Back in the USSR

Kremlin, Western Companies Back Soviet-Style Youth Camp

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 Updated:

A row of wooden stakes with puppet heads stood planted in a forest camp attended by 20,000 young Russians this summer. Mounted above the heads was a large red slogan in Russian, declaring “We are not glad to see you here.”

On the puppets: photographs of Western political figures, including Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, and five judges of the European Court for Human Rights, as well as members of the Estonian Parliament and an assortment of Russian opposition leaders. Sitting atop each head was a cap bearing a Nazi swastika.

This rather odd form of installation art appeared at the Kremlin-backed All Russia Youth Innovative Forum, staged from July 1 to 28 along Seliger Lake in central Russia, about 235 miles from Moscow. The camp’s organizer was the official Russian Federal Agency for Youth Affairs, according to the event’s website. Additional “organizational support” came from the controversial Nashi movement, a pro-Kremlin youth group known for its harassment of journalists, human rights activists, and foreign officials. Nashi supporters have taken credit for the puppet head display.

Joining Nashi and the Kremlin in backing the camp was a roster of major Western companies. Intel Corp., Mercedes-Benz in Russia (owned by German carmaker Daimler), and Tupperware are prominently named as partners or sponsors of the forum on its website. Representatives of two other companies, consulting giant KPMG and electronics manufacturer Siemens, also took part in the event, according to the website.

“Blackening Our Motherland”

Most of the companies say they had no knowledge of the political nature of the camp. “Tupperware was not aware that the Nashi movement provided organizational support to Seliger-2010, nor was anyone related to the company aware of the actions taking place,” a spokeswoman wrote in response to an inquiry from ICIJ. “We will reassess our future participation in light of this.”

The political nature of the camp would have been hard to miss.

Videos of the event, available online, and interviews with participants suggest scenes reminiscent of Soviet days, with giant portraits of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on display and crowds of young people flying banners of pro-Kremlin youth movements. Large boards featured photos of opposition political leaders, writers, and human rights activists who were branded as “liars” and accused of “blackening our Motherland.” Among those targeted: Russian Newsweek editor Mikhail Fishman, journalist Alexander Podrabinek, human right activists Lyudmila Alexeyeva and Lev Ponomarev, and opposition politician Boris Nemtsov.

Few imagined insults to the Russian state were ignored. Among the puppet images mounted on stakes was that of American screenwriter Robert Rodat. Rodat’s crime, according to a note posted on his stake: “failing to mention the Soviet Union as a participant in World War II” in his screenplay, Saving Private Ryan.

Dubbed Seliger-2010, the forum was designed, according to its website, to offer young people a chance to present their ideas and gain funding from “the biggest private companies, state corporations, and state programs.” The camp offered swimming, games, and lessons on everything from politics to overeating. In a camp video, Youth Affairs Agency head Vasily Yakemenko explained to a heavy-set young Russian: “The person who eats more than is necessary robs the country and robs Putin in particular. Putin is able to do everything. But he can not afford to lose weight for any particular person.”

The Kremlin’s Youth Brigades

Yakemenko, 39, worked for the administration of then-President Putin in 2000 as public affairs chief of an internal policy unit, according to his official biography. That year, he also organized and headed the pro-Kremlin youth movement “Moving Together” (Idushie Vmeste), whose members donned T-shirts bearing Putin’s face, staged rallies in support of the president, and picketed the offices of Russian newspapers that criticized the Kremlin, as well as the Moscow bureaus of the BBC, Reuters, Associated Press, and CNN.

In 2005, Yakemenko headed the recently formed Nashi youth movement, which gained a reputation in Russia for its pro-Putin rallies and protests against opposition leaders, human rights activists, journalists, and foreign officials. During the summer of 2006, Nashi activists protested at the British embassy in Moscow, demanding an apology from then-Ambassador Anthony Brenton for visiting a Russian opposition conference.

The Nashi campaign against Brenton lasted several months, prompting the British Embassy to lodge an official complaint with the Russian Foreign Ministry. In December 2006, Brenton told the Financial Times that Nashi activists were “stalking [him] seven days a week for the past four months, putting him and his family under considerable strain.”

In another incident in 2009, Nashi activists began picketing outside the apartment building of Russian journalist and Soviet-era dissident Alexander Podrabinek for his writings in which he challenged the pro-Communist attitudes of some World War II veterans.

