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Analysis & Opinion
13.07.09 On The Muddy Banks Of Seliger
By Roland Oliphant

This year the annual youth camp at Lake Seliger was organized by the state, and thrown open to non-Nashi participants. It did not live up to the lurid expectations of its critics, and at its best was everything it was meant to be -a learning experience, a forum for new ideas and a networking and, yes, an educational opportunity for Russia??s brightest young things. But its purpose is still confusing, and the highly-choreographed events are underpinned by an uneasy sense of hierarchy better suited to the school classroom than to a forum for innovative young people.

The annual youth camp at Seliger has dubious connotations for many. Since 2005 it has been a flagship event for the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi, a best known in the West for harassing foreign diplomats, and without a much better reputation amongst many Russians. Stories from the camp in previous years have given the Seliger ?°youth forum?± a reputation for anything from political brain-washing (it is no secret that Nashi??s original raison d????tre is to prevent a colored revolution in Russia) to sexual deviancy. (?°I??m telling you, it??s an orgy,?± asserted one well-connected Russian acquaintance of this writer before he visited. The rumor that Seliger is a den of vice seems to have sprung from the 2007 camp, which was organized as part of the ?°Year of the Family?± and reportedly took some quite extraordinary measures to instill in delegates a sense of duty to reverse Russia??s demographic decline. Given the extraordinary depth and persistence of this rumor, it is only fair to point out that there was no overt encouragement of unprotected sex this year ?C although group weddings remain an annual fixture of the camp).

But the decision to bring the event under government control and throw the camp open to non-Nashi participants has not assuaged critics. Days before the camp opened on July 1, Ilya Yashin, a leader of the Solidarnost opposition movement, asked the prosecutor general to investigate the legality of giving state-funding to what he said was to all intents and purposes a politically partisan event. The Federal Agency for Youth Affairs, which was charged with organizing this year??s event, is headed by Vasiliy Yakemenko, a former Nashi leader, and the camp??s logo (a red triangle with a diagonal white cross) remains almost identical to Nashi??s. ?°In content and style this event is practically indistinguishable from similar youth camps held by Nashi at Seliger in the past four years,?± the Kommersant daily quoted Yashin??s letter to the prosecutor.

Traditional elements from previous camps did, indeed, remain. There were red-and-white Nashi flags and clothes, visits from government ministers and a live video link with President Dmitry Medvedev. Campers were woken at eight o??clock every morning by the Russian national anthem blasted from speakers mounted in the trees. Many of the delegates were from Nashi, or were former members. Robert Schlegel, a former Nashi leader and now the youngest deputy in the State Duma (for United Russia), hosted the video link with Medvedev.

But there was no paramilitary training to combat colored revolutions, nor any ?°love oasis?± in which couples could get to work raising the birthrate. And despite the conflation of love of nation with love of Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (whose portraits were displayed side-by-side at strategic points around the camp) the rhetoric was more patriotic than partisan, with great emphasis placed on national unity and ?°tolerance,?± which was one of the camp??s many buzz words.

The political sympathies of delegates also turned out to be fairly diverse, with more than a few expressing doubts about associating with Nashi. ?°We??ve got nothing to do with that organization, and we don??t want to,?± said Nadezhda, a 19 year old economics student from Volgograd. ?°To be honest, we don??t much like Nashi or their politics,?± said Vadim Popov, 22, who was taking part in a modern art project called Future Ville. ?°But the government gave us funding, and we need the money. So here we are.?±

But if toning down the rhetoric and the activities gave the place at least a veneer of political neutrality and civility, it did not make it any easier to understand what the point of it all was. A great amount of thought (and money - the Kommersant daily reported that the organizers spent about 7.5 million rubles, or $2.2 million), had gone into the organization. But the official line was difficult to follow. 2009 has been dubbed the ?°Year of Youth?± (as 2007 was the ?°Year of the Family?±), and a great number of the delegates had applied on that program??s website. But the camp itself was called ?°Innovation Forum 2009,?± and it was dominated by two themes: the innovation of the title, and ?°tolerance,?± within another program called ?°Russia for Everybody.?± Meanwhile, this writer was invited by the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation as part of yet another program called ?°Investigating Russia.?± To confuse matters further, if anyone was asked what the camp was about, the invariable one-word answer was ?°education.?±

