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The seductive power of Seliger

Every year the Seliger All-Russia Youth Forum brings together tens of thousands of engaged young Russians for a week of edification in an idyllic natural setting. Its goal is to promote patriotism in Russia's future elites - and its methods are very persuasive.

My main reason for attending the forum was to gain insight to the mindset of pro-regime young Russian people. I had decided to write my undergraduate dissertation about the beliefs and perceptions of young Russians about civil society from the perspective of the 'quiet masses' that support Vladimir Putin. I believed Western journalism and academic literature had largely failed to really grasp why so many young, educated Russians continued to support the United Russia government despite its curbs on civic liberties, corruption and widespread electoral fraud.

In practice, no views that contradicted the ideology of Russian national unity were tolerated.
Although officially Seliger aims to create a space for a 'plurality of opinions and free discussion', its task is also to 'generate a contour of the ideology of Russian national unity.' While the participants were indeed encouraged to share their opinions on both domestic and international issues in Russia's past, present and future, in practice no views that contradicted the ideology of Russian national unity could be tolerated. And as well as strategies designed to enhance the feeling of patriotism and national unity among the participants, there was also an emphasis on 'the other', with the organisers painting a picture of their homeland surrounded by enemies whose sole aim was to destroy the Russian state.

How the Forum works

To understand Seliger, we need to look at recent Russian history. During Soviet times, the state viewed youth as both an enormous resource and a threat. The Pioneer and Komsomol movements were used as a tool to control and educate young people and ensure they wouldn't be lured into supporting ideas other than the official, Communist doctrine. While their parents might still suffer from a pre-revolution bourgeois mentality, young people were a tabula rasa, ready to become the backbone of the new society.

Then, after the collapse of the USSR and the rejection of Communist ideology, the new Russian state began to suffer from an ideological vacuum. Its ethnic minorities' aspirations for greater autonomy or even independence from the Federation also brought fear of further fragmentation. When Vladimir Putin came to power, he engaged vigorously in the process of nation-building. The new ideology, gosudarstvennost (statism) emphasised the role of the Russian state as the unifying factor on which to build a new Russian ideology.

Banners at the Seliger campsite featured Putin quotes. Photo: Silvan
So today's Seliger Forum has its roots in both Soviet youth policy and new Russian nation-building. The popular mass youth movements of the 2000s (
Idushchie vmeste and Nashi), which lacked a specific agenda, have been replaced by a vast network of state-affiliated youth movements and organisations. It is not difficult to understand why the Kremlin analysts decided to target youth; they still represent both a great potential and a great threat for Putin's government. Seliger is just one of the ideas the current elites have come up with to ensure the continuity of the Russian state and the flourishing of Russian culture. It is here that young activists can meet and connect with their like-minded peers, get official encouragement or even financial aid for their projects and develop their new skills across the regions.

Coming from another culture, I initially found all the Russian identity-building strange, unpleasant and absurd. Every morning the campsite was awakened by a rock version of the Russian national anthem. The music played over the PA system represented a genre that could best be described as patriotic pop – i.e. a combination of a contemporary sound and edifying lyrics, such as 'We stand upon a great discovery / Of a strong, free and prosperous Russia' - this and other tracks could even be downloaded as ringtones.The psychological trick worked even for me: singing along with the hundreds of other participants, I felt a sense of unity with them, and even now listening to this music brings back happy memories from the week I spent with new friends from all over Russia.

A ballot paper used for voting for the greatest Russian patriot (and anti-patriot). Photo: Silvan
Two to three times a day the entire camp would gather in front of the massive main stage. Patriotic rhetoric, spiced up with slogans like 'Rossiya vperyod!' ('Forward, Russia!'), was adapted by everyone who spoke. On the very first day we had a speech from a WW2 veteran, greeted by a huge round of applause with the young crowd roaring 'Spa-si-bo' ('Thank you'). The old soldier reminded his young audience about their own important role, saying, for example, that 'individual happiness is undivisible with the happiness of our motherland'.

