Little soldiers: controversy over Russian children in WWII uniform

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Moscow (AFP)

When kindergarten staff told Lyubov Sobol her five-year-old daughter needed to come in wearing a miniature military uniform ahead of Russia's World War II Victory Day, she was shocked and angry.

But dressing children up in the attire for May 9, the day Russia commemorates Soviet victory over the Nazis, is far from an unusual practice in the country.

The trend has grown over President Vladimir Putin's two decades in power, as officials highlight the conflict to boost patriotic sentiment.

Child-sized khaki tunics, jaunty caps with a red star and even wooden replica weapons are widely on sale and many youngsters wear such outfits to Victory Day events across Russia.

While popular, such outfits have also sparked controversy among parents and professionals.

"As far as I know, the initiative came from above," Sobol told AFP of the kindergarten's request.

"I don't agree with it," she said, criticising what she called "forcing military subject matter on children."

"This militarised masquerade is coming to every corner of Russia," she said, adding that when she was at school there was no such custom.

Sobol, a lawyer who works with opposition leader Alexei Navalny, persuaded the state kindergarten to cancel the plans for children to wear military gear, with the support of other parents.

"Kindergartens should teach children to treat people well," she said. "Not how to hold a machine gun."

In response, conservative pro-Kremlin media accused her of a lack of patriotism, but she insisted she acted to protect "the rights and interests of people living in our country."

Several other Moscow schools and kindergartens this year have asked children to wear retro uniforms for celebratory concerts and photoshoots, parents told AFP.

Others were instructed to bring military-themed ribbons or soldiers' caps.

A spokeswoman for the Moscow education department said by phone that the choice of clothing was "most likely" an individual decision by schools.

However the department did not respond to an official request for comment.

- 'Prettifying war' -

Several cities including Pyatigorsk in the Russian Caucasus have held special military parades this year with kindergarten-age children wearing retro uniforms.

Many families taking part in Thursday's "Immortal Regiment" marches holding pictures of loved ones who fought in the war brought along children in war uniforms.

But some psychologists spoke out against a practice they says glorifies war and glosses over the realities.

"This is romanticising and prettifying the most terrible thing in our world -- war," wrote Saint Petersburg-based child psychologist Yelena Kuznetsova on Facebook in a widely shared post.

"Children shouldn't wear military uniform," she said. "You should buy children clothes that are about life, not death."

Another child psychologist Irina Obukhova however told Kommersant daily that it was "essential" for children to take part in such events and "identify with their ancestors."

A poll by the liberal Echo of Moscow radio station found 81 percent of Muscovites thought it was "wrong" for children to wear military uniform while 17 percent said this was "OK."

A set of child-size World War II uniform does not come cheap.

At Admiral, a company based in the town of Shchelkovo outside Moscow, a complete Russian-made outfit for children aged 3 to 15 costs 3,500 rubles ($54) according to company head Yevgeny Grankin.

"It's popular, more and more so in recent times," he said.

"I think people are just proud of the past, of victory."