Mon, Jun 08, 2015 - Page 6 News List

Russia reopens Soviet-era children’s camp


Children take part in a game at the Artek international children’s center in Gurzuf, about 15km outside Yalta, on May 31.

Photo: AFP

It was once the summer destination for the brightest and best children of the former Soviet Union but it slipped into disuse and decay after the socialist empire crumbled.

Now, however, showpiece holiday camp Artek in Crimea has reopened under Russian control after Moscow grabbed the Black Sea peninsula from Ukraine — and it is once again aiming to shape a new generation.

In an idyllic setting of cypress trees, magnolias and 7km of pebble beaches, Artek welcomed only the cream of the former communist youth organizations, the Young Pioneers and the Komsomol, aged from 10 to about 17.

After the end of the Soviet Union, the camp was taken over by Ukraine’s independent authorities but gradually fell into disrepair.

However, that all changed after the Kremlin seized the region from Kiev last year — and now 20,000 young Russians are set to holiday here this summer.

First opened in 1925 on Lenin’s suggestion, the Russian government is now allocating about US$410 million to refurbish the camp between now and 2020.

The aim is to turn it into a “national symbol of Russia — like the ballet or the Hermitage museum” in Saint Petersburg, the new 35-year-old director, Alexei Kasprzhak, told reporters.

For 95 percent of those who stay at the camp, it is free. They win the trip as a reward for taking top places in national competitions in school subjects from maths to Russian literature, or for excelling in sports or dance. The first began arriving in April.

“Artek has become Russian again. That makes me so happy,” said one of the first to stay there, 14-year-old Mikhail, adjusting his sailor’s hat.

“Deep down, I’m a Young Pioneer too, like my parents were, even if I don’t wear a red kerchief,” said Mikhail, who won first prize in maths at a competition in Ulan-Ude in Buryatia, a largely Buddhist Siberian region.

When it was founded, the camp was initially for children suffering from tuberculosis, but then grew into an ideologically charged project to cultivate a new kind of Soviet citizen.

Its impressive facilities and the chance to meet the children of international Soviet sympathizers made it a cult destination for generations.

Books, films and hit songs of the period talked about “friendship born at Artek.” Even today, streets, cinemas and ships bear the camp’s name.

At the entrance now, a faded sign still announces that the 230-hectare site — larger than Monaco — is part of a Ukrainian national park. Along with the Crimea region itself and everything on it, Ukraine insists the camp has been stolen by Russia. On the same placard, however, the Ukrainian national emblem has been painted over with the Russian tricolour.

“The children have to relearn how to live with different people, to reconnect with the spirit of internationalism and collectivism of that era,” camp director Kasprzhak said.

However “this is absolutely not about going back to the past,” he added.

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