Russian Youth Flock to Pro-Kremlin Summer Camp Organizers have dressed up standard summer camp fare like kayaking and volleyball with mandatory pro-Putin lectures and posters lambasting Russian opposition leaders.

Russian Youth Flock to Pro-Kremlin Summer Camp

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And here's how Russia is taking care of some of its young people. Thousands of young Russians are spending part of this summer at a camp northwest of Moscow. They swim and sing songs, but this camp is run by a pro-Kremlin youth group. So they also hear lectures about the greatness of President Vladimir Putin.

As NPR's Gregory Feifer reports, it has remind some observers of the young pioneer camps of the Soviet Union.

GREGORY FEIFER: A five-hour drive from Moscow, beautiful Lake Seliger lies amid typically Russian pine and birch forests. It's here a youth group called Nashi, or Ours, best-known for staging loud demonstrations in front of foreign embassies, has brought 10,000 campers.

I'm standing by the shores of Lake Seliger at the Nashi summer camp. It's a hive of activity. Behind me is a beach with campers getting into kayaks; others are playing volleyball. It looks very much like a summer camp in the United States. But there's a big difference. In front of me are large posters lambasting opposition figures, and there's one comparing President George Bush to Saddam Hussein.

Some of the claims are clearly untrue, like one that condemns European democracy. It says German police killed 80 anti-globalization protesters this summer. Elsewhere, messages proclaim Russia's greatness, some also picturing intercontinental missiles.

In another part of the camp, the faces of Russian opposition leaders have been superimposed over lingerie-clad female bodies and dubbed political prostitutes.

Nineteen-year-old camper Kostya Kudinov says the government's critics are fascists.

Mr. KOSTYA KUDINOV (Camper): (Through translator) These people are against our motherland. They're ready to do anything to cheat our country. We're against that. We're here to show our concern for Russia and discuss what we can do to improve its future.

FEIFER: But as Nashi members drink tea around their campfires under pro-Putin posters that evoke communist-era slogans, many campers appear to show another similarity to their Soviet predecessors. They appear to care little for ideology.

Twenty-three-year old Irina Chechikova is one of those. She says she joined Nashi two weeks earlier only to have a chance to attend the camp.

Ms. IRINA CHECHIKOVA (Camper): (Through translator) You can have a really good time here. We go kayaking, rafting, ride bicycles. Plus, it's a great atmosphere. Everyone's young. It's a wonderful place.

FEIFER: But it's not all fun. Chechikova says it's impossible to ignore what she calls a cult of personality being built around Putin in the political lectures campers must attend. They're also required to make career plans, and state-controlled companies have set up tents where recruiters offer internships to the ostensibly politically loyal campers.

The camp organizers are also pushing a social message. Alcohol has been banned, and some displays exhort campers to propagate and counteract Russia's alarming population decline.

(Soundbite of music)

FEIFER: Every morning, after mass calisthenics, loudspeakers announce the day's schedule.

It's obvious lavish amounts of money have been spent on tents, posters and the Nashi T-shirts all campers are required to wear. But Nashi's leader, Vassilii Yakemenko, says the group doesn't get a penny from the Kremlin.

Mr. VASSILII YAKEMENKO (Nashi Camp Leader): (Through translator) Our message would be compromised if we weren't completely independent. We want to make sure Russians make their own choices, free of meddling by countries like the United States, that want to get their hands on our natural resources. But Nashi isn't about scaring anyone. It's about showing Russia to be a great country and getting others to like us.

FEIFER: Independent or not, the Nashi camp has been visited by a stream of top officials, including the two widely believed to be the main contenders to succeed Putin next year. And on Wednesday, a group of Nashi members met the president himself.

Back at their tents, campers sing patriotic songs about Russia.

(Soundbite of singing)

FEIFER: They may be most interested in fun and the friends they're making this summer, but the political views of Nashi activists are learning here appear to be taking hold among the so-called Putin generation back home and reflect a growing perception that the United States is Russia's biggest enemy.

Gregory Feifer, NPR News.

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