10.08.2009 :: Andy Potts - "Moscow News №30 2009"
After a century which began with the enthusiastic support of the tsar only to run into Soviet disapproval, Russia's scouts have needed to "be prepared" for more than most. Driven out of the USSR by apparatchiks determined to sweep youngsters into their own Pioneer camps, Russian scouting existed in exile for decades.
But having seen the movement reach its 100th anniversary this year, Chief Scoutmaster Slava Chernykh, co-founder of the Russian Union of Scouts (RUS), has his eyes firmly on the future.
"What's next? 200 years - I hope that my children and grandchildren will be able to see it."
Scouting in Russia, which is strictly apolitical, remains something of an oddity. As Chernykh admits, re-establishing a tradition which was lost in Soviet times is a challenge.
"It's still hard to overcome the stereotype of us as another version of the Pioneers," he said, referring to the Communist youth groups of old. "During Perestroika some officials had a ‘great idea' to join the Pioneers to the international scouting movement and some Scouters came over from Britain and America. They were horrified when they saw what the government was trying to do.
"We are apolitical - in the RUS it's not allowed to be connected to a political organisation."
Sometimes this causes funding problems - local authorities can make grants conditional on uniformed scouts turning up at official demonstrations or rallies, something which the movement won't accept.
But as the first generation of post-Soviet scouts reaches adulthood, there are more people able and willing to "do their best" to support the movement. Former scouts retain close links and are a major source of both funding and practical voluntary support.
Russian scouts follow the traditions laid down by Lord Baden-Powell, the founder of scouting, and Oleg Pantukhov, who established the first Russian brigade in 1909.
"It's easy to repeat what other kids' camps do, but the scout spirit is unbelievable and inexplicable," said Chernykh. "You need to feel it to understand - it's only in the camp or among Scouts. The Scout Method is more than just providing education in a natural environment - it's about a specific relationship between the kids and the adults at the camps.
"It's also an important measure of the level of democracy and flexibility in our society. For years it was much easier to find support and funding outside of Russia - our own businessmen were only interested in cheap PR and fake philanthropy.
"Now we are starting to see some people who are giving real personal support for the right reasons, not just for publicity."
Amid all this serious stuff, Russia's own traditions - and distinctive sense of humour - don't go unobserved. Regular visits to an international jamboree in Denmark and other countries have seen visiting Russian scout troops decorate their flag pole with icons as diverse as a balalaika or a plastic AK-47 rifle.
"Our foreign brothers and sisters have come to expect a surprise from the Russian visitors - it's our way of letting them know ‘Russia is here!'," smiled Chernykh.
As well as trips abroad - giving many scouts their first taste of life out of Russia - the main RUS campsite at Vetluga, near Nizhny Novgorod, is fast becoming a top-class international facility welcoming visitors from around the world.
"We've built round the year accommodation blocks for 200 people in a real Russian ‘izba', as well as the campsite for a few thousand campers," said Chernykh. "It's a beautiful place and we've already had visitors not only from Europe and States but from Ghana, South Africa, Singapore and Mongolia."
One of the highlights of the scouting year comes in December as Russia plays its part in the Bethlehem Light of Peace project.
Each Advent a flame is kindled at the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem and spread across Europe to symbolise the spread of love and peace among nations.
The ritual, which has come to Russia for more than a decade now, unites Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant Christians, with services in recent years taking place at the Krutitsky Monastery near Proletarskaya metro station, the Catholic Cathedral on Malaya Gruzinskaya Ulitsa and St Andrew's Anglican Church on Voznesensky Pereulok.
"It's a great chance to share something bright with other people," said Scoutmaster Slava Chernykh.
"It's always a big thing - when we went to St. Andrew's church there were people from the British Embassy there, all the diplomatic cars parked outside."
"It's such an impressive service each Christmas - the churches are always full of people."
From Moscow, the flame is taken on to other Russian cities by further scout groups, bringing an annual message of seasonal hope in a prosaic-looking metal dispatch case to provincial towns as diverse as Vladimir, Kazan, Kostroma, Kursk, Nizhny Novgorod, Obninsk, Petrozavodsk, St. Petersburg, Saransk and Yaroslavl and communities beyond the Ural mountains.
The Russian Union of Scouts welcomes members of all backgrounds and faiths, placing an emphasis on "spirituality" rather than any specific religion.
"Most of our members are Orthodox, but we also have Muslims, Jews and Catholics," said Slava Chernykh.
For more information, see www.scoutmaster.ru
In addition the Boy Scouts of America runs troop 500 and cub scout troop 3950 in Moscow.
Scouting through history
1883 - Foundation of Russia's first "Sokol" gymnastic society, following the philosophy of central European forerunners to scouting.
1908 - A Russian translation of Baden-Powell's "Scouting for Boys" is published at the request of Tsar Nikolai II. He hoped to see the "poteshny" youth movement develop into a Russian scout troop.
1909 - Captain Oleg Pantukhov assembles the first Russian Beaver scout patrol in Pavlovsk, near St. Petersburg. Their first meeting on April 30 is considered the birth of Russian scouting.
1910 - Baden-Powell visits St. Petersburg and meets the Tsar and Panktukhov's scouts.
1917 - The revolution splits the scouting movement, with many scouts volunteering in the White army fighting against the Communists.
1919 - The second Komsomol congress disbands the scouting movement. Russian scouting exists only in exile.
1989 - Under perestroika a scout revival initiative is formed in Dnepropetrovsk, seeking to restart the illegal movement.
1990 - The group organises an "All Soviet Union Congress meeting for those interested in Scouting", paving the way for the movement's official return to Russian soil.
1993 - Slava Chernykh and Igor Bogdanov establish the Russian Union of Scouts.
2009 - The total Scout movement has about 10,000 members across Russia.