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Young Russians at the Tavrida youth festival in the annexed Crimea, 2021

Styrofoam dummies State-funded patriotic youth conventions are proving to be a new frontier for ambitious Russian bureaucrats. Here’s how this industry works and who profits from it.

Source: Meduza
Young Russians at the Tavrida youth festival in the annexed Crimea, 2021
Young Russians at the Tavrida youth festival in the annexed Crimea, 2021
Viktor Korotayev / Kommersant / Sipa USA / Scanpix / LETA

Russia’s first patriotic youth festival was the Seliger Forum — a dignified name fronting what was really a glorified camping trip for hardy young enthusiasts who cared little for comfort. Since its salad days, however, Russia’s industry of youth conventions has developed into a whole network of state-funded “forums” (as they’re called in Russia), some with attached educational centers offering programs year-round. The youth conventions industry fosters a young pro-government generation that is gung-ho to do the ruling party’s bidding, and it costs the federal government a fortune. Eyeing these funds, bureaucrats eager for more public funding in their hands have proclaimed the industry to be “indispensable” for the nation.

Vladimir Putin’s domestic policy czar, Sergey Kiriyenko, oversees this niche, and it’s thanks to him that Russia now has specialized conventions for young IT workers, marketing and communications workers, Cossacks, and other groups. According to figures from the Federal Youth Agency Rosmolodezh, 50,000 young people attend these events yearly. Meduza political reporter Andrey Pertsev explains how Russia’s youth forum industry became a new frontier for ambitious government functionaries.

‘The voice of eternity’

Russia’s northwestern Pskov region is the home of a youth festival called Istoki, whose name translates as “Origins.” In his keynote speech at the annual festival in July this year, Kremlin Deputy Chief of Staff Sergey Kiriyenko praised “the hospitable Pskov region” as “the place of origin for many of the cultural and historical values that Russia can leverage as it advances confidently into the future, overcoming any challenge on its way.” “These traditions, these roots, are the source of our great power.”

A year earlier, Kiriyenko described Istoki as an incubator for “projects, principles, approaches, and educational programs that will later be scaled up for all the other youth conventions and educational organizations nationwide.” He also announced that a new educational center would soon be founded based on the Istoki youth convention to offer year-round programs for patriotic young historians.

The plan is to house the new Istoki center on the premises of the Pskov-Pechory Dormition Monastery, run by the pro-government Orthodox bishop Tikhon (secular name Georgy Shevkunov), Metropolitan of Pskov and Porkhov. At the opening of the Istoki forum in 2022, Tikhon addressed the young people in the audience, inviting them to consider history from “the perspective of faith and theology,” to see it as “divine Providence,” and to “discern to the voice of eternity” in current events.

The early days

The prototype for Russia’s state-funded youth conventions was Seliger, a no-frills summer camp the Kremlin established jointly with Russia’s federal youth agency Rosmolodezh in 2005. This first mass festival for patriotic youth attracted mostly the members of Russia’s pro-Putin youth movement Nashi (“Ours”), whose patron at the time was Putin’s deputy chief of staff, Vladislav Surkov.

Both Vladimir Putin and Vladimir Zhirinovsky (the leader of Russia’s far-right “Liberal-Democratic” Party) were known to meet with the young people attending Seliger. In 2012, the Russian Central Election Commissioner Vladimir Churov arrived at the convention by air balloon, in keeping with his “Magician” monicker, which he acquired from Dmitry Medvedev after voting irregularities in Russia’s 2011 parliamentary elections led to mass protests.

Apart from meeting with the country’s top leadership and attending workshops, participants engaged in fun activities like calisthenics, rock concerts featuring Russian (and sometimes Western) stars, and impaling plastic heads adorned with the portraits of prominent Kremlin critics displayed along an impromptu “alley of disgrace.”

The event’s Kremlin patron, Surkov, “thought he should work with activists who bridle to attend despite the inconveniences of outdoor living,” recalls a source who worked closely with the administration from around 2000–2011. Surkov was sure, he says, that tents would be perfectly adequate housing for attendees and generally considered Seliger more of a show than a genuine political event.

After Vyacheslav Volodin replaced Surkov in 2011, the convention was renamed from Seliger to The Space of Meaning. According to a Meduza source familiar with Volodin’s work, the rebranding changed little about how the convention operated. “It was the same body of loyal activists, now recruited through the Young Guard of United Russia organization and college administrations instead of the Nashi movement.” “The execution was a bit more serious, I guess,” the same source reflects. “They started inviting heads of State Duma factions and other officials. There was less entertainment.”

For a while, The Space of Meaning remained the only major platform for the Kremlin’s live meetings with young people. Russia’s different regions had their own regional youth conventions, but their scale wasn’t nearly the same. In the Stavropol region, for example, the “Mashuk” young educators’ festival was long considered little more than a summer camp sponsored by the regional government.

