappy 15 seconds.

It's all done in the cause of patriotism. And in a nation reeling with doubt since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and facing record levels of suicide and deaths from military hazing, not to mention desertion, her attitude stands out.

"People come here who are not indifferent to our country, who know what is happening to it," says Ms. Katchenko, motioning to a group of fellow students sitting around her at the city-run patriotic club. "It's difficult to prove something to the world on your own, but when we are together...."

Born on soil that many Russians consider sacred, these young people are from the city on the Volga River where Soviet forces and virtually every man, woman, and child mobilized to stop the Nazi advance. It was a turning point that eventually led to Germany's defeat 60 years ago.

But today, many veterans of the battle - which claimed the lives of more than 1 million Soviet soldiers and 800,000 Germans over the winter of 1942-1943 - wonder if today's youths are made of the same fiber.

Stalingrad survivors are often brought to schools to provide "lessons in courage." And under the Soviet system, ideological youth groups like the Young Pioneers and Komsomol helped shape a patriotism and love of motherland.

But in the decades since the Soviet Union was threatened by the Nazis, its armed forces have been tarnished: They have occupied Afghanistan, an act that helped unravel the Soviet system, and more recently fought two debilitating wars in Chechnya, which still burn on today.

"In the old days, every young person considered it an honor to go to the Army," laments Vladimir Panyenko, an Army veteran with a chest full of military ribbons who volunteered, at age 16, to fight the Germans. "But now they are deserting. The youth are in doubt."

While official figures first made public in 2002 put the number of deserters at 5,000 per year, the Soldiers' Mothers Committee - which takes in some of those deserters - estimates the figure to be nearer 40,000. Russian forces currently total about 1 million.

Getting out of obligatory service with fake papers can cost up to $6,000 in Moscow, though far less in the provinces.

Still, local patriotic-education groups, which officials estimate number more than 500 across Russia, teach everything from marching and wilderness survival to first aid and emergency preparedness. Here in Volgograd, they help excavate remains and tend graveyards.

Some of the clubs maintain links to military academies, and channel students in that direction. But while a federal patriotic-education plan was approved for 2001 to 2005, veterans say there is no nationwide impetus that preserves love of country.

"[At Stalingrad], we knew the aim, we had a common purpose - that's what united us and saved us; that's why people were ready to give their lives," says Mr. Panyenko, his face stern behind a gray moustache and thick goatee. "Youths [today] aim for consumerism and are influenced by the West."

The brutality of the street-to-street fighting in Stalingrad produced 156 "Heroes of the Soviet Union," and, rarer still, 24 who received all three "Orders of Glory." It is a degree of heroism that still defines modern Russia - and sets a high standard for its children.

"When there is danger to the country, all the country unites to defend the motherland - that's what brought victory," says Mikhail Polyakov, a bright-eyed veteran. "It has always happened, and it always will."

"Sometimes we doubt the youth, but war will make them behave," adds Nikolai Orlov, a Stalingrad veteran. "We've got good youth and bad youth. And we should be objective: Back then, some even joined the Germans."

Among those trying to be "good" are the 300 or so like Katchenko, who take part at the "Victory" patriotic education club quarters, tucked away in a suburb.

"When children first come here, their sense of patriotism is not so strong; over time it grows," says Ilya Kolubayev, a member for six years who is now an instructor, and plans to join the military and "devote my life to my motherland."

"You can't get this kind of education on the street, where you find drug addicts, hooligans, everything," says Mr. Kolubayev, who wears the first traces of facial hair. "A patriot can't be elected. You become a patriot. And those who come here, there is some fire in their eyes - they want to do it."

At a young-looking 16, Maxim Detin can't wait to test his mettle in combat. "All normal teenagers dream of becoming a military man and wearing a uniform," says Mr. Detin, with an enthusiasm that makes his friends chuckle. After two years with the group, he has earned the coveted Orange Beret, an honor reserved for the most well-versed in the patriotic arts taught at the club.

"Some time ago, there was a short period of stagnation in patriotism, and when it became a problem, such clubs began to appear," says Detin. "[Stalingrad] was a trial ... for all humanity, and when our predecessors could survive and struggle and win, to have this wonderful life we lead, it has great value."

Even Chechnya will not dissuade him. "Chechnya is a very painful issue for our country," he says. "It develops a person's courage. I want to be there."

The training could not be more suitable. Beside practicing everything from dancing to learning military and local history, the "Victory" group goes to summer camp three weeks a year to test themselves on physical fitness and rescue methods. The group competes nationwide against other such teams.

The military is receiving an increasing number of recruits with extracurricular diplomas of patriotic education. "I'm going to join a military school," says Stanislav Kalinin, whose father is a military officer and whose grandfather was a Cossack leader. "I want to raise the Army in the eyes of the nation."

*[Editor's note: The original version misstated the occasion of the anniversary being marked this year.]

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