It was once the summer destination for the brightest and best of Soviet children 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 seven kilometers (about four miles) of pebble beaches, Artek welcomed only the cream of the Communist youth organizations, the Young Pioneers and the Komsomol, aged from 10 to around 17. After the end of the Soviet Union, the camp was taken over by Ukraine's independent authorities but gradually fell into disrepair. But 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 pumping some $410 million (365 million rubles) 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 AFP. 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 mathematics 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 mathematics at a competition in Ulan-Ude in Buryatia, a largely Buddhist Siberian region. Another camp member, 12-year-old Rita Isayeva, had chosen to wear the uniform of the Young Pioneers, a cap and red kerchief, saying she preferred this. Rita from the far northern town of Apatity won first prize in five subjects in her competition. She said she had yet to choose a future career, torn between astronomer and cheese taster. Children coming from abroad if they want to join the camp must shell out the full amount, however: around 65,000 rubles ($1,233) for three weeks. Back 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 ( 568-acre) 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 tricolor.
After the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Artek became part of independent Ukraine. The camp lost its political focus and became a fairly normal summer camp hosting Ukrainian children on a commercial basis. But it failed to thrive and in 2009 was announced to be on the brink of bankruptcy. Now, however, the campers are back, and so is some of the old Communist pioneer spirit. For a few days of their stay, the visitors swap their comfortable dorms and mobile phones for tents and lessons on learning how to light campfires and play the bugle, a Young Pioneer tradition. "The children have to relearn how to live with different people, to reconnect with the spirit of internationalism and collectivism of that era," said camp director Kasprzhak However "this is absolutely not about going back to the past," he insisted. A new doctrine for Artek, whose full name is the International Centre for Free Education of Children, grew out of a public discussion in Russia last summer. In place of the Soviet-era insistence on the preeminence of the state and the indisputable power of the Party is a new idea "to form people who can take responsibility for themselves", said Kasprzhak. "A child gets to stay at Artek on his own merit and he must understand that he himself is responsible for his own fate, and not the state, as was the case in the Soviet era," said Kasprzhak.