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Then, in 2015, the “Tavrida” summer festival was inaugurated in the annexed Crimea to bring together young movers and shakers in the arts and culture. DJs, folk choreographers, urban designers, and young faculty members teaching in art programs were all invited to come to the festival.

“Of course, this was really all done for just one person, the president. There was no practical purpose to this convention whatsoever,” says a source who worked with Volodin’s Kremlin team at the time. He believes that Volodin wanted to show the president that he was busy cultivating a piece of turf that was so dear to Putin’s heart — namely, Russia’s youth.

The Kiriyenko era

In 2016, there was another staffing change in the Putin administration. Volodin’s successor Sergey Kiriyenko wasn’t satisfied with his predecessor’s lackluster approach to youth festivals. Kiriyenko (who had previously worked at the Russian nuclear corporation Rosatom) likes being systematic and consistent, a source familiar with the current administration explains. When organizing conventions for Rosatom, he developed a core group of regular participants who would come back again and again to Rosatom’s various recurrent events.

His reason for doing this was that a single regular convention is bound to have limited impact: either the same limited circle of regulars will convene every year, or participants must be rotated and will therefore quickly forget what they learned at the convention they attended once upon a time.

To address this problem, Kiriyenko increased the number of national conventions by extending federal support to a number of regional initiatives. He also established several education centers (four of them to date) where lectures and workshops can occur year-round.

As a result of Kiriyenko’s efforts, every federal district is now expected to host a youth convention of its own, a source close to the administration told Meduza. “An important region like Kaliningrad,” he says, must have “its own forum.” “Besides,” he goes on, “if a large region decides to start a convention, they can attract attention from the federal leadership, be in Kiriyenko’s sights, and show the president: Look, we’re educating our youth.”

If a region can’t allocate enough funding from its own budget, the federal youth agency Rosmolodezh and other sponsors — state and quasi-state corporations like Rosatom and Sberbank — will take care of it.

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‘It’s all made of styrofoam’

Each of Russia’s state-sponsored youth festivals tries to reach a particular audience. The Ekosistema (“Ecosystem”) convention in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, on Russia’s Far-Eastern Kamchatka Peninsula, was organized especially for environmental scientists and activists. The Kaliningrad region is the home of Shum (“Noise”), a convention for young PR and marketing professionals.

While different on the surface, all the youth conventions follow the same template. A source whose work often involves organizing these events told Meduza about their phony foundation:

One of the convention spaces was designed to look as if lined with bookcases. You’d pick up a book from one of the shelves — and it would just be a styrofoam dummy. That’s what the conventions themselves are like. It’s as if it’s all made of styrofoam.

Participants typically start their day with physical exercise. Next, they go to lectures and workshops, and there’s invariably live music in the evening. Tavrida, Russia’s Crimea-based arts-and-culture festival, has the most live entertainment, though the performers are often a generation older than the audience. This year, for example, the pop singer Oleg Gazmanov, who made his name in the 1990s, performed for the guests, singing hit songs like “I Was Made in the USSR.”

This is not to say that Tavrida failed to invite a trendy singer: Not only did Shaman perform for the festival guests, but he did so in the title role of Prince Vladimir in a brand-new patriotic rock opera, which premiered at Tavrida. The plot, conceived by the music producer Igor Matviyenko (of the “Lyube” rock band fame), presents the Medieval Kyivan Prince Vladimir’s quest to subject all of Ancient Rus to compulsory Christian baptism. According to the libretto, Vladimir pursues this goal in the company of a “mysterious stranger who calls himself Gangrad but is, in reality, the Viking god Odin.”

Apart from specialized training and workshops, convention programs like Tavrida’s inevitably include propaganda lectures and meetings with “veterans” of Russia’s war in Ukraine. At the IT forum “Ficha” (whose name is simply a Russified version of the English word “Feature”), participants met with Daniil Kulikov, a serviceman from the annexed Luhansk “republic” who took part in Russian presidential grant programs after being discharged. At the Shum marketing convention in Kaliningrad, Kremlin PR manager Alexey Zharich taught young professionals “the mechanics of creating positive content” that “awakens pride, confidence, and hope” in audiences. Another speaker at the same convention — the polymath, patriot, and State Duma deputy from United Russia, Anatoly Vasserman — also talked about content creation and how it “shapes the values” of society.

Colonel Elena Vavilova, a retired foreign intelligence officer who drew parallels between leadership qualities and the traits of a successful spy, led a workshop on “interpersonal communication” at the Krasnoyarsk forum “Biryusa.”

Mashuk, a forum for young schoolteachers, managed to secure an appearance from Russian Children’s Rights Commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova, whose arrest the International Criminal Court seeks along with Vladimir Putin’s.

