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Conflict, War
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North America, Europe
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nationalism, U.S., Russia, patriotism, youth
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"Toy Soldiers" is a project that documents rising nationalism amongst youth in the United States.
Sarah Blesener

2017 — professional winner

On a Thursday afternoon, six teenage boys gathered in an abandoned warehouse in the town of Diveevo, Russia. Their instructor began to divide the boys into teams, and immediately the drills began. The group, called “The Survivalists,” meets weekly to practice tactical skills and defense strategies. Artyom, an older teenager of the group, was helping another student, Daniel, eleven-years old, to hide and prepare for a surprise attack with his plastic weapon in the corner room of the warehouse. Their instructor calmly tells me that their group is not looking for war, but they are preparing young patriots to be ready for the future.

Over 200,000 youth in Russia are currently enrolled in patriotic clubs, with 10,000 in Moscow alone. Each club functions independently with their own structures and philosophies. In 2015, a proposed program from the Russian government entitled the “Patriotic Education of Russian Citizens in 2016- 2020” called for an eight percent increase in patriotic youth within the next ten years, and a ten percent increase in new recruits for the Russian armed forces.

There is nothing inherently wrong with patriotism. However, these two terms, nationalism and patriotism, easily blur, and patriotic rhetoric can lead to nationalistic thinking - the difference between these two terms being a shift from a devotion to a way of life or place to a feeling of superiority or aggression towards others that are different. I believe that youth are always easy targets and the easiest sources for spreading new ideologies, which is why I am focusing on patriotic education, clubs, camps, and alternative groups for youth. Combining patriotic education and gun training, mixed with fun and camaraderie activities makes the whole experience like a game.

The first chapter of this project was started in April of 2016 in various regions throughout Russia. However, I plan to expand the project in the United States, focusing on rising nationalism amongst youth. While issues of rising nationalism amongst youth have been widely investigated in Europe and Russia, especially after the collapse of the communist rule and the end of the Cold War, the patriotic gap between generations in the United States has left this topic underreported. In November of 2016, the F.B.I reported a six percent increase in hate crimes since the prior year, with attacks against Muslim Americans seeing the largest increase. In 2015, 892 hate groups currently existed in the United States, which grew by fourteen percent since the prior year. There was also a fourteen percent increase in anti- government “patriotic” groups, such as militias in the same year. With the rise of alternate-right groups in the United States, an increase of hate-crimes and a growing rhetoric of xenophobia and fear, combined with the lack of research on youth and nationalistic sentiment, the current political climate has made this work a necessity for me.

While looking for new ways to communicate this topic to a larger audience, I plan on having public exhibitions with speaking panels, geared more towards conversation rather than a lecture. With the help of the Alexia Foundation, I will focus on documenting youth culture and rising nationalism across the United States. I find the rise of global nationalism to be disturbing, and it is what fuels much of my research and photography. While our world is more globally linked than ever, we also have more makeshift borders than anytime in modern history. Globally, rhetoric of nationalism and xenophobia has been on the rise. Nationalistic tendencies and biases are part of the make-up of most of us, whether we like it or not. However, I agree with George Orwell when he states, “whether it is possible to get rid of them I do not know, but I do believe it is possible to struggle against them.” It is my aim to address growing nationalism amongst youth in the United States, in an attempt to start a larger conversation about the causes of these ideologies, and to understand how to combat intolerance.

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Students train horse-back riding at the Historical War Camp, in Borodino, Russia. 28 July 2016. The project statement of the camp says: "To awaken in the younger generation a keen interest in the history of the Fatherland, the glorious deeds of our ancestors, to facilitate the expansion of military-historical knowledge." Sarah Blesener/Alexia Foundation
A unit dresses to re-enact Soviet Russia during WWII as part of their historical education at the Historical-War Camp, in Borodino, Russia. 26 July 2016. The camp offers reenactments of historical periods of war. Borodino is famous for a battle fought on 7 Sep 1812 - the deadliest day of the Napoleonic Wars. The project statement of the camp says: "To awaken in the younger generation a keen interest in the history of the Fatherland, the glorious deeds of our ancestors, to facilitate the expansion of military-historical knowledge." Sarah Blesener/Alexia Foundation
Artyom Baklashkin  (17), a student of the local secondary school in the village of Diveevo, stands guard in an abandoned building  with a group known as the "Survivalists", 6 Apr 2016, Russia. Survivalists train young adults to survive future wars and post-apocolyptic life and meet weekly for tactical drills. They are using air-soft guns for the practice and competition. Air-soft is a sport that replicates military action, but fires non-metallic pellets. Sarah Blesener/Alexia Foundation
Students compete at the "Inspection of Singing and Marching" competition at the gymnasium of School #6 for students in the Dmitrov region, a suburb of Moscow, Dmitrov, Russia, 14 Dec 2016. Sarah Blesener/Alexia Foundation
Students stand ready as a teacher observes how quickly they can dress in gas masks, 4 Apr 2016, School #7, Dmitrov, Russia. Sarah Blesener/Alexia Foundation 
Students from School #18 perform a show at the local theater in Sergiyev Posad, Russia, 15 Dec 2016. The show promotes the cadet school at School #18. Sarah Blesener/Alexia Foundation 
Students from School #18 perform a show at the local theater in Sergiyev Posad, Russia, 15 Dec 2016. The show promotes the cadet school at School #18. Sarah Blesener/Alexia Foundation 
Students from School #18 perform a show at the local theater in Sergiyev Posad, Russia, 15 Dec 2016. The show promotes the cadet school at School #18. Sarah Blesener/Alexia Foundation 
Students from Stavropol rest in their tent before sleeping at camp. Without electricity, the students use their phones and flashlights to play games. "Orthodox Warrior" camp takes place in Diveevo, the center of pilgrimage for Orthodox Christians in Russia, 3 August 2016. The relics of one of the most revered saints, St. Seraphim, are celebrated on the 1 of August, attracting pilgrims from all across the country. The participants of the camp train not only in martial arts and tactical training, but unite under their Orthodox faith. Various competitions are held throughout the week, including Cossack dagger training and military tactical training. Sarah Blesener/Alexia Foundation 
A unit dresses to re-enact Soviet Russia during WWII as part of their historical education at the Historical-War Camp, in Borodino, Russia. 26 July 2016. The camp offers reenactments of historical periods of war. Borodino is famous for a battle fought on 7 Sep 1812 - the deadliest day of the Napoleonic Wars. 350 adolescents are in attendance, ranging in ages from 11 to 16. Sarah Blesener/Alexia Foundation 
Students train in firearms at the Historical-War Camp, in Borodino, Russia. 24 July 2016. Borodino is famous for a battle fought on 7 Sep 1812 - the deadliest day of the Napoleonic Wars. 350 adolescents are in attendance, ranging in ages from 11 to 16. They are using air-soft guns for the practice and competition. The camp teaches information about the basic kinds of weapons, bases and firing rules,  sniper rifles, and different type of weapons. Sarah Blesener/Alexia Foundation 
Schoolchildren line up for drill on a Monday afternoon at School #7, 4 Apr 2016, Dmitrov, Russia. Drill is not mandatory at School #7, but takes place before classes start at 8:00 and at 15:00. School #7 is a public school but offers cadet classes for those who wish to participate. The benefit of participating in cadet classes includes free lunch, while other students have to pay. Sarah Blesener/Alexia Foundation