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COLUMN ONE

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

Oleg Kashin, a liberal journalist with the Kommersant newspaper who investigated the activities of the youth groups, was ambushed by two thugs in November. He was beaten with an iron rod, and a leg, hand and both jaws were broken. Believing that Yakemenko and youth groups affiliated with him were involved, Kashin publicly expressed his suspicion.

"I can't tell you more now, but I know that in the course of the investigation of the attack on me the Russian Investigation Committee found a lot of interesting material about the activities of these youth groups," Kashin said by telephone.

At lunchtime over cups of hot tea fresh from the campfire, some of the campers talked about politics and Putin. They were told that a top leader would soon visit. No name was given, but for them that could be only one person.

"Medvedev is weak in his foreign policy and Russia has lost many positions of influence abroad, so Putin with his tough approach should come back and lead the country," said Vasily Meshcherinov, a 20-year-old Moscow student.

"I live well with Putin in power and he should continue to run the country," said Anna Firsova, 19, a student from St. Petersburg.

The big moment soon arrived. Sporting a tan and smile full of confidence, Putin emerged from his helicopter to cheers and many a happy tear from a crowd of about three dozen teenagers apparently chosen for the greeting because they were overweight. They stood on or near a huge scale erected on the edge of the camp. Their leader told Putin about their plans to lose weight, and to their delight he promised to try to shed a pound too.

Putin then started for the main tent, where thousands of others were waiting.

On the way through a forest of tall pines, blue and green tents and portraits of himself and Medvedev, he stopped to talk to groups of campers here and there, climbed an alpine wall, posed for pictures arm-wrestling with a couple of young men who looked like professional bodybuilders and gave an interview for a campus documentary about his father's participation in the war. Finally, he participated in an almost two-hour Q and A with the big-tent crowd.

In what felt like a campaign stop, Putin firmly spoke out against strong-arm rule in Russia, recalling the millions who died in Stalin's gulags. "The totalitarian forms of management completely destroy the man's freedom and creative activity, which no state can replace," Putin said. "As a result, the economy, social sphere and politics are rendered inefficient, and such a state is doomed."

When a university student from St. Petersburg told him campers had no doubt that he would win the 2012 presidential election, there was a storm of applause and shouts of "Putin is our president." Then the student asked whether Putin would run.

"The future is not far away, and in a short while we will consult with you what to do next," Putin quipped.

Then he was gone. By the time the dust stirred by his helicopter had settled, the campers were already preparing for the night's disco party. They seemed excited, just as excited as they had been for Putin.

"Yes, these kids are brainwashed," journalist Kashin said, "but … they just enjoy coming here mixing with other boys and girls and having a cool time at the state's expense."

Photos: Kremlin political camp

sergei.loiko@latimes.com

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