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Russia: Here Comes The Sun For Putin's Patriotic Youth

Nashi youths at Lake Seliger in July. The T-shirts are emblazened with the Russian national anthem With the arrival of hot temperatures and summer recess, thousands of young Russians have traded city life for the peace of Russia's picturesque countryside. But at a pro-Kremlin camp north of Moscow, young Russians have little time for barbecues, mushroom picking, and lazy afternoons. They have come to learn how to defend their country -- and President Vladimir Putin. The government, meanwhile, this week approved a comprehensive five-year program to raise patriotic feelings among youth.

Moscow, 20 July 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Traditional music blares from loudspeakers as young men and women at a camp on the scenic shores of Lake Seliger, northwest of Moscow, prepare for the day.

This is no ordinary boot camp. It is organized by the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi (Ours) and the 3,000 youths are not here to relax. Their day starts at 8:00 a.m. with a 5-kilometer jog followed by political lectures, debating workshops, and physical training.

Gleb Pavlovskii, a prominent political expert close to the Kremlin, has been invited to give lectures at the camp. He told RFE/RL's Russian Service the goal is to prepare young Russians to head off a possible coup against President Vladimir Putin.

"We're still an unstable country, and the lads have to be trained, educated," Pavlovskii said. "What will they do in the event of an attempt such as the one in August 1991, an attempt to overthrow Putin? Sit and listen to lectures? They have to get up, go into the street, and stop the putsch. It means they have to know how to do this. They have to know how to stop and break up a fascist demonstration. Break it up with the use of force. How else?"

Many observers believe Nashi was set up by the Kremlin earlier this year to avert any popular revolution in Russia like the ones in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan ahead the 2008 presidential elections.

The Kremlin has not officially admitted having links to Nashi, but Vladislav Surkov, one of Putin's closest aides, recently flew to the camp.
"If patriotic views are not created now for the young generation, if everybody goes to America and so on, Russia won't hold out for very long." - camper

Life at the camp is strikingly reminiscent of the Soviet era -- youngsters call each other "comrade" and cartoons hung between pine trees portray Soviet heroes fighting capitalists, fascists, and American politicians.

Nashi describes Russian liberal politicians, wealthy oligarchs, and radical youth groups as its enemies and tends to brand them as "fascists."

At the Seliger camp, most youths, like this young man, are also eager to extol the virtues of patriotism. "The young generation is the future of Russia," he told RFE/RL's Russian Service. "If patriotic views are not created now for the young generation, if everybody goes to America and so on, Russia won't hold out for very long."

A manifesto distributed at the camp also promotes strong patriotic views, expressing support for Putin and warning in vague terms about Russia's enemies.

As the caricatures on display at the camp suggest, anti-Western feelings seem to be rife among Nashi members and sympathizers. During his visit to the camp, Putin's aide, Surkov, said Russian youth had to be protected against "the manipulative influence of the West."

Such statements are increasingly common among Russia's political elite, a tendency that is worrying to many observers, such as U.S. Ambassador to Russia Alexander Vershbow. "I hear such declarations more and more often," he told RFE/RL. "It's a shame, because we had the impression that post-Soviet Russia wanted to become a member of the West and that the strategy of the administrations of Yeltsin and Putin was to integrate Russia into the world community. Such statements about the protection of young people against the West sound very strange."

Camps such as the one on Lake Seliger are still relatively rare, but similar initiatives could see a sharp rise in the near future.

Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov this week approved a governmental program aimed at promoting patriotism among Russian youth over the next five years. The program, called "Patriotic Education for Citizens of the Russian Federation," is due to receive a total of $17.4 million from the federal budget between 2006 and 2010. It outlines plans for summer camps, competitions, and games with a strong focus on sports and the military.

And the names that have already been given to some of the planned events -- "Ready for the Defense of the Motherland" or "We Believe in You, Soldier!" -- speak volumes about the government's desire to boost the prestige of Russia and its ailing army.

See also:

Russian Youth Group Nashi Gathers Momentum

'A Youth Movement Needs A Leader'

Running Against Washington

New Youth Movement To Foil U.S. Plot To Take Over Russia