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.
In this sprawling Kremlin-sponsored youth camp 300 kilometres northwest of Moscow — white sands, 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 people aged 18 to 25 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 concerns 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 re-create 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, admitted he hoped to get "a social lift" here and improve his prospects in life. "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 on wooden tables near their tents, the campers scattered throughout the vast territory for hours of instruction from experts in subjects as varied as politics and mountain climbing.
Not far from a row of posters named Losers of the Year that feature 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 said to 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, the 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 centre 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 the camp was open to all opinions. He said he wished more lecturers of liberal views would visit. But he quickly added opposition leaders such as Garry Kasparov, Boris Nemtsov, Mikhail Kasyanov and others are persona non grata as they "don’t profess true convictions."
Oleg Kashin, a liberal journalist with the Kommersant newspaper who investigated the activities of the youth groups, was ambushed by two thugs last November. He was beaten with an iron rod, and his leg, hand and jaw were broken. Believing Yakemenko and youth groups affiliated with him were involved, Kashin publicly expressed his suspicions.
"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 if 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 from 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."
— Los Angeles Times