Youth's global objective, to make Russia a global leader


RUSSIA: The Kremlin-backed Putin-loyalist youth movement is 'not political, it's anti-fascist', Chris Stephen was told at the Camp for Commissars

Welcome to Paradise. Along the banks of Russia's beautiful Lake Seliger, 3,000 hand-picked members of a Kremlin-backed youth organisation are having summer fun at the Camp for Commissars.

By day these commissars - being groomed as future party leaders - canoe in the cool waters, race mountain bikes in the nearby forests and help restore the magnificent Nilova Pustin monastery next door.

There are lectures, too, on the importance of unity and discipline as their great nation finds its place on the world stage. Nobody seems to mind being called a commissar - a word that for many Russians conjures bad memories of Soviet times.

By night the commissars sit around their tents, making campfires, singing songs about Russia.

Security is tight; beefy guards in camouflage are outside. Campers are allowed out only if accompanied by an instructor commissar - distinguished from the ordinary commissars by their yellow shirts.

Instructor commissar Alexei (19) greets me at the entrance. "Welcome," he beams.

Their organisation is called Nashi - it means "ours" and appeared overnight last April, apparently on the orders of the Kremlin which has been badly rattled by popular protests breaking out in the region.

Moscow was alarmed by the pro-democracy Orange Revolution in the Ukraine, the Rose Revolution in Georgia and Tulip Revolution in Kyrgystan - all led by US government-funded youth groups.

When opposition protests - also under orange banners - spread to Russia earlier this year, Moscow took action. Nashi sprang up overnight. In May more than 50,000 young people were bused into Moscow, given lunch and a T-shirt - white with a red star - and, presto, an instant pro-government rally.

Some of those interviewed that day said they came for the trip, but Alexei's motivations were deeper.

"Unfortunately our country is not so patriotic," he says, "especially in my high school. It is a house of liberalism. I like liberals, but it's not native liberalism, it's a kind of liberalism with global westernisation. They think Russia is a part of the global western world, they don't know history of our country."

But surely a little teenage angst is a good thing? Not if it gets in the way of the national project. "We have a global objective, to make Russia a global leader."

In the autumn, Nashi is expected to become a party, dedicated to backing the Kremlin, with these commissars invited to run branch offices across Russia.

Alexei hands me over to Irina and Natasha, two bright young commissars. Irina (19), a public relations student, is tall and has her blonde hair tucked under a red, white and blue striped baseball cap - the colours of the Russian flag.

She has just been appointed to the commissar main staff, a sort of inner sanctum and a great honour. "We are working for the best of Russia," she says brightly.

"Here we are getting our education. We have lectures three times a day."

In most summer camps, the prospect of today's itinerary - geography, analytic statistics and propaganda - would elicit groans, but commissars have higher motives.

Irina shows me how the flame of patriotism is kept burning - literally. A Soviet star has been made from concrete and at the centre a fire is kept stoked day and night, guarded by two commissars.

As well as lessons, there are structured discussions. Topics include: Why Russia is not America; Russia for the Russians: Pluses and Minuses, and the New Law on Election of Governors.

The camp is being run in co-operation with the Orthodox Church, which enjoys warm relations with the government. Last Saturday the patriach's spokesman, Vsevolod Chaplin, turned up to give a pep talk on the dangers of pro-democracy upheavals such as Ukraine's Orange Revolution.

"Russia has already lived through one coloured revolution - a red one," the Moscow Times reported him saying. "If the country breaks apart, it will become not a mass of little Switzerlands, but one big Yugoslavia torn by bloody chaos.

"The defence of the country's unity, its independence and its spiritual freedom must be the business of all society and every one of us."

Natasha (22), a psychology graduate from Vladimir, 100 miles east of Moscow, is curious. "What did you hear about us before you came?"

What I heard, from opponents, was that the camp was similar to the Brezhnev-era camps where Soviet officials were cosseted and that three youth activists from the liberal Yabloko Party were discovered and kicked out.

"We need the support of the Kremlin, but not these guys from Yabloko," says Irina.

Down on the river, canoes are assembled, each one sporting a Russian tricolour and the Nashi flag - the cross of St Andrew on a red background.

For these commissars, the political outlook is refreshingly simple. The president is fighting for a strong Russia, so he is a good man. Democracy is a fine thing, but parties opposing the president are automatically suspect - why oppose someone trying to build a strong Russia? "We love Putin for his strong Russia idea," says Natasha.

Irina and Natasha leave for more lectures, and another young woman shows me out, reminding me that Nashi is not a party, not yet anyway, but rather a spontaneous youth movement.

"It's not political, it's anti-fascist," she explains. "Youth anti-fascist democratic direction."