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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Learning to Make Oodles of Rudols

LYSHCHYOVO, Moscow region — Forget collecting scrap metal and singing patriotic odes to the Motherland around the campfire. A new breed of pioneers is learning more practical skills for the real world — like how to impeach the president and win lucrative government contracts.

On the shores of the Istra reservoir, about 60 kilometers northwest of Moscow, some 200 children are living as citizens of New Land, a fully functioning micro-political system complete with a parliament, prime minister and president. Boys and girls from the ages of 8 to 16 are elected to positions of power — and others get assigned more menial jobs — at the beginning of their three-week stay.

Although the New Land camp, sponsored by oil giant Yukos, provides the youth with all the basics, the campers are also thrown into the real work world and encouraged to develop their entrepreneurial talents, rather than relying on the state for their every need. To oil the wheels of commerce, New Land has even printed its own currency, the rudol.

"We are just preparing the children to live in our society. It's not a very good society yet," said camp director Anatoly Yermolin.

The average camper gets paid about 100 rudols a day. The unemployment wage is 20 rudols a day, which is just enough to cover food costs.

The program is getting an enthusiastic reception from the youth.

"We are learning not just how to do paperwork but how to invest in things, how to create them and how to arrange them in real life," said Ira Oshchenko, 16, a native of Kirov in the Kaluga region. "It will make it much easier to arrange things in our real lives."

During the day, Oshchenko is officially a state employee at the canteen, helping feed the campers. Like many struggling Russians in real life, though, Ira has more than one job. As well as moonlighting as a tent cleaner for other scouts at the end of the working day, Ira also offers a discreet massage service for 5 rudols a session.

"We are learning that we can only count on ourselves and that responsibility in life is with us and not with anybody else," she said.

"Also, never waste your time — it's very important. If you work really hard, you will get your bonus."

Mirroring the rapid rise to wealth that a handful of Russians have achieved over the past decade, some of the campers have done remarkably well at making oodles of rudols.

Maxim Avdeyev, a bright-eyed 12-year-old from Moscow, quickly became the richest camper last month with a scheme that would make even an oligarch glow with pride.

"When we started, I offered the government my assistance in covering some of the holes in services and they refused," Avdeyev said. "After that, I used those holes to my own advantage."

The budding entrepreneur bought a license to develop the camp's lakeside pier for a mere 25 rudols. A few days later, the government made a budgetary decision that called for the pier to be modernized and developed. Avdeyev promptly sold his rights back to the state for 8,000 rudols, having done no work on the pier in the meantime.

Rather than strain himself, Avdeyev decided to deposit his money at a friend's commercial bank and went into retirement for the rest of his stay in New Land.

The question of how to create a civil society has become a hot topic in Russia in recent times. In June President Vladimir Putin met with scores of nongovernmental organizations and decided to set up a liaison group to promote a civil society. That group, which is scheduled to meet for the first time in November, has sparked outrage from critics who say it was founded to muzzle independent activists.

Some critics also say that Yukos' New Land program will also do little in developing a civil society, arguing that it is simply another example of top-down social engineering in Russia and that what is really needed are grassroot organizations.

Yukos, however, is convinced that it is doing its part for Russian youth with its camp and several other endeavors aimed at teens.

"Yukos has committed to the building of a civil society with special emphasis on education projects that prepare young people for the challenges of open, democratic societies," said Hugo Eriksson, director of the international information department at Yukos.

The New Land camp was set up in 1997, and Yukos hopes to open 20 more in the upcoming years. Campers are selected for their leadership skills and by their peers at school.

Yukos says it spends about $1 million a year on the camp, and 700 to 800 campers will attend this year.

Yermolin, the camp director, firmly stands by the program. "It helps the children understand how the complicated political system and rules relate to real life in Russia," he said.

At a memorable camp excursion to Bulgaria several years ago, Yermolin recalled, a New Land citizen successfully impeached the president and prime minister by challenging their right to set up a monopolist bank and force all state salaries to be channeled through it.

The bank was closed down, the money returned and the president forced to make a public apology.

"We are teaching them not only to survive but to be helpful and to be good friends to others," Yermolin said. "Some of the best results are with the rich kids who have everything they could want but absolutely no aim in life. We give them motivation to go out and achieve something."

For every winner in this virtual free market, however, there is also always a loser. While Avdeyev and New Land's new rich splashed out rudols to buy real-life goodies like stereos and printers at an end-of-camp auction, Tia, a retiring 12-year-old from Moscow, chatted quietly with her friends in the shade of their tent across camp.

"Yes we made money — but only a little," she said. "I was a journalist."

The other journalists in her huddle nodded gravely in understanding.