Russian schoolchildren

‘The Militarization Of Childhood’: Russian Children Being Roped Into Country’s All-Out War Effort

March 10, 2024
5 mins read

For the last 20 years, the mayor’s office of the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk has run a volunteer program for teenagers aged 14 to 18 called the Mayor’s Labor Brigade.

“Participants in the Labor Brigade will work as usual to clean up parks, city squares and embankments, residential courtyards, and other relaxation areas for city residents,” one 2010 newspaper announcement for the program read.

Since last year, however, the Krasnoyarsk teens have taken on a different set of tasks, a spokesman for the mayor’s office told RFE/RL: sewing items and preparing care packages for Russian troops invading Ukraine.

The sewing machines were donated by “engaged entrepreneurs at the request of the head of the Central District administration,” according to one post published by Labor Brigade’s social media pages.

Russia’s economy is already on war footing as the Kremlin prioritizes building weaponry and supplying equipment to fuel the invasion, now in its third year. The result is labor shortages as large sectors of the economy scramble to find employees. That in turn has driven up wages in many industries.

The Krasnoyarsk program, which has just opened its 2024 recruiting campaign, is just one of many across the country that have been engaging underage children in tasks supporting the war, a phenomenon one labor expert described as “the militarization of childhood.”

A boy wearing camouflage walks past a mural depicting a special forces soldier during a military-style competition organized by the National Guard security force for military cadets and youths, at a training ground in Balashikha, outside Moscow.
A boy wearing camouflage walks past a mural depicting a special forces soldier during a military-style competition organized by the National Guard security force for military cadets and youths, at a training ground in Balashikha, outside Moscow.

An increasing number of these “militarized initiatives” are being carried out by commercial enterprises seeking to compensate for labor shortages in an emerging, war-centered gray economy, said the expert, who, like others quoted in this article, asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution or prosecution by authorities.

“It can be risky for employers to use child labor,” the expert said, “because the majority of minors are working without proper documents.”

A representative of the Krasnoyarsk Labor Brigade told RFE/RL that volunteers can choose their preferred type of work, adding that the option to sew items for troops in Ukraine appeared last summer and was “in high demand.” The teens had sent more than 300 items in the last two months to “the warriors in the special military operation,” the Kremlin’s euphemism for the Ukraine invasion.

“They finished almost 50 camouflage nets,” the representative said. “Participants also helped pack care packages to be sent to the zone of military activity.”

The parents of several schoolchildren said the city administration sent representatives into the schools to recruit volunteers.

“But without heavy pressure, thank God,” a mother of an eighth-grader told RFE/RL. “Of course, if they start pressuring, it will be harder to refuse than it is now.”

‘Stockings For Stumps’

During his state-of-the-nation address on February 29, President Vladimir Putin praised workers, entrepreneurs, engineers, volunteers, political parties, and others for “their responsible, tireless work to support Russia’s interests,” claiming that “this just struggle belongs to our citizens.”

Over the last few months, this has increasingly included children as young as 9 or 10.

Last November, students at School No. 8 in Mozhga, a town in the central region of Udmurtia, launched a “volunteer” initiative to help wounded war veterans. They have been knitting special stockings for amputees that are intended to prevent prosthetic devices from chafing.

Students from School No. 8 in the city of Mozhga and their mothers and grandmothers knit stockings for soldiers with amputated legs. Russian Children
Students from School No. 8 in the city of Mozhga and their mothers and grandmothers knit stockings for soldiers with amputated legs.

The school itself was named in December 2022 in honor of a former student who was killed months earlier in fighting in Ukraine.

According to a post on the social media platform VK, the initiative is called Stockings for Stumps.

The program’s coordinator, a student named Vasilisa Skovordnikova, wrote that “mothers and grandmothers” of the children help them learn how to knit and that a goal of the program is “to give moral and physical help to participants in the special military operation who have had parts of their bodies amputated.” Each child has been set the goal of producing 35 stockings.

Several students in the program said participants were recruited on a volunteer basis but under some pressure that refusal could have negative consequences.

There were “notes of blackmail,” one student told RFE/RL.

“They didn’t directly force us, but they hinted that participation in ‘socially significant’ activities was taken into consideration when you apply to college,” another student said. “This didn’t bother me because I volunteered. I have heard that other students signed on to get credit but then get their mothers to knit the stockings.”

The students display their knitted stockings.
The students display their knitted stockings.

In the Tatarstan city of Mamadysh, schoolchildren have been finishing stabilizing fins for drone-dropped bombs to be used in Ukraine.

The plastic fins are produced using 3-D printers and are then worked and polished by the children, according to a report on local state TV.

In the report, one child who appears to be about 10 years old is shown demonstrating a tourniquet that the children are also assembling from printed parts. They’re also shown preparing plastic cases for storing doses of painkillers to be administered at the front.

In Abakan, the capital of the southern region of Khakassia, the local branch of the ruling United Russia party has recruited children with hearing disabilities to produce “trench candles” — tin cans stuffed with cardboard and filled with paraffin wax that burn for several hours.

In Khakassia, children with hearing loss make trench candles.
In Khakassia, children with hearing loss make trench candles.

“The work is rather tedious and takes a long time,” a post to the party’s social media page dated October 2023 said. “But the kids are taking part in this mass program with great interest. Trench candles are really an essential item at the front. Soldiers use them to warm themselves or to heat up food and water.”

The program, called Warmth From Home, had already been implemented in 28 regions, the post said.

“I know of one candlemaker who was invited to conduct a seminar on producing trench candles for students in the third grade,” another expert on child labor told RFE/RL. “That is, kids who are 9 or 10.”

“We aren’t talking about producing one candle,” he added. “One class might make dozens at a time. And this is hazardous work.”

Fumes from heating and pouring several kilograms of paraffin can be harmful, he said, and there is the risk of receiving chemical burns if hot wax spills onto skin. Soldiers, he said, are trained not to burn the candles in enclosed spaces.

Last August, reports emerged that a technical university in Tatarstan was using students, some as young as 15, to assemble Iranian-produced attack drones.

At the time, RFE/RL’s Idel.Realities interviewed dozens of parents of the students who claimed the children were being forced to work long hours without proper breaks or meals.

The program, said Sergei Podsytnik, a reporter who runs a Telegram channel focusing on the Samara region, was “a textbook definition of what constitutes exploitation.”

Around the same time, the governor of the Far Eastern Chukotka region reported that “college students, instructors, and volunteers” were assembling drones for the military as well.

In March 2023, lawmakers in the Rostov regional legislature debated whether it was necessary to receive the permission of parents before recruiting children into the “socially significant work” of providing equipment to the troops.

“Don’t parents trust the schools?” Communist Party lawmaker Tatyana Ivashchenko was quoted as saying during the debate.

“[Children] don’t lift anything heavier than a blackboard eraser through the 11th grade,” she added. “And then three years later they have to pull their friend out of a battlefield. That isn’t right, in my opinion.”

RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson contributed to this report.

The Washington Inquirer Editor

20 years in media business

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