Crimea Sich is a military training camp for children ages 7 to 16 years old situated in the Crimean Mountains. The idea of a “sich” is an old one, coming from the Ukrainian word siktý which means “to chop,” or clear a forest for an encampment. For the Cossacks, these were administrative and military centers. In contemporary times, the term was being applied to a children’s summer camp.

I first discovered the camp in 2010, and it immediately captured my attention. I spent two summers documenting it and its inhabitants in order to complete this photo project. My goal was to understand why children needed to be taught how to deal with real weapons at such a young age. I wanted to see who these kids were and why they were there.

During my first trip to the camp I discovered that the majority of the children were young Cossacks who were quickly introduced to military training in their home counties. They received further combat training at the camp: they learned about the famed Kadochnikov system of self-defense, studied military maneuvers in various terrains and practiced shooting using real firearms. Former military officers (specifically officers who saw active combat) train the kids.

The more time I spent there, the more I realized that the story runs much deeper than I thought. I recognized that it would be impossible to tell it only through a photo project. In 2013, I returned to the camp with my brother to shoot a documentary film. A couple of months later, the Ukrainian revolution started. Then Russia annexed Crimea and started the war in Donbass (Eastern Ukraine). It turned out that we captured the very last year of the camp’s existence in its original form, when children from Ukraine, Russia, Moldova and Belarus trained there all together.

Using this camp as an example, we can understand that the conflict between Russia and Ukraine really started a few decades ago in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. At that time, an empire disappeared and was replaced by a series of smaller countries—but the idea of something larger persisted. What we saw at Maidan and what we continue to see playing out on the borders of Russia is the definitive fragmentation of a dream of unity pressed up against people battling to hang on to a broken past.

—Maxim Dondyuk

Editors’ Note: Since we discovered Dondyuk’s work in the Exposure Awards 2015, we have followed his new projects with great interest. As Dondyuk describes, “Crimea Sich” is not only a powerful set of photos but also a documentary film. But it needs your help to become a reality—learn more on the project’s Kickstarter page.