Many of the conventions aren’t shy about advertising a political agenda. The Ficha IT conference, for instance, openly asked prospective attendees: “Do you love IT and Russia’s digital sovereignty?” The forum invited like-minded computer scientists to come together “for the sole purpose of creating new digital features that will strengthen the digital sovereignty of our country.”

The Russian youth convention industry has already spread to Ukraine’s occupied territories. In addition to the youth forum already conducted in occupied Melitopol, Kiriyenko has promised to establish an education center called “Mayak” in Berdyansk. Without going into the details of what kind of education it would offer, the Kremlin ideologue said that Mayak would be “a living entity,” and it’s therefore “best to build it in stages, depending on the demands of the time.”

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‘Expensive, therefore essential’

Judging by the Kremlin’s budget allocations to youth conventions, the administration seems to consider them a promising new direction. Tavrida alone has cost the government around three billion rubles (roughly $31 million in today’s money) from 2020–2022. The Mashuk teachers’ forum had a far more modest budget of 120 million rubles (still over $1 million) in 2023.

This year, Russia’s youth agency assumed the expenses for hosting conventions like Ekosistema, the Astrakhan-based Cossack Youth Convention, and the Russian North convention in the Arctic Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District. Regional governments and a Kremlin-controlled nonprofit (whose long corporate name translates as “Russia, the Country of Possibilities”) fund similar events. In 2019, this nonprofit received lavish subsidies to sponsor The Space of Meaning convention, then anticipated to cost the government 360 million rubles in 2020–2021. (Public spending disclosures have since ceased.)

Channeling money through a nonprofit is the easiest way to fund conventions using the state budget without competitive bidding on government contracts and all the accompanying transparency requirements, explains a source close to the Putin administration. He adds that the Moscow Mayor’s office has long since adopted this model as the most convenient.

What justifies all the spending is that Putin “likes the idea”: “Mentorship. Instead of loafing around without supervision, the young are being educated. Instead of hanging about in the street, they’re going to forums,” says one of the sources who spoke to Meduza.

The “forums” themselves are run by the conformist children of Russia’s government functionaries. In 2023, Kiriyenko’s daughter Lyubov Kiriyenko, advisor to the dean of Russia’s Higher School of Economics, coordinated one of the Mashuk educators’ forum sections. Vladimir Vayno, the son of Kremlin Chief of Staff Anton Vayno, was on the competition jury of the Krasnoyarsk forum Biryusa.

Political consultants working with the Kremlin think of youth conventions as “the new oil” for the relevant part of the Putin administration’s bureaucracy, which views the new industry as a viable career path and a means of enrichment. “They’re simply pandering to Kiriyenko, who is a great fan of the old-school Komsomol practices, being an eternal Komsomolets himself, enamored with pompous gatherings and lectures,” says a source close to the United Russia leadership, without hiding his irony, referring to the USSR’s top political youth organization.

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A source close to senior officials in the State Duma told Meduza that Kiriyenko’s love of forums doesn’t spring from a sentimental attachment to Komsomol alone. “SVK [Kiriyenko’s initials] understood early on,” he said, “that moving youth forums from campsites to brick-and-mortar buildings would be expensive, and therefore essential, and that it would be even better to conduct a great many of those forums all year long.” Why? Because it’s good business, the source explained:

And if you want your department to get a bigger budget next year, the thing to do is to spend all you can. […] It’s a never-ending race, just like with the cops’ system of fighting crime: each year, you have to solve more cases; otherwise, the higher-ups will think you’re slacking off. It’s the exact same thing here. They want more funding, so they have to build new platforms.

Networking around a greasy pole

A source who works in a grassroots organization and was obliged to take part in numerous youth conventions as a speaker or co-presenter describes these gatherings as “dreadful places” where “duped young people” gather to be bamboozled again. He says “regional officials and greasy pole climbers from youth organizations” all take advantage of the young:

[They] promise them hills of gold in return for simple actions, just like cult leaders. You have no education? No skills? No job? No vocation? No problem. Here’s our “youth-centric policy,” here are some lectures from today’s “thought leaders,” here’s Kiriyenko’s remote keynote speech, and here are some “creative workshops” on rural youth, cybernetics on Mars, and best fracking practices from Bangladesh.

A source close to the United Russia leadership who attended several conventions, some of them as a speaker, objects to this idea of victimization. “It’s not the innocents who go to those places,” he says. “They’re all hard-core opportunists.” And those who are not, he adds, are “just extras.”

A source close to the presidential office says youth conventions are a good place for career opportunists because high-ranking apparatchiks are actually scouting potential talent to recruit while supposedly giving talks and staging workshops. The ambitious youngsters, in turn, can “grasp the party line” from messaging delivered at the leadership’s talks and presentations.

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Story by Andrey Pertsev, translated by Anna Razumnaya

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