Sarah Blesener. Toy Soldiers
On a Thursday afternoon, six teenage boys gathered in an abandoned warehouse in the town of Diveevo, Russia and the drills began. The group, called “The Survivalists,” meets weekly to practice tactical skills and defense strategies. Artyom, who at 17 is one of the oldest of the group, was helping Daniel, 11, hide in the corner room with his plastic weapon and prepare for a surprise attack. Their instructor calmly tells me that the group is not looking for war, but is preparing young patriots to be ready for the future.
Over 200,000 Russian youth are currently enrolled in patriotic clubs, 10,000 in Moscow alone. Each club functions independently with their own structures and philosophies. In 2015, the Russian government proposed a program called the “Patriotic Education of Russian Citizens in 2016-2020” which envisions an eight-percent increase in patriotic youth over the next ten years, and a ten-percent increase in new recruits for the Russian armed forces.
In Russia, as in many places, there is a thin line between devotion to place and the feeling of superiority or aggression towards “outsiders” — between patriotism and nationalism. Because youth are easy targets for new ideologies, for the last year I have been focusing my work on clubs, camps, and alternative youth groups that combine patriotic education and gun training with a mix of fun that makes the whole experience seem like a game.
With the nationalist tide rising in both the United States and Russia, my intent is to raise questions about how beliefs and traditions are passed down to younger generations. I want to challenge ideas of patriotism. And I want to examine youth culture and movements beyond politics, tapping into the vital essence of youth: camaraderie, bonding, and how our identities are constructed at a young age.
Nationalistic tendencies and biases are part of the make-up of most of us, whether we like it or not. However, I agree with George Orwell when he states, “whether it is possible to get rid of them I do not know, but I do believe it is possible to struggle against them.”
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Sarah Blesener. Beckon Us From Home
With activities like water gun games, racing, and tug-a-war, this could easily be mistaken for a YMCA summer camp in Salt Lake City. However, 900 students across Utah are attending a weeklong “Patriot Camp,” focusing on patriotic education and the constitution. At the opening ceremony for the camp, an adult leader led a speech, proclaiming: “Always remember, you are soldiers of God. And nobody in the entire history of the world has ever been as free as you are right now.”
The dual messages of "America first" and "Americanism" can be found not only at the forefront of current political movements, but in the pages of literature and education taught at camps and clubs across the United States, where thousands of youth are choosing to spend their free time. While “Americanism” is a concept that has been around for decades, I am defining this “new Americanism” as a renewed embrace of the centuries-old theme of American exceptionalism and manifest destiny. While these programs are spread out across the nation, around 375,000 American youth are enrolled annually.
The rapture, or the intense feelings of emotion and vulnerability the students possess are a focal point in this series. Photographed in twelve different states across a divided country, Beckon Us From Home is an ongoing still photography project investigating how a nation instills patriotism and passes down military tradition to new generations, and aims to explore how different combinations of religion, love of country, and military training come together in unison of these teachings.
In accordance with a decree from the government of the Russian Federation concerning “the patriotic education of citizens,” the number of children’s patriotic organizations and clubs in the country has significantly increased over the past few years.
Among them there are children’s summer camps, where great attention is placed on primary military training as well as the moral, historical, and ideological education of the attending teenagers. While other children swim in lakes or play with their friends, these young patriots are training in summertime military camps. It is expected that these teenagers will continue military education and eventually join the nation’s armed forces in the future.
In addition to external, visible manifestations of patriotism, I try to explore the internal states of mind and emotions of these children who are undergoing such hard military training.