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Russia youths seek 'social lift' at Kremlin political camp

The forum teaches them how to keep secrets from journalists, raise funds and organize, but most of those at Lake Seliger seem less interested in the Kremlin than in climbing the social ladder.

August 11, 2011|By Sergei L. Loiko, Los Angeles Times
  • Sergei L. Loiko / Los Angeles Times
Sergei L. Loiko / Los Angeles Times (63889070.jpg )

Reporting from Nilova Pustyn, Russia — They wake up to the Russian national anthem and gather near the main stage lined with huge portraits of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his boss (on paper at least), President Dmitry Medvedev, where they do their morning exercises to music interrupted periodically by recorded quotations from both leaders.

As the day goes on, they are taught how to keep secrets from journalists, how to be active on the Internet, how to set up youth organizations and how to raise funds. They are trained in martial arts by an expert from the Vladimir Putin Fight Club and instructed to read books suggested by Putin.

One thing they don't need to be taught is to adore Putin. They already do.

Photos: Kremlin political camp

In this sprawling Kremlin-sponsored youth camp 220 miles northwest of Moscow — 99 acres of white sand, tall pines and Lake Seliger, a jewel of Russian nature — thousands of young men and women are learning how to be supporters of the ruling United Russia party, future politicians and senior government officials.

The state spends more than $7 million to accommodate about 20,000 18- to 25-year-olds at the camp, known as Seliger Forum-2011. They come in groups of 7,000 for nine days in July, most of them from Kremlin-nurtured youth organizations such as Nashi (Ours), Mestnyie (Locals) and Stal (Steel).

Political youth camps are a fixture of summer the world over. Some activists and journalists, however, have expressed concern about the role of the Kremlin-backed youth groups in harassing liberal politicians and journalists and countering opposition rallies in a country that has seen civil liberties threatened and the rule of law founder.

With the youth organizations and the camp, authorities are trying to recreate the Soviet Young Communist League, which itself was an abridged replica of the Communist Party, with a similar structure and control mechanisms, political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin said.

"The Kremlin grew concerned with what was going on in the minds of the young people in mid-2000s amid the succession of orange revolutions in the former Soviet republics," said Oreshkin, a senior researcher with the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Geography. But "whatever [the campers] may say now, many of them don't really care about the Kremlin or its leaders but regard their being here as a chance for a career boost."

Alexander Vasenkov, a 19-year-old student from the city of Yaroslavl, acknowledged that he hoped to get "a social lift" here and improve his prospects. "I hope that being maximally active here will help me to climb up the social ladder and reach my goals faster," he said.

After a breakfast of oatmeal and tea at wooden tables near their tents, the campers scattered throughout the vast territory for hours of instruction by experts in subjects as varied as politics and mountain climbing.

Not far from a row of posters named "Losers of the Year," featuring photographs of imprisoned tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and other opposition leaders, an instructor told one group seated in a circle how Putin disposed of the system of oligarchs that rose after the fall of the Soviet Union.

"[Boris] Berezovsky and [Vladimir] Gusinsky are abroad and Khodorkovsky is in prison," the instructor said to approving grunts and giggles. "So the oligarchs no longer govern the state and no longer influence the decisions taken by the people authorized to do so."

Journalists may be loyal, but they also may be provocative, another instructor told his group. "Be careful with seemingly simple questions, because if you chatter a lot you help your enemy." Nodding their heads, the students took notes.

Not far from some graffiti depicting a kimono-clad Putin holding the globe in his arms, another group was asked to discuss various concepts. "OK, how about the notion America"? the instructor asked. "America is to blame for everything," came one student's quick reply.

"These young people are taught to open up accounts in all social networks, make as many friends as possible and thus spread information with maximum efficiency," explained Vasily Yakemenko, founder of the Nashi youth group and head of the Federal Agency for Youth Affairs that runs the camp. "Our camp will eventually turn into the biggest youth communication center in the world where young people from other countries can come and talk about things they can't discuss at home."

Critique is welcome here, Yakemenko said, insisting that the camp was open to all opinions. He said he wished more lecturers of liberal views would visit. But he quickly added that opposition leaders such as Garry Kasparov, Boris Nemtsov, Mikhail Kasyanov and others are personae non gratae as they "don't profess true convictions."

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