Mingling at the main festival site in Sochi. (c): Kristiina Silvan. All rights reserved.Calling on the world’s youth to unite “for peace, solidarity and social justice” and to “struggle against imperialism” sounds slightly outdated in Russia today. But those were the phrases that rang out on 13-22 November, when the country hosted the 19th World Youth Festival. The event brought 20,000 young people from across the world to Sochi’s now empty Olympic Park to participate in a bizarre re-enactment of a Cold War era mega-event.
The result? A celebration of youth, peace and international friendship — overshadowed by the realpolitik and geopolitics of today’s Russia.
Uniting the youth, 60 years on
An obvious point of departure for the 2017 festival was the legendary Moscow Youth Festival of 1957. In Soviet and Russian historiography, the festival was an unforgettable event in the lives of a whole generation of Soviet youth.
It was a chance for the USSR to show the rest of the world what a developed, democratic and, above all, attractive superpower the Soviet Union really was — one that, according to accounts oozing with nostalgia, genuinely created a platform for international peace and friendship. Those who were able to take part (many capitalist governments boycotted the festival and barred their citizens from participating) instantly fell in love with the USSR and its people.
The Moscow 1957 Festival of Youth and Students is often remembered fondly. Source: Russia 1 / Youtube. All rights reserved.In 2015, Vladimir Putin gave Rosmolodezh, the Russian Committee of Youth Affairs, the task of preparing a bid to host the 19th World Festival of Youth and Students, scheduled to take place in 2017. The timing is hardly a coincidence, as the 2010s witnessed Russia’s growing ambitions to play a leading role in the global arena while Russia’s involvement in the Ukrainian crisis seriously strained the country’s relations with the west and damaged its international image. Moreover, the infrastructure built for the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014 had been to a large extent left unused. What a better way of investing in “soft power”, a beloved buzz word in contemporary Russian “political technology”, than hosting a mega-event for young people (potentially) sympathetic to Russia from all around the world? If foreigners could see for themselves what a wonderful country Russia really was, went the logic, they would not believe all the “anti-Russian propaganda” so prominent in the western press.
Russia’s bid was accepted by the World Federation of Democratic Youth (WFDY) in February 2016. This was no surprise — the organisation had suffered from financial problems ever since the collapse of its major sponsor, the Soviet Union. From then on, the 2017 event in Sochi was advertised as and designed to be the biggest and most dazzling youth festival so far. It was all some Russian youth activists could speak of.
The normalisation of these silences was a powerful reminder of how easy it is to indirectly manage the borders of acceptable public discussion
While the international attendees were largely unaware of what awaited them, the most active representatives of Russian pro-regime youth activists were preparing their applications for the festival. The process consisted of a number of stages: first, suitable candidates were seconded by the regional youth affairs committee, then there was a round of interviews organised by Rosmolodezh. Finally, all applicants passed a security screening by the Russian security services. All this was done to ensure that Russia would indeed be represented by the brightest, and most dependable, minds of the country.
The application process for foreign candidates varied from country to country. Communist countries and Russia’s close allies like Belarus, Cuba and China organised a similar strict application procedure. while in the rest of the world information about the festival was only available through Russian information channels. One divergence from earlier festivals was that the Russian preparatory committee tried to distance the event from the communist ideology which had been an inseparable part of the festivals since 1947.
Vietnamese delegation performing at the main stage in Sochi. Photo(c): Kristiina Silvan. All rights reserved.This is why some leftist youth organisations, such as Finland’s Communist Youth League, decided to abstain from participating. The participation of both communist and more non-ideological youth organisations also created friction inside country delegations. Inside the festival area, the festival organisers had appropriately crammed the communist and leftist youth to the Red Zone (the expo hall was divided into different coloured zones) where they had something of a festival of their own. Needless to say, some countries such as Ukraine boycotted the festival altogether.
Russia, oasis of youth
The Sochi World Youth Festival aimed to promote Russia’s image as a developed, hospitable and generous great power. According to the logic of country branding, the increased attractiveness of Russia in the eyes of the foreign representatives (who were supposed to be, don’t forget, not just any random people, but future leaders of their respected countries) would translate to a more favourable attitude towards Russia. In these times of tension, Russia could certainly do with a few friends in the international arena.