Nashi today is the largest of several Kremlin-backed youth organizations. The group has spawned a number of projects, including the Stal (Steel) youth movement. Stal members are credited with building the puppet exhibit at the Seliger youth camp, according to the Nashi website.

Yakemenko did not respond to ICIJ questions about Nashi and its backing of the summer youth camp, but Nashi spokeswoman Kristina Potupchik confirmed by phone that the organization played an active role in organizing the event. Indeed, six of eight managers of the camp are either Nashi project leaders or active members, including camp director Ilya Kostunov, according to camp and Nashi websites.

Asked to comment on the puppet head exhibit, Kostunov said that “there was no installation in the Forum plans” and that those who built it “have a right to do it …. I think the persons depicted on the boards must think about why they draw such a reaction on the part of the youth movement.”

Top Russian officials have taken a keen interest in the Nashi movement and the youth camp. President Medvedev landed by helicopter at the camp on July 8 and told the assembled youth: “You are those whom our future depend on. You are people who have the most contemporary attitudes.”

The president’s office did not respond to ICIJ requests about Medvedev’s attitude toward the Nashi movement and its role at the camp.

Prime Minister Putin regularly met with leaders of the Nashi movement, who call themselves “commissars,” according to a 2006 report in the Russian state newspaper Rossiyskaya. During one 2006 meeting, Putin reportedly told them that “we need our own civil society, which does not work for money.”

Backing by Western Companies

Why did well known Western companies link themselves to an event like the Nashi-backed summer camp? Sponsors and “partners” included chipmaker Intel, car-maker Mercedes-Benz Russia (owned by Daimler), kitchenware-company Tupperware, and German industrial conglomerate Siemens, according to the Forum website.

That companies with interests in Russia would back such an event shouldn’t come as a surprise, according to Elena Panfilova, director of Transparency International Russia. “Unfortunately in Russia it is a norm if you want to do business here – demonstrate that you are loyal to the Kremlin,” Panfilova says.

ICIJ sent questions to the headquarters and Moscow offices of these companies, asking if they were aware of the Nashi movement’s role and actions at the Forum.

“Mercedes-Benz Russia provided one-time support for the event with three vehicles for the shuttle service,” wrote Wuest von Vellberg of parent company Daimler AG in an e-mail. “We only found out about this unannounced one time political action by a group of participants after the event …. If we do act as a sponsor again, we will demand that the organizer provides appropriate commitment that there will be no more extreme political actions, or that such actions will be prevented.”

As for Tupperware, the company’s role was limited to having “provided cooking demonstrations and [holding] promotional events in a Tupperware-branded tent. Tupperware also provided all participants of the forum with Tupperware lunch boxes and Tupperware tumblers,” e-mailed company spokeswoman Elinor Steele. “The company would be deeply concerned about any future participation and would certainly regret its association with the organization if those subjects were condoned by it.”

Also in attendance was consulting giant KPMG. The company responded that it had no knowledge of any ties to the Nashi movement. “We did not note and are not aware of any political activities that took place during our involvement.” Siemens claimed its participation was limited to “a presentation about career opportunities” at the company, while Intel replied that its involvement merely involved donating computer equipment.

Criticism by Human Rights Council

While unnoticed in the West, the Nashi-backed summer camp caught the attention of the Civil Society Institution and Human Rights Council, an advisory group under the office of the Russian president. On July 30, 16 members of the council branded the Seliger camp puppet display “a moral abnormality and challenge to society” with an “‘exhibition’ typical for Stalin’s time.” In a public statement, Council members expressed their concern that the Russian state “aggressively cultivates radical attitudes among the youth” and called for top officials to “dismiss the head of the Federal Youth Agency Yakemenko.”

Instead, it was Council chairwoman Ella Pamfilova who has left office. Frustrated by the council’s lack of influence, in July Pamfilova resigned with a final blast at the Kremlin-backed youth movement.

“I am scared those young guys will come to power in a few years,” she told the Moscow radio station Echo. “You’ll wish it had never happened.”

Roman Shleynov is investigative editor at Novaya Gazeta, a Russian newspaper. This story is a joint project between the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and Novaya Gazeta.

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