Pupils sent to military camps

7th May 2004 at 01:00

Every boy will learn how to handle a Kalashnikov in compulsory defence training. Nick Holdsworth reports

Up to 30,000 Moscow teenagers have been ordered to report for five days' arms training as Russia moves towards the reintroduction of Soviet-style boot camps for school-leavers.

Under a decree signed by Moscow's mayor Yuri Luzhkov, all 15 and 16-year-old boys will be sent on civil security courses in first aid, civil and military defence. Girls will stay at school and practise first aid while the boys are away.

The boys will tackle assault courses, drill with loaded Kalashnikov AK47 assault rifles and meet serving officers and soldiers. Some will be based with the elite Taman motorised rifle unit and others with the Kantemirovskaya tank unit, famed for intervening on Boris Yeltsin's side during the 1991 putsch that heralded the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Moscow's decree obliges the boys to have 40 hours of basic military training and is part of a Kremlin-backed move to encourage a sense of patriotic responsibility among Russian youth.

It follows the preliminary acceptance last autumn by the Russian parliament of a new law that would reintroduce mandatory military training studies for all students in the final two years of secondary school.

The scheme is strongly supported by the ministry of defence and is the brainchild of a retired Soviet air force officer turned politician, Nikolai Bezborodov, who says that at present 18-year-olds conscripted into the Russian army are physically and mentally ill-prepared to serve their country.

Alexander Kovalov, a retired KGB officer who teaches civil security at School No 1,216, a small Moscow secondary, said: Military training must be back on the curriculum and young people need to understand what the army is and how it functions."

But critics of the move say youngsters risk being bullied or worse during their time at boot camp.

Last September Alexander Bochanov, 16, died after being forced to wear a gas mask during a six-mile cross-country race at a similar camp in the Siberian region of Khanty-Mansiisk.

Military authorities attempted to cover up the boy's death after he collapsed and choked on his own vomit after being refused permission to remove the gas mask.

Valentina Melnikova, head of action group the Soldiers' Mothers Committee, said the Moscow decree did not stipulate who was responsible for the welfare of the boys during their stay at the camps.

"Pupils should study in schools and not in the army," she said.

Colonel Mikhail Khabner, of the Moscow Institute of Open Education. said greater care will be taken in Moscow.

"We will not allow such folly as running while wearing gas masks. Children will be given a tour of a military unit and will be able to meet the best combatant officers.

"There will also be shooting drills using AK47s. Hands-on shooting is carried out so that the children won't be scared of shots at a firing line," he added.

Headteachers in Moscow schools are reluctant to criticise the new measure, but insist that teachers who accompany the drafts will be held responsible for the safety and security of the boys at all times.

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