The head of an NGO called 'Patriots of Russia' went even further, greeting us with 'Good afternoon, Seliger! Good afternoon, genuine patriots! Today we shall build a new Russia, together we will make Russia the strongest country in the world.' In a festive ceremony of raising the Russian flag I joined sang the Russian national anthem with the others and felt a warm trembling in my heart, a feeling of happiness and unity with the crowd. Some girls around me were wiping tears from their eyes. The mass euphoria upon Mr. Putin's visit to the campsite was a similarly positive experience for me, as I felt genuinely honoured that the president had come all the way just to see us.

The mass euphoria upon Mr. Putin's visit to the campsite was a very positive experience for me.

A new believer 

In short, by the end of my stay I had developed an extremely strong emotional tie with the other participants and, indirectly, the Forum as well. I had come to accept the idea that Russia should follow its 'own path of development' rather than imitate Western liberal democracy, that Putin was indeed the right leader for Russia, and that perhaps the discrimination against sexual minorities was no more than a myth. Although my new convictions faded fairly quickly upon leaving the Seliger bubble, the change in my beliefs that happened at the camp was genuine and haunts me to this day.

As well as the jolly sing-alongs and tearjerking videos, the lectures and seminars by professors, historians and politicians had a strong and direct impact on me. A key lecture series 'The Technologies of Colour Revolutions' discussed the ways the West (and especially the United States) had successfully staged coups d'etat in Yugoslavia, Ukraine, Georgia and Northern Africa, and how the young people at the Forum could and should stop the same thing happening in Russia. Another speaker, the political analyst and historian Andrey Fursov, spoke about the Anglo-Saxon plan to tear Russia into pieces in order to seize control of its natural resources. A third series of seminars was devoted to the problem of 'falsification of history', particularly the European tendency to vilify the Soviet troops that liberated Central Europe in the Second World War. The lecturer openly argued that the aim of history teaching was not merely to describe the events of the past, but to support the patriotic education of the young.

But is everyone as convinced as they seem?

Needless to say, I was shocked by the content of these and other lectures, and even had a minor breakdown after yet another lecture where the EU – an entity I personally identify with – was portrayed as a bloodthirsty gang of capitalist villains. But what surprised me was that I wasn't alone in my anguish; several of my campmates had also felt uneasy during the lectures. A young ethnic Tatar journalist was angry about the way Orthodox Christianity was being promoted as Russia's true historical religion, and a young Russian athlete was upset about what she perceived as the overwhelming negativity of the lectures. Our team co-ordinator simply tapped me on the shoulder and told me to learn how to 'filter.' According to him, the lectures lacked objectivity because they were designed to send a clear message, and he doubted that the speakers even believed in their conspiracies themselves. Perhaps I had been wrong to assume that the participants would naively just accept the information as given?

The miniature Russian 'White House' government building watching over the campsite. Photo: Silvan When the week-long forum came to an end I was totally exhausted. The bombardment by official Russian ideology had definitely taken its toll on my mental health. I had become suspicious of everything, even the institutions I had trusted and identified with before. After a remark by one of the lecturers I even began to question the objectivity of my home university in the United Kingdom. She talked about the forms of soft power used by the West; in her view it was obvious that countries like the US and the UK accepted so many international students in order to indoctrinate them and propagate Western culture in other countries.
Our team co-ordinator simply tapped me on the shoulder and told me to learn how to 'filter'. 

Statements like this, presented by a seemingly trustworthy authority and triggering no objection in the audience, managed to sink into even a mind like mine that had previously held completely opposite views. However, as the discussions with my fellow participants showed, Russians are indeed used to 'filtering' the official facts - a valuable skill that might just stop the development of a new generation of Russians characterised by both brimming patriotism and paranoid hostility towards the outside world.

About the author

Kristiina Silvan is a doctoral student at the Department of Political and Economic Studies, University of Helsinki. Her research analyses the changes and continuities in the sphere of government-organised youth organisations in post-communist Russia and Belarus.

Read On

Official website of Seliger - Селигер - Everything about the Seliger youth forum (In Russian)

'Putin's Patriotic Youth Camp' - Time Magazine photogallery


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