New East Digital Archive

Boyhood: life in a patriotic, male-only school in Russia’s isolated Far East — in photos 

20 November 2020

When Lesha Pavlov returned to his former school in Borogontsy in Yakutia for his photo series Boyhood, he wanted to capture its “homogenic masculinity”. Unofficially named Uolan — “youth” in the area’s native Sakha language — the school is one of several hundred in Russia to educate children in single-sex classes.

Children enroll in Uolan at the end of elementary school from different villages in Yakutia and from all over Russia to be raised as “real men”: fair leaders and the heads of their families. The school’s curriculum includes an annual three-day military camp, freestyle wrestling, ice fishing, dressing up as booturs, or Yakut warriors, and gruelling long-distance bike rides to neighbouring villages. Despite the emphasis on physical education, pupils are also expected to be gentlemen and attend classes wearing black suits, with a comb, and a handkerchief. When Pavlov attended the school, there were also crafts lessons, among them a traditional bone carving workshop. It was one of the few lessons which Pavlov enjoyed at Uolan. “I remember the comforting smell of the heated bones and the various tools with which we could work,” he remembers.

The town of Borogontsy sits on the shores of the Myuryu lake, an alas formed by the repeated melting and refreezing of Arctic permafrost. “It’s freezing cold here in winter and extremely hot in the summer. There are no natural resources in Borogontsy,” says Pavlov. For the photographer, there was a strange imbalance in his childhood, and time spent on the shores of lake, in the cosy summer house built by his grandfather, and attending the hyper-militarised boarding school in town. “Life is still [here] and the people are nice and open-hearted,” he says.

But the school itself was formed due to the settlement’s difficult past. “Back in the 90s, when the nation was experiencing economic and social upheaval, there was nothing for many young men to do but build up their muscles and fight. In our village, guys were fighting on the streets, even if there was nothing in Borogontsy to fight for,” Pavlov remembers. As a response to the unrest, the decision was taken to open a boys-only school in Borogontsy in 1994, with an emphasis on sports, practical classes, and patriotic education, aimed to temper the young spirits.

Yet looking back at his years in Uolan and photographing its students today, Pavlov finds the traditional views of masculinity imposed by the school to be limited and outdated: “identity goes beyond gender and the social roles it might have suggested in the past,” he says. He believes it’s unnecessary to raise boys in an artificial, male-only environment, and set such a hyper-masculine image as an example for the young men.

Yet with Russian society placing a new emphasis on patriotic, militarised education, it’s no surprise that the Uolan is having somewhat of a moment. A few years ago, the school moved to a new, larger building, where some of Pavlov’s ex-classmates now work as teachers. Pavlov lost contact with most of the class after moving to St Petersburg two years before graduation. But working on Boyhood in Borogontsy provided direction for the photographer’s latest project, dedicated to the drying-up of the Myuryu lake — where Pavlov spent the sweetest moments of his boyhood.