This site is our response to everyone who has ever asked us what Russia is like, and for anyone who might have never wondered, but should have. It’s an attempt to put into words Russia as we see it; our go at explaining that big old riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, that in fact, never went away. It’s about understanding the views, opinions and psyche of a nation that hits our headlines daily, without many of us ever really knowing why. And ultimately, it’s about providing a picture of Russia, as seen first-hand by two people, who think that although the journey they’re on to try and understand this country might never end, the process itself is worth sharing.

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Happy Campers

Photograph: Oleg Klimov
I’ve just got back from a week at that thoroughly Russian institution – the children’s camp. Present all across Russia, from St Petersburg to Vladivostok to the Black Sea, most Russian kids will spend at least one week of their lives at a children’s ‘rest camp.’ This seemed a pretty good opportunity to see Russian children’s life firsthand.

Today’s camps morphed out of the old soviet system of Pioneer Camps, which were initially dreamt up by the Soviets - partly as a means of rewarding parents (factories and organisations would send their workers’ children to camps throughout the USSR) but primarily as a form of ideological indoctrination. The Young Pioneer movement sought to educate Soviet youth in the ways of Marxist-Leninism and so mould future socialist society. The camps were a residential extension of this aim. As such, they were organised around the entire rigmarole of Communist propaganda: morning marches to rousing Soviet music, an oath of allegiance, walls adorned with absurdly large portraits of Lenin and other Soviet heroes and successes, and an extensive program of good, clean Soviet fun.

The Pioneer Camps are remembered in scores of memoirs and novels, which recall a whole host of different experiences, ranging from nostalgic recollections, to vitriolic tirades describing force-fed ideology, terrible accommodation and horrific food. I wonder what all the legions of former Pioneers (most of today's Russians aged over 30) and indeed, Lenin and co. themselves, would make of today's children's camps?

Camp Day Break, where I was working, is a direct descendent of the Pioneer Camp system. Located about 80 km from Saint Petersburg on the Gulf of Finland, the basic infrastructure is left over from its former days as a genuine Pioneer camp, although, as it is keen to point out, all its rooms are newly renovated to 'European standards'. Certainly, despite the rackety buildings, it no longer looked Soviet, but rather similar to children’s camps I’ve been to in the UK (if somewhat colder). So far, all change.

Then I was taken to the cafeteria. Manned by unsmiling matrons dolling up mass-portions of tasteless stodge, the cafeteria seemed to fulfil every stereotype of carb-heavy, Soviet cuisine. Next, I was presented with the camp timetable: wake up at 8 am sharp; callisthenics at 8:10; room tidying; breakfast (probably half-solidified porridge); lessons; walk; lunch (carbohydrates and something pretending to be meat); activities; break (teeth-rottingly sweet tea plus some variation of cake); more lessons; dinner (same as lunch, but less); activities; svechka (a bizarre occurrence, where the entire camp sits in a circle and a candle is passed round as everyone recounts their highs and lows of the day); lights out at 11 pm. It looked like a strict return to discipline, with little time left for just messing around. Perhaps, despite appearances, something of the Soviet era lingered on?

But then again, perhaps not. As with many of my experiences in Russia, there was little correspondence between the official description and how events really unfolded. Sure, we were woken up at 8 am sharp and dragged to the hall for exercises, but in the face of mutinous teenagers, brought up under capitalism and do-what-what-you-want culture, these were half hearted and mainly consisted of the camp counsellor prancing about in front of a horde of sullen teens. By the end of the week they had been scrapped, to be replaced by a lie-in until 9 am. The meals did take place, but were not to the taste of most of the kids, who preferred to pick at it, before begging a leader to take them to the local shop so they could stock up on junk food. Whether or not camp food has got worse since Soviet times I couldn't say, but certainly, Pioneers would not have access to coke, snickers and pot noodles, so would have had to make do or starve. Attempts at making the children study or participate in any of the activities were fairly futile and the camp quickly descended into 'free time' – i.e. playing Nintendo, fighting or flirting. Not to mention the one thirteen year old who some how got his hands on a bottle of vodka, which he promptly downed, giving himself dramatic alcohol poisoning and a nasty, nasty hangover the following day. Dear oh dear, what would Lenin say?

The modern Russian camp is a far cry from its Soviet counterpart. What was once fuelled by ideology is now powered by e-numbers; pop songs have replaced Soviet anthems; the focus of the camp is now fun, not ideological training. Of course, this has resulted in a break down of discipline within the camps, as kids are allowed to pursue their own agendas rather than conform to a state-wide pattern, unanimously imposed from a central, Moscow location. This transition and break down of order can be seen as positive or negative depending on your viewpoint, but in any case the departure from ideological brainwashing can, in my opinion, only be a good thing.

There has been much written about the revival of children's camps as a form of ideological brainwashing under Putin, with special Nashi (the pro-Putin youth group) run camps being hailed (if that’s the word) as an example of a Kremlin plot to inveigle its politics into innocent young minds. Certainly these camps exist, but it should be remembered that they are the exception, not the rule. My experience of camp (admittedly, nothing to do with Nashi, or indeed any political organisation) tells a very different story. Here, kids are just kids and there is no agenda. For the vast majority of Russian youth this is the reality of camp, not an ideological experience.


The Expatresse said...

That's a HOOT!

Katie said...

Ha ha, I guess you could call it that!

Caroline said...

Hahaha amazing, glad to know that the amount of fun you had was almost comparable with an English Christmas x