They're regular Russian teenage students – nudging, giggling, and peering into smartphones while also glancing anxiously at the uniformed military veterans waiting to judge them from a nearby podium. Then, at a command from the drill sergeant – a fellow classmate – they form up, count off, and briskly march away in precision ranks, singing Soviet marching songs. You can almost picture the school's spartan sports hall as Red Square.
Military-style marching contests, once a regular part of the national curriculum in Soviet times, are re-emerging in Russian schools like here at Moscow's School No. 1465. For the first time last month, the school hosted a competition with about 10 student troops dressed in quasi-military uniforms vying for prizes handed out by the smiling war veterans.
Though it all appeared to be good-natured, the competition is part of a controversial effort to revive Soviet-era universal cadet training in Russian school. The move is strongly supported by the Russian Orthodox Church, which is returning to a highly visible and central role in Russia after decades of decline.
As this revival gains ground across the country, proponents, like school director Artur Lutsishin, argue that Russian society needs to heal its rift with the Army following the breakdown of the Soviet Union. The goal is not to prepare kids for war, he insists, but to foster a healthy bond between Russia's population and its troops and to restore the erstwhile prestige of a military career.
"We're not trying to make soldiers of these children, just good citizens who love their country," Mr. Lutsishin says. "For the past 15 years or so we have gradually been recovering our understanding that we live in a great country. Not the country that lost the cold war, but one that's equal to the others. It's only good that our state is paying closer attention to patriotic education."
That thought is seconded by one of the event's judges, retired Captain Alexander Kosev, who served many years in the Soviet Navy. He says he's proud to see, in his old age, the Russian military confounding the West with its adept performances in Crimea and Syria. And he's delighted to judge his first marching contest.
"This helps prepare children for life," he says. "It's physical training, it makes them fit, confident and ready."
Critics argue that the emotional touchstone driving the cadet movement is nostalgia for the USSR that has come as a result of tensions with the West and economic woes at home. But this yearning for the past is not necessarily a good thing, says Alexander Golts, an independent military expert.
"The USSR was a particular kind of country, in which the idea of patriotism was deeply connected with military training. You couldn't be a patriot if you didn't know how to shoot a Kalashnikov," he says. "In the Putin era, we are seeing a full revival of this kind of military-patriotic education."
"The aim here is to make it universal, for everyone," he adds.
Life of a Russian soldier
Capt. Kosev and others say the Russian military went through a terrible ordeal following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and that its tribulations mirrored the implosion of society and a loss of national pride.
The defeat of the once vaunted Soviet military by US-backed mujahideen warriors in Afghanistan was the first of many blows in the 1980s and 90s that accelerated loss of faith in the faltering Soviet state and the subsequent new Russian Army. Worse, the new Army was dragged into the political squabbles of the Soviet twilight, participating in a failed hard-line attempt to seize power in 1991, and then bombarding the mutinous Russian parliament on behalf of then-President Boris Yeltsin in 1993.
"It totally tarnished the new Russian Army's public reputation that its first military victory was against our own parliament," says Viktor Baranets, a 33-year military veteran who was the official spokesman for the Defense Ministry in the 1990s.
"The Army's rating was as low as it could be in those days," says Mr. Baranets, now a military columnist for the daily Komsomolskaya Pravda. "It was a common experience for us, when we were on the streets of Moscow in uniform, to be jeered, insulted, and even pelted with eggs and tomatoes. It got so bad that we were ordered to come to work in civilian clothes. An Army officer's pay was equivalent to that of a cleaning lady."
Life for the hundreds of thousands of young men regularly conscripted into Russia's Army for a typical three-year term was far worse. In the crumbling, underfunded wreck of the former Soviet military, they faced lives of frequent malnutrition, chronic physical abuse known as dedovschina, or hazing, and being farmed out as cheap labor by corrupt generals. Until a few years ago desertion was epidemic in the Russian Army, and draft-dodging practically the norm.
Things began to change following Russia's war with neighboring Georgia in 2008 that, while victorious, revealed deep shortcomings in the military. Sweeping reforms have since streamlined and professionalized it, reduced conscription to just one year, increased pay and housing benefits for officers and, by most accounts, greatly improved discipline in the ranks.
"More and more young people understand," that a military career is a good choice, says Makhmud Gareev, president of the official Academy of Military Sciences in Moscow. But despite the growth in patriotic moods, he adds, "there are still some 200,000 young men avoiding military service."
Most importantly, the Russian military started winning, first in Chechnya, then Georgia, Crimea and now Syria. According to polls cited by Baranets, the military expert, public trust in the Russian military rose from a low of 12 percent in the early 1990s to 86 percent today.
Though it's hard to gauge public reaction to the idea of restoring Soviet-era universal cadet programs in schools, a proposal by the governor of the central Russian region of Tula to implement the system won 90 percent public support in polls conducted by local media, the official RIA-Novosti news agency reports.
Mr. Golts, the military critic, argues that the return of military-patriotic education in schools isn't just about young people getting fit and having pride in their country. He says it's being re-introduced to the foundations of Russian society.
"There is an old joke that asks why soldiers move in ranks. The answer is, because no one is permitted to leave the ranks. It's about forcing that kind of unity on the whole country, which means that those who disagree are automatically enemies," he says. "And it also implies that we must have external enemies, permanently, to justify all this. So, step-by-step, marching in unison all the way, we are returning to the besieged fortress."