MOSCOW - As the patrol of “American troops” follow the curve in the forest path they spot movement ahead. Quickly squatting down and against the tree line, they are alert to the possibility of a “Nazi German” ambush.
But the men of the “41st Armored Infantry Regiment of the 2nd Armored Division” discover they have bumped into some of their own as well as the “No. 4 Commando of the British Army.”
Relieved and relaxed, the troops begin chatting in their native Russian.
Turning to a reporter, “American soldier” Alexei explains in English the Germans fled to their field camp. “Now we're going back. That's the real war. About an hour walking, then a few minutes of fighting, or no fighting at all, and we are going back,” he says. The other Russians dressed in World War II fatigues of Russia’s Western allies laugh in agreement.
Despite the lack of action, the heat pounding down on their metal helmets, and a constant swarm of mosquitos attacking exposed skin from their sweat-soaked, olive wool uniforms, this group of re-enactors was still managing to have fun.
Historic battle re-enactment is a niche hobby with a fair number of adherents in Russia, where past military victories are played-up by the Kremlin as a show of national strength.
“Re-enactment for me it's like a sport, an active sport, and some fun with my friends,” says Maxim Afonin who, when re-enacting, prefers to be called Private Max Garvel of the U.S. Infantry. “I don't care about politics, about why Germans are Germans. I mean, why Russian guys wear a German uniform. I don't care. It's like a cool game for friends,” says Afonin.
Most re-enactors choose to play the Soviet Red Army on the eastern front because it is patriotic, cheaper, and easier.
But this rare group, camping in a private area for re-enactments and war games on the outskirts of Moscow called “Garrison A”, prefers to practice their English as Western allies-despite Russia's tensions with the West.
“It's different because, if you re-enact as Russian soldier you know how to talk, you know how to think, you know how to use the things,” says "British Commander" Andrei Tuzov. “If you re-enact as a Western soldier you don't know what a Western soldier thinks, you don't know how they talk. You learn it,” he says.
Attention to detail
But re-creating the western front in Russia means ordering expensive, genuine military gear.
These hobbyists re-create historic battles with "air soft", weapons that look historically accurate but fire plastic pellets, as well as realistic-looking firecracker grenades and mortar launchers.
The re-enactors’ go all-out to make their military camp appear in line with the 1940s. Empty cans of food near the campfire have historic labels printed and glued on them, while an olive green radio plays “The While Cliffs of Dover” and other classic war songs.
One “infantryman” distributes copies of the original letter from President Dwight Eisenhower announcing the U.S. D-Day invasion.
Need for recruiting allies
But as military tensions are growing between Russia and the West, some Western troop re-enactors find themselves questioned by fellow Russians.
“Well, at work my colleagues have also asked 'why the American soldier?’” says dental technician Andrey Borovoy. “Well, at the moment the relations between our countries are not very good, but let's not mix up policy and history,” he says. “History is history and we were allies in that war,” adds Borovoy.
Meanwhile, this small but dedicated group of Russian “Western soldiers” says the biggest challenge is getting enough support for their re-enactments.
While hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Russian re-enactors play the Soviet Red Army and Nazi German military, this group estimates there are less than 100 playing Western forces. But they hope it can become more popular.
“We can't have any heavy weapons because we need crews. We can't have any vehicles because we need people who are really into it and really interested to make them,” laments "U.S. Infantryman" Denis Yachikov. “And, of course, for better events we need more people,” he adds.