© Maxim Dondyuk
The Cossacks have a long military history in Eastern Europe. From establishing their own self-governed land through rebellion in the 1400s to guarding borders and carrying out attacks on ethnic minorities under the orders of other military leaders centuries later, the Cossacks’ reputation is a matter of perspective. To some, they are stoic warriors following a code of honor, yet bound to no country or government—like a knight or samurai from long ago. Others see Cossacks as mercenaries and enforcers, taking the law into their own hands and attacking those who they consider to be invaders.
In 2010, when photographer Maxim Dondyuk came across a training camp for Cossack children, he wasn’t sure what to make of it. He was in Crimea, a region along the coast of the Black Sea in Ukraine, to photograph Tatars for the Russian newspaper Izvestiya. While there he discovered a Crimea-Sich summer camp, which trains boys ages 7 to 16 in Cossack military and survival skills as well as religious instruction. Dondyuk explains, “I stayed [at the camp] only for a few hours and did a couple of photos, but promised myself to come back and photograph a full story.”
He did find his way back to the camp in 2012, and spent two weeks in the Crimean Mountains living as the campers did, while also making still images and shooting video. “For me, every story that I photograph is an analysis of the event [and] time period,” Dondyuk says. “I’m not interested in stereotypes, and need to understand the situation myself. I’m a fan of gonzo journalism and try … to lose myself in the topic that I’m shooting.” He immersed himself in the day-to-day experiences of the boys, many of whom had already received training at Cossack schools back home and come from families of military officers. “The privilege for the best young Cossacks from Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, and Belarus is the free training and living in the camp. Also any child, even if his parents are not officers, can get in for the minimal payment [of] 5 euros a day,” Dondyuk explains.
The training includes shooting targets with real weapons and live ammunition, setting up camp, hand-to-hand fighting and mountain climbing. Dondyuk was given complete access to the campers and the camp’s activities in part because he had befriended a Cossack Hetman (military officer) the first time he had visited the camp. He had also pitched the photo essay to Andrei Polikanov, director of photography at Russian Reporter, who supplied him with credentials and agreed to run the images in the magazine.
Polikanov, who had published Dondyuk’s series on tuberculosis in Ukraine a few years ago and has since given him assignments, says one of the things that intrigued him about the subject matter was that “you don’t see stories of 7-year-old boys in real military training every day. It is quite extraordinary, and enormous.” Many of Dondyuk’s images do show children and teens dressed in camouflage uniforms while participating in a variety of situations that involve guns, whether it be marching with them, shooting at targets or defending themselves against armed men. The photographer admits to not having a very good impression of the boys at first. “I [thought] that they grow [up to be] professional killers,” he says.
His perception changed after spending two weeks at the camp. “I realized that they grow [into] defenders” of the Slavonic land, which Cossacks don’t view as individual countries, but rather a unified land, Dondyuk explains. “Here they are getting a good military practice and many of them have become sergeants in the army, as this camp has already been [in existence] for ten years.”
Despite the weaponry and military fatigues, there is a romance and beauty to the images. The Crimean Mountains provide a majestic backdrop, and the lushness of the vegetation compliments the deep green of the boys’ uniforms. There is also a lot of motion in Dondyuk’s photos, as the campers are seen hiking, climbing and exercising. When not engaged in combat training, the boys could be mistaken for any group of summer campers, strumming guitars and playing chess to pass the time. Overall, the boys seem focused and determined—and not particularly evil or angry—which helps viewers to see them less as nationalist mercenaries and more as soldiers in training.
The Crimea-Sich images ran in the May 23, 2013, issue of Russian Reporter magazine. “Pictures are the core of the article and only very short, synoptic text and rather detailed captions accompany the images,” DOP Polikanov explains.
Dondyuk used a Nikon D3s with a Nikkor 35mm f/2 lens and Nikon ME-1 stereo microphone to shoot stills and motion footage at the camp. He believes the campers came to see him as one of their own, which helped them forget about the camera, allowing Dondyuk to capture their experiences in an honest and intimate way. “Every photographer who wants do photo stories must know basic psychology rules to communicate with people and be honest with them,” he explains. “[The] Cossacks didn’t perceive me as a stranger; I was a part of them, I had experienced all the difficulties and joys [of the camp]. Even now I correspond with officers and often [have] Skype conversations with them.”
When asked whether he took into account the controversial history of the Cossacks, or the recent emergence of Cossacks as enforcers for the Russian government, Donduyk says, “I showed the Cossacks the way I was seeing them. It’s only my feeling, [and] attitude to that situation. I don’t take into account all that happens with the Cossacks in Russia.”
He adds, “I had known about [the situation in Russia] only after my photographing in the camp. I spent a lot of time with them, recorded interviews with Cossack Hetman and analyzed all that I saw there. I don’t think that they pretended all that time [while] I was there.”
Yet it is hard to ignore that these boys are training with an enemy in mind. Dondyuk notes that, historically, the Tatars have been the adversaries of the Cossacks, a conflict that has been fueled through the ages by the two groups’ religious differences: Cossacks are Christians and Tatars are Muslims. There is also a long history of Cossack military campaigns against minority groups, including Jewish and Turkish people.
Considering recent reports that Cossacks are seen as representatives of President Vladimir Putin and his conservative policies, and are acting as pseudo-law enforcement officers in Eastern European territories where Muslim populations are on the rise, it is not surprising Dondyuk’s essay stirred controversy when it was published in Russian Reporter. But Polikanov says, “The biggest part of the [Russian Reporter] audience believe that they are rather ‘good guys’ than ‘bad guys.’”