A school picture showing girls and boys posing with replicas of war weapons has sparked controversy in Russia.

The children, aged between five and six, were part of a "patriotic class" in St Petersburg organised by an association that claims the handling of arms should be part of the curriculum of Russian schoolchildren.

On the class photo, which has been circulating on Russian social media since 25 February, children are shown with assault rifles AK-47s and grenade launchers in their hands.

Some also appear to be wearing berets and military helmets. Beside them, a man poses in uniform of the Russian army.

"Why would a child not have the right to carry a gun?" said Yuri Dorojinski, the deputy head of the Red Star, the association of military history enthusiasts that helped organise the "patriotic class", including providing the weapon replicas.

Dorojinski added the event was organized as part of the Defender of the Fatherland Day, a celebration inherited from the Soviet era that Russia celebrates on 23 February.

"It's silly to teach them patriotism without showing the reality," Dorojinski said, adding he had ensured the children's parents were supportive of the Red Star's initiative.

As the theme of patriotic mobilisation has been put forward in the country over the Ukrainian crisis and mounting tensions with the West, Russian internet users on social networks denounced the "scandalous" initiative.

Contacted by AFP, the director of the school refused to comment on the photographs.