Location: Borodino, Russia
Date: July 25, 2016

Each summer, thousands of boys and girls between the ages of eleven and 18 travel from all over Russia to attend patriotic summer camps near Moscow. They sleep in tents, play volleyball, and climb rocks. They also learn to fire guns, throw knives, and lob grenades.

Not since the Soviet era, when children enlisted as Young Pioneers, have patriotic summer camps been so popular in Russia. Last year, as Vladimir Putin flexed his muscles in Syria and the Baltic, the Kremlin called for an 8 percent increase in the number of patriotic youth—and a 10 percent increase in recruits for the Russian armed forces.

Sarah Blesener, an American photographer, traveled to Russia last summer to photograph the paramilitary camps. In Borodino, a small town where Russian and French troops clashed in one of the bloodiest battles of the Napoleonic Wars, two girls learn to fire handguns as part of their tactical training. They are dressed in the traditional uniform worn by Russian Airborne Troops: striped shirts, military fatigues, blue berets. Founded last year in response to the Kremlin’s call to arms, the camp promises to “awaken in the younger generation a keen interest in the history of the Fatherland, the glorious deeds of our ancestors.” Some campers can dismantle an AK-47 in under a minute.

Those involved in the camps see themselves as part of a national campaign to restore Russia’s military might. “We have no secrets from the world,” one tactical instructor told Blesener. “We don’t want war, but we are prepared for it.”

Starting November 18th, follow Sarah Blesener as she takes over the @NewRepublic Instagram account to share more photographs from her photo essay ‘Toy Soldiers’.