In Russia, Military Helps Orphaned Boys Soldier On


They are 19 lost boys, orphaned, abandoned or sent away. Blank-faced, they march like windup toy soldiers around the snowy parade ground at the military unit that is home. But the smallest pair of boots is out of step.

With a pathos that could melt icy hearts, the youngest boy, 12-year-old Boris Vorobyov, skips to regain the pace, his face rigid with determination. He soon falls out of step again, battling to fit in.

His struggle to thrust aside the frailties of childhood is painfully obvious, but the Russian military machine, adoptive father to the boys, does not soften for anyone. In the army, boys have to be men.


Dmitri Belukhin, 16, was 8 years old when he watched his father bashed to death in a garage. Sergei Legoshin, 16, impassively explains that his father is imprisoned for stabbing his mother to death. And Boris was sent here four months ago by his mother, who had divorced and decided that she could not afford to keep him.

The military life has but one answer to all the confusion and tragedy of their young lives: discipline.

It is the rope of life. Its coils, heavy and unyielding now, will ultimately haul them up to a better life, or so the theory goes here at the Kineshma Chemical and Radiation Defense Regiment, stationed 220 miles northeast of Moscow.

“You’re allowed to laugh,” according to Boris, “but not too loudly.”

For most of these boys in uniform, ages 12 to 17, the alternative is life in a state orphanage where the staff of mainly women would turn them into effeminate and infantile delinquents. Or so says the boys’ commander and mentor, Maj. Yevgeny Afonin.

“Here they learn to be manly,” Afonin said. “No one licks them clean, and no one pities them. Regardless of their age, they’re treated as grown-up men, not as boys of their mental and psychological level of development.”

Regimental Adoptions Began During WWII

The tradition of the syn polka, or “son of the regiment,” goes back to World War II, when orphaned boys fought with soldiers against the Nazis. It continues today, with many regiments adopting one or two boys. The Kineshma regiment is unusual because it adopted so many orphans and wards of the state. The boys have few options, other than to return to a state orphanage.


Military life is defined in slogans. In the boys’ barracks here hangs a poster of a frog halfway down the throat of a greedy stork, with the words: “Don’t ever give up.”

Two and a half years ago, when most of the boys joined the unit, they were soft, liable to cry if hurt or troubled.

“I’d bring them here and make them look at the slogan and shout it out,” Afonin said. “Don’t ever give up! No matter how painful it is, no matter how tough and difficult, don’t ever give up.”

A poster near the parade ground proclaims “There is no greater honor than wearing a Russian uniform.” But there are other, more dubious honors here, like cleaning the latrines, time and time again, for punishment.

“The worst thing was cleaning the toilet,” said Marat Chatuyev, 14, who lasted 15 months in the unit before quitting and moving to an orphanage. “You just can’t get used to it no matter how often you have to do it. And I did it so often that I lost count. I am not blaming anyone for it. It was all my fault.”

Armed with guns, flame-throwers and smoke screens, the Radiation and Chemical Defense Regiment is trained for combat and recovery efforts in the event of gas, chemical or nuclear attacks.


The idea for adopting so many children here came from the local government, which initially provided funding. The money stopped, leaving the regiment and Defense Ministry burdened with the cost. The real problem is not providing uniforms or food but extras such as civilian clothing.

The boys attend a civilian school. They tend to stand out in their uniforms, said school director Svetlana Moshkova, so teachers notice small infractions that would go unnoticed if committed by a civilian student.

“These people came here with distorted souls and no notion of honor and decency,” Moshkova primly said. “We report every little misdemeanor, feeling sure that we are doing them good.”

“They know they can’t avoid punishment if they do anything wrong,” Afonin said. “The teacher telephones the regiment, and the severe and manly military collective swings into action.”

The boys with poor grades lose free weekend time and must study instead. Those who commit misdeeds--such as smoking, talking back or kicking chairs--are given extra chores. Some boys slip into a cycle of low morale as their punishments pile up.

For Sergei Legoshin, it all got to be too much.

“School was terrible. I was getting one punishment after another. So you feel bitter about it, and you start arguing with the commander about it, and you get more work orders and punishment,” Sergei said, his glance sliding sideways, never meeting eyes. “When I ran away, I was angry at everything.”


Dmitri Fedulov, 16, considered quitting six months ago because of the heavy load of punishment and studies. “There was no freedom,” he said. “I was depressed. But I’m taking it now. I’m trying to bear it.”

