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Russian youth camp grooms new Putins

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LAKE SELIGER, Russia — It was like the first day of summer camp at this lakeside resort, but the scrubbed young campers in T-shirts and casual clothes had more than beadwork and canoeing on their minds.

Ten thousand young "commissars" — a title borrowed from the Communist Party leaders of the Soviet era — came here to learn to be Russia's next generation of tycoons and political leaders. Equally important, they came to prepare to stamp out any challenge from opposition groups to President Vladimir Putin's government.

All were summoned by Nashi, a pro-Kremlin organization that pays homage to Mr. Putin and seeks to promote Russia's resurrection as a superpower capable of frustrating what leaders call Western "imperialism."

"In 10 years, we will have a huge network of people who share our ideology and who know what is Russia's proper place in the world," Vasily Yakemenko, the founder of the group, told reporters at the camp last week.

Nashi is a foe of Other Russia — an opposition alliance that has sponsored a series of anti-government marches in recent months — and Nashi organizers missed few opportunities to ridicule and denounce Kremlin critics as political extremists and deviants.

In the middle of the camp, organizers set up what they called the Red Light District — six-foot posters in which the faces of male opposition leaders were superimposed on cartoons of female bodies in lurid poses.

Nearby, there was a poster depicting an intercontinental ballistic missile with the slogan: "Let there be sovereign democracy," a reference to the Kremlin's definition of democracy stripped of Western influence.

In a series of classes and lectures, Nashi also sought to promote clean living among its 14- to 28-year-old followers. Leaders of one Nashi project, "Our Army," encouraged young men not to dodge compulsory conscription. An Orthodox Christian wing of Nashi, founded in May, promotes "missionary activities among the younger generation."

Clad in red T-shirts, the commissars ran to classes in groups wearing name badges with electronic chips that monitored attendance. Skipping lectures was punishable by expulsion — as was drinking alcohol, cursing and unsanctioned fraternization.

At an opening ceremony, Mr. Yakemenko railed against one hapless teenager who was overheard using an expletive.

"He wants to be a governor?" Mr. Yakemenko yelled from the stage. "He'll be a bum and die in the gutter."

Thousands of youths cheered as he ordered the expulsion of the teen from the camp, 300 miles north of Moscow.

Mr. Yakemenko, 36, a former construction manager, founded Nashi, which means "Ours," in 2005 — ostensibly as an anti-fascist movement aimed at reducing xenophobia and hate crimes.

The new movement replaced an earlier pro-Kremlin group, also led by Mr. Yakemenko, called Walking Together. That group became notorious for burning books and disrupting what it considered degenerate art exhibitions and performances.

Analysts said the Kremlin scrapped Walking Together because of its scandal-tainted image and created Nashi in its place. Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin's deputy chief of staff, is said to be the mastermind behind both groups.

Nashi has grown rapidly, sprouting branches in most of Russia's 85 regions and staging public cleanup campaigns and other civic projects. It has also organized huge street demonstrations, where tens of thousands of youngsters have congratulated Mr. Putin on his birthday or election anniversary.

For the Nashi faithful, membership combines patriotism with self-improvement — in a manner reminiscent of the Soviet-era communist youth group, Komsomol.

"There is no alternatives to Nashi," said Artyom Samoilov, a sophomore student from Kursk. "It is a union of like-minded people, very much like the Komsomol."

To its critics, Nashi represents an effort by the Kremlin to emulate the old Soviet bosses and channel the energy and enthusiasm of Russian youth to the service of the state. Nashi projects are prolific and well-funded, although Mr. Yakemenko refused to elaborate on sources.

"I just don't know how much it cost," Mr. Yakemenko said about the funding of the Seliger camp. "But I'm assuring you that we did not take a single kopeck of the taxpayers' money."

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