Thousands of young Russians are spending part of the summer at a camp run by a pro-Kremlin youth group northwest of Moscow.
The group offers standard summer camp fare like singing and swimming, but participants are also required to attend lectures about the greatness of President Vladimir Putin, which some observers say is reminiscent of the Young Pioneer camps of the Soviet Union.
Messages of Greatness
A five-hour drive from Moscow, beautiful Lake Seliger sits amid typical Russian pine and birch forests.
The youth group called Nashi, or "Ours" — best known for staging loud demonstrations in front of foreign embassies — has brought 10,000 campers to the site.
On the surface, Nashi's summer camp looks like any other – campers kayak on the lake or enjoy a game of volleyball. But in the backdrop are large posters lambasting opposition figures, including one comparing U.S. President George Bush to Saddam Hussein.
Some of the claims are clearly false, like one that says German police killed 80 anti-globalization protesters this summer and condemns European democracy. Elsewhere, messages proclaim Russia's greatness, some also picturing intercontinental missiles.
In another part of the camp, the faces of Russian opposition leaders have been superimposed over lingerie-clad female bodies and dubbed "political prostitutes."
Nineteen-year-old camper Kostya Kudinov says the government's critics are "fascists."
"These people are against our motherland. They're ready to do anything to cheat our country. We're against that. We're here to show our concern for Russia and discuss what we can do to improve its future," Kudinov says.
A Cult of Personality
As Nashi members drink tea around their campfires under pro-Putin posters that evoke Communist-era slogan, many campers appear to care little for ideology — another similarity to their Soviet predecessors.
Irina Chechikova, 23, falls into that category. She says she joined Nashi two weeks earlier only to have a chance to attend the camp.
"You can have a really good time here. We go kayaking, rafting, ride bicycles," Chechikova says. "Plus, it's a great atmosphere. Everyone's young. It's a wonderful place!"
But Chechikova admits that it's impossible to ignore what she calls a cult of personality being built around Putin in the political lectures campers must attend. They're also required to make career plans, and state-controlled companies have set up tents where recruiters offer internships to the ostensibly politically loyal teenagers there.
The camp organizers are also pushing a social message. Alcohol has been banned, and some displays exhort campers to propagate and counteract Russia's alarming population decline.
Every morning, after mass calisthenics, loudspeakers announce the day's schedule.
Although it's clear that lavish amounts of money have been spent on tents, posters and the Nashi T-shirts that all campers are required to wear, Nashi's leader Vassilii Yakemenko says the group doesn't get a penny from the Kremlin.
"Our message would be compromised if we weren't completely independent. We want to make sure Russians make their own choices, free of meddling by countries, like the United States, that want to get their hands on our natural resources," Yakemenko says. "But Nashi isn't about scaring anyone. It's about showing Russia to be a great country and getting others to like us."
Independent or not, the Nashi camp has been visited by a stream of top officials, including the two widely believed to be the main contenders to succeed Putin next year. A group of Nashi members recently met the president himself.