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Kremlin camp invites critics this year

Skeptics wonder if opposition is being co-opted

Campers at Lake Seliger, which is funded by the government, are directed this year by a blogger and sometime activist.
Campers at Lake Seliger, which is funded by the government, are directed this year by a blogger and sometime activist.(LAURA MILLS/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

LAKE SELIGER, Russia — The spirit of rebellion roiling Russia this year stretches even into the Seliger youth camp, an annual Kremlin-funded event that has long been seen as a training ground for truculent Putin loyalists.

This year’s camp, which ended Thursday, struck a different chord. Organizers encouraged opposition activists to join, and cultivated an edgy vibe symbolized by a new logo designed by graffiti artist Banksy.

But many question whether Seliger’s makeover is an attempt to constructively engage the opposition or co-opt a movement that severely rattled President Vladimir Putin with a wave of massive demonstrations during the past year.

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Recently passed measures such as an astronomical increase in fines for taking part in an unauthorized demonstration may do little to discourage protesters — and may even encourage more people to support the opposition. And Putin has shown tentative signs of trying to mollify the opposition without actually giving ground.

Whether that thinking underlies the Seliger camp’s new image is unclear — but the changes this year were striking.

Inaugurated in 2005, the Seliger summer session for years were open only to members of Nashi, the pro-Kremlin youth group noted for its vehement devotion to those in power, and affiliated groups. The camp, located 220 miles northwest of Moscow, long had an iconography that some have likened to a neo-Soviet personality cult.

‘‘Last year there were only two portraits hanging on the stage: Putin and Medvedev,’’ said Margaret Drimluzhenko, 21, who attended her first session in 2011.

But this year the banners glorifying president and party were gone, as were antiopposition antics. Instead, the campground was dotted with the Banksy image of a young man preparing to toss a bouquet of flowers. The logo was painted in Putin’s least favorite color — orange, the emblematic color of the 2004 Ukrainian demonstrations that rattled nerves in the Kremlin.

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‘‘This year they got rid of everything [from before] so there weren’t even any hints,’’ said Drimluzhenko. ‘‘I don’t think it’s politicized. It’s just a possibility to come and discuss, to make friends and go somewhere from there.’’

At the start of each day, bleary-eyed campers flocked around a central stage to do fist-pumping aerobics. Some wore white ribbons — the opposition’s symbol — while others were dressed in T-shirts showing the yellow, black, and white stripes of a 19th century Russian flag that is now a popular image for nationalists.

On one recent morning, two men dressed as Cossacks, who symbolized fidelity to the Kremlin in imperial Russia, came to the stage and began fiercely cracking whips at each other, a characteristic demonstration of Cossack prowess.

Then up stepped Dmitri Ternovsky, a blogger and sometime opposition activist, chosen to direct Seliger this year.

‘‘Occupy Seliger,’’ the name of this year’s session, is Ternovsky’s brainchild. His goal this year was to attract new participants to the camp, the same young people who flocked to the protests that arose after December’s fraud-tainted parliamentary election.

The skinny 31-year-old started to announce the day’s events. But as soon as he whispered a few words about a discussion of electoral fraud, many in the audience started to boo.

And for all his efforts, attracting the opposition to a place with such a pro-Putin reputation was a tough sell.