Even the cynics might have felt a sputter of optimism when the Kremlin youth group Nashi, Vladimir Putin's militant pep squad, announced its plans for this year's doctrinal summer camp at lake Seliger. It would be a kinder, more open Nashi, they told us. There would be foreigners in attendance this time. Real foreigners from foreign countries, with whom foreign ideas would be exchanged. Nationalism would become dialogue. The Slavic breeding tents would no longer be labeled breeding tents. The creed of Putin-or-death would become the new Kremlin motto -- Modernize! -- and the next generation of patriotic youth would be taught openness and tolerance.
But none of that was to be.
As the retreat wound down this week, it became clear that Nashi hadn't changed a lick. They have remained the bullying, tactless, blindly conformist bunch of goons that they have always been. President Dmitry Medvedev, meanwhile, along with his deputy chief of staff Vladislav Surkov (Pinkie and The Brain, respectively) have continued to beam with pride at their ideological offspring. Modernization my ass.
For example. One of the attractions at the camp this year was a wooden spike fitted with the face of 83-year-old Lyudmila Alexeyava, a Soviet dissident and winner of Europe's top human rights award. On Alexeyeva's head was a Nazi helmet, and behind her a banner which read in enormous letters, "You are not wanted here."
Or how about this one. A video was released on Tuesday that shows the Kremlin's coordinator of youth policy, Vasily Yakimenko, sitting at a table with a few of his buddies. At the head of the table is a badly overweight and awkward Nashi devotee, whom Yakimenko tells the following (I am not making this up):
We have come up with a very profound project called National Responsibility. The point of it is very simple. Any enterprise that spends more than it needs, be it electricity or whatever, is not efficient. A person who eats more than he needs, is stealing from his country, and that means also from Putin. Putin can do anything, but he cannot go on a diet for every single person. For this project we need a participant, and we decided that it should be you.
The chubby kid begins to squirm, Yakimenko insists, and the video cuts off. Here it is in Russian. Notice that sitting across from Yakimenko is Russia's leading Internet propaganda man Konstantin Rykov, who went on from his work as a pornographer to become a deputy in the Russian parliament. Rykov, I should note, is also quite the fat-ass, yet I'm sure he didn't volunteer for the profound project of starving himself in the name of Vladimir Putin.
Moving on. The delegation of foreigners that was supposed to enliven the debate at this year's retreat faced problems from the beginning -- namely, the alligator moat of Russia's visa system. But those issues were eventually overcome. Visitors from 80 nations still showed up to attend the camp. Yet Nashi activist Yana Starikova (as quoted by Novy Region) assessed their presence as follows.
"They think in certain categories. They give the same answers to each question, word for word. In debate they reach the same conclusions: freedom, democracy and liberalism exist in the West, and correspondingly, in Russia, there is the suppression of freedom, the sidelining of the opposition, totalitarianism and a police state, undemocratic elections, absence of free speech, and so on... Their brains had been washed long and hard [before they arrived], and to impress any new thoughts on them was simply impossible... From the start we fought really hard to change their minds, but then we dropped it. It was totally hopeless."
I'm prepared to assume that the western kids did come to this debate with a certain ideological agenda. So be it. These are teenagers, and anyone who's been to a meeting of the debate club knows that these things can end in a huff. But was there no one among the organizers who might have prevented this from becoming an ideological cage-match? If so much time and money ($3.1 mln) had been devoted to making this an international event, couldn't they have gotten a grown-up moderator to facilitate some kind of discussion? For Chrissake hire somebody if the Nashi leadership is busy making Nazi effigies and getting fat kids to starve themselves for Putin.
In any case, none of this is really the point. Kids do all kinds of stupid shit at summer camp. The point is the official endorsement of it all. Medvedev visited the camp on July 8, and used it plug the same modernization drive that he's been peddling all over the West like bad aluminum siding. But could he possibly be too thick to figure out that you cannot create an innovative economy if your best and brightest are being fed the same old nationalist shite? The touchiness and Gomer Pyle conformity?
If Medvedev has any real intention of creating a generation of innovators, the first thing he should do is fire Yakimenko for the fat kid thing, and then offer Alexeyeva an apology. That would at least send some signal that conformism is not a good a thing, kids, and ideas opposed to your own are not necessarily bad. Otherwise young Russians with radically new ideas will keep fleeing the country as soon as they're able, and you'll be left with a bunch of crew-cut Yakimenkos with Putin tattoos on their chests. Then try modernizing that.