The Seliger summer camp has all the hallmarks of any camp; it promotes the values of team building, sharing and participation all under the evergreen canopy of the great outdoors. Unlike other camps however, it is accompanied by the deafening primal scream of United Russia’s arch nationalism. The Kremlin’s annual journey into the heart of darkness has in the past offered some startling examples of the inevitable descent into atavism – with participants at last year’s meet shooting at likenesses of Condoleeza Rice and other Kremlin critics impaled on stakes.
The four-day forum was called Anti-Seliger, areference to the annual camps at Lake Seliger held by Nashi, thepro-Kremlin youth organisation. The Seliger camps are huge events, withthousands of youths bussed in to hear speeches by the country’spolitical leaders and to attend seminars on “healthy living” and how tomake Russia great. The camp is decorated with vast portraits of thePrime Minister, Vladimir Putin, and the President, Dmitry Medvedev, and”information stands” in the past have shown photographs of Kremlincritics portrayed as Nazis or prostitutes.
Anti-Seligerhad similar display stands, but the content was somewhat different. Onetold the story of Mikhail Beketov, the editor of a Khimki newspaper whowas beaten to within an inch of his life by unknown assailants, andlater brought to a courtroom in his wheelchair to face charges that hehad libelled the local mayor. At another stand, people could writepostcards to political prisoners in Belarus.
YevgeniyaChirikova, one of the leaders of the Khimki Forest defenders and themain organiser of the event, said that Anti-Seliger is a riposte toeverything that Seliger stands for. “It’s not specifically againstNashi,” she said. “It’s a protest against the government trying topretend to be the people. This is a real place for people to havediscussions, rather than a fake reflection of civil society.”
“It’snot normal for people to be unloaded from buses and told todemonstrate,” agreed Elena Panfilova, the head of the Russian office ofTransparency International, the anti-corruption watchdog. “It’s normalfor people to take a weekend day, come out to a nice place like this totalk about serious issues, and stay as long as they want.”
Thestar of the day on Saturday was Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruptioncampaigner whose online demands for transparency in Russianstate-controlled companies have turned him into the darling of theRussian blogosphere. A well-built, charming man, he is already beingspoken of as a potential political leader in the future; as well as hisimpeccable fraud-fighting credentials, a questionable allegiance toethnic Russian nationalism could boost his popularity beyond the limitedranks of the active liberal opposition.
“Italk with thousands of people online all the time, and I’m putting facesto many of them for the first time,” he said. “For me, it’s a kind ofde-virtualisation of my activities.” He started off looking rathersheepish at the number of people desperate to shake his hand and havetheir photograph taken with him, but he soon warmed to his new-foundcelebrity status and seemed to enjoy the Pied Piper effect he had;whenever he moved around the camp, a huddle of groupies followed him.
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