ST. PETERSBURG -- It's not unusual for parents to spend a day at their children's school talking about their jobs. What better way for the next generation to know what it's like to work as a lawyer, an engineer, or an artist?
So parents at Kindergarten No. 69 in St. Petersburg's Primorsky region were enthusiastic when a father in the group, Army Major Vitaly Statsenko, volunteered to give a special presentation ahead of Defender of the Fatherland Day on February 23.
Statsenko, who works with Red Star, a group that stages battle reenactments and military-style sporting events for St. Petersburg youth, arrived with mock Kalashnikov rifles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, and even a gas mask. At the end of his talk, the pupils lined up for photographs, many jauntily toting guns or sporting olive-green helmets.
The visit passed without incident. But as the parents began to share their photos online, howls of protest erupted throughout the Russian webiverse at the sight of 5- and 6-year-olds holding heavy weapons.
Many likened the images to child soldiers recruited by extremist groups like Islamic State and Boko Haram. Fontanka.ru, a popular local news site, reported somewhat cheekily that the kindergarten was holding a "day of militia fighters" -- using a loaded term, "opolchentsy," that has become synonymous with pro-Russian fighters in eastern Ukraine.
The outcry grew, prompting authorities in St. Petersburg's Primorsky district to call in the kindergarten's director, Margarita Ivanova, for an explanation.
Ivanova refused an RFE/RL request for an interview. But Valentina Levskaya, the district's education head, said that posting pictures on the Internet led many people to misconstrue an essentially innocent event.
"All this was meant to do was teach the children about a profession," she said. "Some of the parents even attended the event. But then they started posting photos. Especially one mother -- I won't say her name -- who posted pictures of her daughter holding a gun so that her grandfather, a military pilot, could see. They did that with absolutely no comprehension of what the Internet is, and how all that can be interpreted."
The parents have since demanded a retraction from Fontanka.ru for its provocative choice of words; Statsenko has removed all pictures of the event from his VKontakte social-networking page and closed the comments section. (Fontanka.ru responded by reporting that local Defense Ministry officials had ordered Statsenko to undergo sensitivity training.)
Yury Dorezhensky, the deputy head of Red Star, says the public backlash is "absolutely wrong."
"My grandfather went through all of World War II, and even though I never had the chance to know him very well, my destiny to be a soldier was sealed. We all played at being soldiers when we were little -- is that so bad? We need to raise children to have patriotic feelings about their country. Otherwise, we'll have the same problems that we're seeing in neighboring states."
Exposing young people to weapons is nothing new in the countries of the former Soviet Union, where generations of high-school students have learned skills like disassembling Kalashnikovs in three-year courses called Introduction to Military Training. (Kazakhstan recently banned the practice after a student was killed by an exploding grenade.) Even very small children were routinely taken on field trips to military bases to learn the fundamentals of army life.
Dorezhensky says it's essential for young Russians to know the country's war-torn history -- and that hands-on lessons help bring "dry and impersonal" history texts to life.
"We're not teaching children how to use weapons; the army will teach them that," he says. "But I can show them a Mosin rifle and talk about the 1915 Attack of the Dead" -- when outnumbered Russian forces repelled German troops outside Osowiec Fortress during World War I. "I can pick up a Tokarev sniper rifle and teach them about Lyudmila Pavlyuchenko, the famous female Soviet sniper."
"There are dates that the entire country remembers with pride, and they need to know what they are," Dorezhensky adds. "Ask students today the significance of February 15 -- the day of the Soviet pullout from Afghanistan -- and probably 50 percent will tell you it's Valentine's Day!"
Still, the episode is likely to spell the end of military lessons at Kindergarten No. 69. Levskaya, the district's education chief, says it may have been better for the students to get their introduction to army life "in some other form."
"If the school head had come to us, we would have looked at the methodology and suggested what might be possible instead," she said. "And the teachers probably should have explained to the parents that this kind of lesson isn't appropriate for kindergartners. The parents aren't pedagogues, but the teachers are. They should have told the parents that this is an excellent event -- but for a school, not for a kindergarten."
Written in Prague by Daisy Sindelar based on reporting in St. Petersburg by Tatyana Voltskaya