And in an important way that is exactly what the camp was about (though not because Education Minister Andrei Fursenko visited one afternoon). The most perfect example was the living-art project called Future Ville. Participants labored from dawn till dusk every day to erect a model city. The buildings ?C factories, a grocery store, even a registry office ?C were built of wood by various teams. But they also printed money (with which they had to pay for building materials), built a bureaucracy, agreed laws and held elections. Opposition newspapers appeared accusing the ?°mayor?± of failing to fight inflation, corruption and authoritarianism. Rival candidates posted fliers pleading for votes at tomorrow afternoon??s election. ?°It??s learning through play,?± said Popov, who was running the ?°radio station?± ?C a loud hailer. ?°We??ve got lots of young people in this country who are bright and ambitious and have ideas. But they lack one thing ?C experience. This kind thing ?C it??s a game, but it is a great way to give people experience of civic life.?±

And at its best, that was what Seliger was all about. Most of the delegates won their places by submitting entrepreneurial projects to the Year of Youth website and they were there ?C at least nominally - to present business plans and seek investors. Nadezhda??s delegation, in keeping with the ?°Russia for Everybody?± spirit of the camp, was seeking funding for a multi-ethnic theatre company. Others had more technical projects, such as Russia??s first crayfish farm (a quarter the price of crab, just as tasty and farmable in the southern regions, apparently). If the truth be told the exercise was largely academic ?C few had any hope of finding a backer. Then there was ?°§? TV,?± the campsite television station staffed entirely by students and trainees (and which may, if it can find the money, some day go national), the site newspaper, ?°The Fly Swat,?± and outward bound activities from abseiling to kayaking.

There was obviously an ulterior motive, however. Just as the 2007 camp appealed to young patriots to reverse the collapsing birthrate by having children, Seliger 2009 was recruiting them to halt another negative trend ?C the brain drain. In a mock graveyard, black crosses bore the names of modern inventions and the dates their Russian inventors emigrated abroad (a disproportionate number of them to Silicone Valley). The organizers of Seliger 2009 appeared to have gathered the best and brightest from Russia??s elite universities to show them two things: that there could be opportunities for them in Russia, and that it would be disastrous for the country were they to leave.

And there is nothing malignant about that. The people this writer met (there were some 8,000 people at the camp, so it is not a scientific sample), were far too bright to be brain washed. They were, enquiring, educated, curious about the world and open to ideas in a way that their elders often are not. And they know it. ?°We have a different mentality to the generation in power now,?± said Christina Vasileva, a 20 year old §? TV staff member from Krasnodar. ?°We were born after the Cold War and the Soviet Union, and those memories do not affect our view of the world.?±

That is true. And it is also true, as Irina Pakhmova, a 20 year old Nashi ?°commissar,?± said, that ?°we are the future leaders of Russia?±. She may have been speaking specifically about Nashi members, but it is also hopefully true of those outside the organization. The worry for critics of Seliger, such as Yashin, is that the older political generation use it to transmit their own ideology to the new - or at least stop the younger generation from questioning their assumptions.

And that makes some things about Seliger a little unsettling. Officious stewards armed with loud hailers yelled at stragglers on their way to the morning and evening roll call, although they didn??t seem to particularly bother anyone.

The video bridge with Medvedev was heavily stage managed, though more in a comic than sinister way: once the entire camp was assembled in front of the cinema-sized screen at the center of the campsite, the campers were carefully marshaled into place, and coached on when to cheer and when to wave their flags. ?°And we need more people standing over there!?± yelled the compere, gesturing to the right of the stage, ?°because that??s where the camera is going to be. And I know we have some rather menacing clouds, but if it starts to rain, please, nobody move!?±

But the most bizarre moment came the evening before Medvedev??s video link, when Yakemenko himself took to the stage at the evening roll call to bawl out the crowd for their poor reception for Fursenko earlier that day. ?°I told you to come to me if you had a project you wanted to present,?± he barked. ?°By yesterday evening, only one person had come. Is everything in alright??± he yelled rhetorically. The several-thousand-strong crowd of young adults, the innovative future of Russia unburdened by old assumptions, was cowed into silence like an assembly hall of school children being told they had disappointed their headmaster.
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