A tall young man wearing a military uniform and yellow sneakers enters the dark gym. The girls run away to join other children, who have already lined up. “Good morning, commander!” they shout in unison. “The platoon is arranged!”
Maksim, the 18-year-old commander of the club, says that the children elected him but that he will be replaced when he graduates this year. He was 15 when the fighting broke out. His mother, who was raising him alone, took him to Russia when the violence escalated. When pro-Russian rebels took over the city, they came back. Friends told him about the military club, and Maksim decided to join.
The young commander likes being in uniform and is honored to wear the club’s patch, he says. In the future, he wants to become a real commander in the militia army. Many of his friends share his dream.
“As our Steppen Wolves enter the school, they look at Mikhail and want to be like him, to defend our land,” says Maksim, leaning to pick up a toy rifle from the floor. “When I ask other members of the club about their plans for future, they all say they will enter the military academy.”
Maksim, 18, the Steppen Wolves commander, with the club’s patch on his shoulder.
Maksim spent 15 years of his life being Ukrainian, but recently, he has changed his mind.
“Ukraine destroyed everything. People were killed,” says Maksim, turning his face to the window. “I consider myself Russian now. I speak Russian. Russia helps us more than Ukraine; at least it pays a pension to my grandma.”
Sasha, who is 12, also takes the trainings seriously. He runs with his toy rifle through the hall accompanied by two classmates, defending the invisible military position.
“I like military topics. Everything from tanks to weaponry,” says Sasha, playing with a fake grenade. “I came here because it will be useful for my future life, when I go to fight.”
This is war! If I were told to fight, I would go!
Sasha’s older brother has already joined the militia and the boy is very proud of him. “I consider my brother the same as the hero Mikhail Tolstykh. Yes, he has not a single medal, but he is defending his homeland.”
In August 2014, Sasha was hiding in a bomb shelter with his family while the city was shelled. He remembers when shrapnel killed his neighbors. “They were cooking outside and the shell landed nearby, killing a 40-year-old man,” says Sasha. “One more shell hit the house in front of our shelter, killing a woman.”
For a moment, Sasha goes silent and stares into the void as if trying to recall something. “We thought that we were one nation,” he says, breaking the silence. “They call it ATO: Anti-Terroristic Operation. We call it civil war. This is war! If I were told to fight, I would go!”