In the end, these two boys and several others who ran away or tried to quit were persuaded by Afonin to come back. In the lottery of life in post-Soviet Russia, the regiment buys them a better ticket than would the orphanage.

“I just don’t have any other option,” Sergei said. “What is there for me to do in civilian life? Nothing.”

Two others have left the unit and not returned; a third was expelled for violence.

The boys generally stay with the unit until they gain entry into college or a trade school.

Afonin likens the boys to hardened steel but says they all get depressed at times. He calls it metal fatigue.

Some boys seem to visibly thrive on the tough regime. But while young Boris’ mother, Marina Vorobyov, is sure he’s doing well, the officers are concerned.


Vorobyov, a 43-year-old secretary who used to work for the ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party, is happy that her son has become neater, more disciplined and more mature. Boris too is sure the tough disciplinary regime will make him “a more closed person. I’ll be more self-sufficient and independent. I’ll be quicker on the uptake.”

12-Year-Old’s Only Friend is Mascot Dog

But after four months in the regiment, he looks lost. His one friend is the unit’s mascot, a chow chow puppy named Jackie. He confides in no one.

“I don’t think about anything. I don’t do anything,” he said. He seemed close to tears when he said he missed his family.

Yevgeny Gruzlov, 29, the regiment’s education officer and psychologist, described Boris as a tight child having a tough time adapting.

“There are people who are not meant to be military men, and he’s one of them,” he said. “But perhaps he’ll get used to it after a year or two.”

Afonin said the aim is to keep the boys occupied “so they don’t have any bad, crazy ideas in their heads.”


In Soviet times, youth organizations such as the Pioneers and Komsomol performed that function, as well as dosing the young with politics. When those groups collapsed with the fall of communism, nothing was created to replace them.

“But the vacuum was quickly filled with drugs, alcohol or sex,” Afonin said. “We have to keep kids busy.”

Hence the boys are up at 6:30 a.m., and after school they study until their homework is done, with lights out at 10.30 p.m. They have military training three nights a week and on Saturdays. Those who are not being punished can go to a Sunday night disco. Like soldiers, they sew on their buttons and do their laundry.

“A man who cannot wash his socks is not a real man,” Afonin said. He imparts many other masculine secrets to the boys: sex education, how to court a girl and how to avoid the pitfalls of foolish romantic love. His advice is to find a girl whose parents have money.

Demand for a spot in the unit is enormous. Every day, Afonin gets calls from mothers and grandmothers eager to place their boys, but the unit has no more room.

Despite the enthusiastic demand among Russian parents and grandparents, there are no plans for other units to take on so many boys.


The boys’ barracks at the Kineshma regiment are strangely quiet, considering that this is home to 19 boys. The residents lack the chaotic, spirited ebullience typical of children their age.

The price these boys pay for the boost in life is to surrender their childhood. But perhaps, for many of them, life’s tragedies already stole that.

Sergei Kalugin, 17, cannot remember anything before he was 7 years old. He knew he had a brother and sisters, but not who or where they were. Then, a few months ago, the past opened up when his father came to visit.

“I saw a man. I knew he was my father. I felt indifferent,” he recalled. His father, released after serving a prison term for murder, reintroduced Sergei to his siblings. The teen learned from his older sister that as children they were left alone in the house while their parents went drinking.

Later, his father wrote some letters to him, Sergei said, “and I had no choice but to love him and forgive him.”

‘I Don’t Love Her,’ Teen Says of Mother

But when 16-year-old Dmitri Pavlikov’s mother turned up at the military unit more than two years ago and offered to take him home, he refused. He said that as a child he was left for days at a time without food when she went on drinking sprees.


“I don’t love her. I felt love for her a long time ago, when I was in the third grade.” There was a long, painful silence when he was asked whom he does love. Finally, he named a woman in his neighborhood during his early childhood.

“When my mother was drunk, she’d take me in and put me up. She’s the only person I love in the world. Alla, Aunty Alli.” He never sees her now.

The officers here do their best with their troubled charges. Their aim is to give the boys a better chance in life than they would have in an orphanage or a broken family. But they can only offer manly comradeship, not love.

“Even the older ones want their mothers,” said Gruzlov, the education officer. “They all want family warmth. Whatever we do and however hard we try, we can’t provide them with family warmth.”


Yakov Ryzhak and Alexei V. Kuznetsov of The Times’ Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.