The Kids of Summer

It’s that time of year again. The time when thousands of red t-shirt clad Russian youths pack their bags and head for Tver Province to take part in an “educational megaproject.” What is this educational megeproject you ask? Why, its Nashi’s third annual “commissar” camp at Lake Seliger!

The camp has been growing steadily since its inception. Its first year hosted 3000 Nashisty. Last year, 5000 of the self-proclaimed “young democratic anti-fascist movement’s” elite gathered for a whirlwind of physical fitness, paramilitary training, ideological seminars and lectures, and hobnobbing with the likes of Ramzan Kadyrov, Sergei Ivanov, Vladislav Surkov, and even Vladimir Putin himself. This year’s camp is double that size, reaching an impressive 10,000 Nashi youths. For an organization that proports to have 10,000 active members and 200,000 volunteers, that is a impressive haul.

So much so that the Financial Times, as well as several other news organizations, has taken with a piece in Thursday’s edition. There is even a must see Nashi summer camp Flash slideshow. The pictures are amazing in and of themselves. The saying that pictures are worth a thousand words couldn’t be more true. See a Nashi member aiming an AK-47 during paramilitary training with a backdrop billboard reading “Nashi: Our Army.” Gaze at thousands of Nashisty doing their morning calisthenics. Putinist Realism, anyone? Or check out the garish “Red Light District” featuring evil oppositionists Mikhail Kasyanov, Eduard Limonov, and Garry Kasparov dressed in Moulin Rouge. Sexy! A Nashi information commissar explains that they are dressed like prostitutes because “they’re traitors to the country.” And let us not forget Putin’s visage hovering over the camp grounds. The increase in attendance and spruced up digs suggests that corporate funding from Gazprom and other Russian companies is going to good use. Hell, the gas giant even got its own tower for its contributions. It’s clear a lot of time went into naming it too. Its called the “Gazprom Tower.” Surkov’s busy, busy, busy!

It’s all so Komsomol-esque that even Nashi leader Vasily Yakemenko had to admit that “some symbols are similar–senior members are ‘commissars’, members carry little red books recording their achievements.” But he claims that Nashi is no neo-Komsomol since, he says, “For the Komsomol, what was important was the success of the [Communist] party; for us, what’s important is the success of the person.”

Really? Reminds me of a document I have from the 1924 calling for a purge of the Komsomol because all the “hangers-on” and “alien elements” were taking all the spaces in the university from good working class youth. Or the one that denounced the Bolshevik Party as conservative and proclaimed the Komsomol as the true Leninists. The Komsomol could never obliterate the “I”. And often, in fact far too often, it was articulated as “I’m going to step on you to get over you.” If Yakemenko knew his history of Russian youth organizations, he might appreciate the complexity of it all.

In fact, there are some interesting similarities at this years camp with the Komsomol of old. In nothing less than druzhba naroda redux is an “ethno-village” that “displays cultures of Russia’s many minorities.” Also, twenty-five Nashi couples tied the knot in a mass wedding. The act is reminiscent of Komsomol “red” weddings which shunned Orthodox iconography and made marital vows to the “construction of socialism.” I wonder if Nashi couples were urged to christen their children with names like “Nitup,” (Putin), “Pin” (Putin-Ivanov-Nashi), or “Vlakov” (Vladimir Surkov), or “Suvdem” for “sovereign democracy.” I mean, really, if you’re gonna do it, do it right.

Media access to the camp is tight. RFE/RL reports that two journalists, Ilya Barabanov from Novoye vremya and Mikhail Romanov from Moskovskii komsomlets were denied a seat on the media bus. The director of the Nashi press service told them that “the list of accredited journalists had already been sent, and that it was too late to add any new names.” Undeterred, Barabanov and Romanov set out, on a boat no less, to the Nashi camp “unembedded” to see what was up. What they got was a special greeting.

This is how RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Maksim Yaroshevsky describes their adventure:

We rented a boat for 70 rubles an hour, leaving a passport as a deposit, and crossed over to the shores of the Nashi camp. There were no guards in sight and it was relatively easy for us to wander off in different directions through the camp.

In the course of half an hour, I had already managed to speak to a dozen Nashi activists. Some of the other “illegal” journalists weren’t so lucky.

Barabanov and Romanov were approached almost immediately by men in camouflage who insisted they leave the camp at once. The head of Nashi, Vasily Yakimenko, appeared and announced that the presence of unaccredited journalists on the premises of the camp was strictly forbidden.

My colleagues argued that this violated their rights under Russian media law, but Yakimenko was unconvinced, and within 10 minutes Barabanov, Romanov, and Lyaskin [Smena youth leader. He also accompanied the reporters] had all been thrown out of the camp.

Busted! Until next year, I guess . . .