Equally important was the message delivered to the domestic audiences. The fact that 12,000 foreigners had come to Russia and were having the time of their life at the festival was portrayed as a proof of Russia’s legitimacy and attractiveness abroad. Given that around 75% of the festival’s participants were either Russians or Russians living abroad, it can be assumed that the Russian PR campaign was equally targeted at local audiences. The message was clear: Russians ought to be proud about their country.
“I am sure that as you depart from Russia, you will leave behind a piece of your heart, while Russia will stay in your heart forever. We believe in you”
The fact that the festival actively ignored all potentially problematic topics (such as questionable foreign policy moves or economic, environmental or gender issues — not to mention LGBT rights) was a sign of successful management from the standpoint of festival organisers. The only real issue challenging the image of the perfect Russia was practical organisation: huge queues could be seen everywhere, there were major mix-ups with accommodation for participants, and problems with logistics and communication. But in the midst of all the dazzle, these were, judging by my conversations, minor concerns for participants.
Vladimir Putin welcomes the participants of the 19th World Festival of Youth and Students at the last day before the official closing ceremony. (c) NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.The image of Russia as an oasis of youth, peace and unity was conveyed in countless ways. In addition to explicit performances of Russia and its regions (such as the “Russia” show on 21 October, and the opening ceremony), Russia’s special role in the international arena was highlighted in discussion series such as the Forum Eurasia, dedicated to the consolidating role of the Russian language. Expos were dedicated to Russian regions, Russian innovations in science and technology.
Vladimir Putin visited the festival three times during the week and spoke about peace, friendship and the future on all these occasions. For example, on the last day of the festival he remarked that an “unusual, absolutely exceptional energy [of young people] reigned at the festival” and declared “I am sure that as you depart from Russia, you will leave behind a piece of your heart, while Russia will stay in your heart forever. We believe in you.”
Fake it ‘til you make it?
One initiative to improve the image of Russia in the eyes of the festival’s foreign guests included a three-day optional regional programme that gave selected applicants a unique chance to see different parts of Russia.
As an adventure-lover I opted for the most exotic destination on the list — the Republic of Dagestan, a region in the North Caucasus which is, sadly, more commonly associated with chronic instability and Islamist extremism. Although I was rather suspicious of the festival in beforehand, the genuineness and openness of both my fellow participants and the festival organisers and volunteers quickly softened my heart.
Festival participants are welcomed to Dagestan with a lezginka dance performance and local TV crews. Photo(c): Kristiina Silvan. All rights reserved.Performing peace and friendship was an important task for all of those who participated in the festival.
Given that goal, practically no-one dared to express anything else; I experienced genuinely warm feelings towards other festival-goers and to the whole world. In Dagestan, the organisers of the regional programme did everything to help us enjoy their infamous republic, while at the festival site in Sochi, the helpfulness of both volunteers and the festival participants was simply mind-blowing.
I experienced genuinely warm feelings towards other festival-goers and to the whole world
While it was great to mingle with happy people from all around the world and participate in this collective performance of global unity of youth, I could not help but think of those who were excluded from our rosy story. Festival taboos included issues like LGBT rights, freedom of media and civil society. The crisis in Ukraine was off-limits, as was (in the case of Dagestan, specifically) the rise of radical Islamism among young people. The festival simply did not provide a platform of discussing these and other painful issues.
Those of us to whom these thoughts occurred were so overwhelmed by the surrounding friendliness we didn’t feel like “ruining the party” by raising difficult questions — apart from perhaps in individual instances. The normalisation of these silences was a powerful reminder of how easy it is to indirectly manage the borders of acceptable public discussion. While the slogans of peace, solidarity and anti-imperialism resonated with the festival’s young participants, they felt like a facade of Soviet socialist internationalism, far from the principles to which the Russian state adheres today.
This internal contradiction makes the memory of the youth festival for me a bittersweet one. On one hand, I was truly amazed at the warm atmosphere I experienced, and remain grateful for meeting dozens of kind and intelligent people from all around the world. On the other hand, the self-censorship was an obstacle to discussing about those issues that I personally find so crucial in understanding Russia today. I left feeling uneasy about the ecstasy of this international friendship I had experienced. The only thing that brings me relief in this moment of self-contempt is that I have resolved to raise the difficult topics more often in the future. I believe in the power of changing attitudes via gentle persuasion rather than hostile confrontation.