Early on a bright Wednesday morning in Sochi, beneath the gleaming latticed sunroof of the Olympic Park Media Centre, the young communist delegations of the world are setting up their stalls for the day. Directly opposite them, no more than 20 metres away, staff of Russia’s largest banking and financial services company, Sberbank, are doing the same. If this is the organisers’ idea of a joke, it’s lost on the majority of festival goers, who seem to slip seamlessly, if not a little bemusedly, along the narrow concourse, picking up a free biro embossed with the face of Kim Il-Sung before wandering across to hear about Sberbank’s new investment projects. “This is not the way the festival is supposed to be,” says Sasha from the Young Communists of Russia, after a man wearing a Burger King crown attempts to take a selfie with a bust of Lenin. “We were tricked.”
Banks certainly didn’t feature in previous incarnations of the World Festival of Youth and Students. With its first outing in Prague just after the Second World War, the festival was founded by the World Federation of Democratic Youth, a UN affiliate, as an event intended to bring together communist youth movements from across the globe every four years in either communist nations, or — increasingly since the fall of the eastern bloc — countries sympathetic to the cause.
Latterly it has struggled to maintain both the relevance and the appeal that it wielded during the golden days of the Khrushchev era, when 34,000 attended the sixth iteration in Moscow. But two years ago, it seemed that the fortunes of the festival were to be restored. At the WFDY (or “Woofdy” to its supporters) committee meeting in Havana, leaders joyfully announced that Russia would be the next host of the festival, which would coincide almost exactly with the centenary of the October Revolution. As one delegate put it to me, this would be a “football’s coming home” moment for Marxists.
That’s how it must have seemed, in any case, to the thousands of young enthusiasts who travelled half way across the planet to attend an event that, for at least the last 70 years, has been billed as a communist youth festival. At a marathon-length meeting of all the Woofdy member groups, each stood up in turn to reiterate their commitment to the cause, while also giving the Russians a kick under the table for good measure. The most eloquent, and graciously brief, speech came from a Bengali delegate, who said, “This is a festival that allows people who believe in equality among all to express themselves and have serious conversations about the future of the world… Our opponents point to the failure of the Soviet Union as a sign that communism is not workable. But if a car malfunctions and crashes people don't say that all cars are therefore unworkable. The USSR had its malfunctions, but its ideology was sound.”
Situated less than three miles from the border with Abkhazia, the Sochi Olympic Park (which is in fact about as far from the city as Liverpool is from Manchester) is a Frankensteinian hotchpotch, encompassing within its carefully patrolled perimetre a theme park, a Formula One track, a couple of hotels and the Olympic stadia themselves. As you might imagine, it’s enormous. And in spite of the 25,000 people here, it feels empty.
To make up for it, it seems there are almost as many working volunteers as there are attendees. Their role appears to be more festival hype-men than helper. Everywhere you turn you are faced with a megaphoned volunteer, competing with the inescapable clubland drone from the hi-fi stacks, telling you to “turn that frown upside down”. Ask them a simple question — like how to get somewhere, or why are they choosing to work at the festival for free — and you won’t get an answer; more likely, you’ll find yourself being pressganged into a foam-fingered high five.
This should have been a “football’s coming home” moment for Marxists
As Sasha and I walk along the main thoroughfare, a canyon between the back of the home-straight grandstand and a few massive rollercoasters, he glances up every now and then from the pavement in front of him to glare moodily at the laughter of passing groups.
The deception, for Sasha and other communists at the festival, is that this is not a Woofdy event at all, but a Russian one. When Russia played its insuperable centenary-commemoration card in its bid to host the 19th World Festival of Youth and Students, it did so with its fingers crossed. As it turns out, it has no intention of marking the October Revolution. The Head of Operations at the festival, Alexey Avetisov, says that the overlap of dates is “pure coincidence”. Nor does Russia have any intention of pandering to the political agendas of the WFDY. Unlike previous festivals, which were held exclusively for Woofdy member organisations, the Russian government extended the application process to anyone who wished to attend — failing, incidentally, to mention the true nature of the festival — in order to dilute the prominence of communist youth groups. The result is an event populated by 10,000 angry communists, and 10,000 nonplussed students.
It’s fairly easy to tell who’s who. Aside from the obvious distinction of the peaked caps, berets and military jackets tinkling with red tin badges, the Russian organisers have themselves inadvertently provided their own distinction. Upon arrival, each participant was given a “uniform” of a yellow polo shirt, a yellow hoodie, a yellow gilet and a yellow baseball cap. But nearly all the communists have rejected it in favour of mufti or their groups’ own outfits: Sasha’s red Harrington, Zimbabwe’s orange tracksuit, the DPRK’s dark suits. “These people,” Sasha says, motioning at one particularly happy-looking trio of yellow people, “they have no idea why they are here. What are they doing at our festival?”
This polarisation was apparent at the opening ceremony, with several hours of repetitive material, consisting of bland speeches from Russian tycoons interspersed with emotion-laden pop ballads sung by winners of The Voice, followed by a presidential appearance. But for a large stadium, it wasn’t much of an applause, the room well below capacity. Two days before the start of the festival, the WFDY was informed that their programme could not be accommodated and would instead be replaced by a decidedly apolitical, state-sponsored roster of events and activities. In response, Woofdy affiliates boycotted the ceremony. Those who were in the stadium that night were nearly all in yellow. There were, though, some Cuban communists who hadn’t got the memo; after the rest of the line-up had finished their speeches, the comrades from the Antilles broke into The Internationale, only to be drowned out by a hastily cued pop hit blaring over the PA.
Later that night I met up with some of the Cubans at a street party outside their accommodation. With two huge banners emblazoned with the upturned faces of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara hanging from the hotel windows above us, Cuban delegates took turns to swipe at the Russian organisers: “They are hijackers who have stolen our festival,” said one between gulps of lager, before being drowned out by song for a second time — though this time it was The Internationale doing the drowning.
Approaching the main festival centre, Sasha and I come across a column of some of his fellow party members, cycling along the road with red flags. As they pass, a group of yellow people shout, “Keep going! You’re not wanted here.” When Sasha rushes off to find the nearest free bicycle, one of the protesters, Alyona from Astana, who wears a T-shirt printed with Putin’s face beneath her gilet, tells me that most people at the festival don’t want anything to do with politics. “We simply want to meet people from other cultures and exchange views. This is a joyful event and yet it’s being ruined by these communists and their ideas.” Likewise, Barbara from Mozambique shares the same view: “I came here to meet new people and to learn new things about other people. And I have met so many nice people from places I had never even thought I would meet people from. I guess it's all about people really.”
The Festival is an exercise in brand management for Russia
Neither group is at fault here, and neither wins. The communists have had their political agenda treated like a bad smell and been quarantined off to the sidelines; as for the rest of us, there hasn’t been much by way of a replacement programme. There are half-hearted attempts at big-topic seminars, but many of these never actually take place as listed, and those that do are more often than not just thinly veiled advertising campaigns for the Russian companies that sponsor the event. In reality, as the rows of Sberbank, Megafon and Summa Group stalls testify, this is not a festival in any sense, but a trade fair.
On the final day Putin reappears, on stage in an open-neck shirt, to wave us goodbye. The WFDY delegates are again nowhere to be seen, but those who come applaud him with the same sincere enthusiasm as they did a week ago at the opening ceremony. This is the return on Russia’s investment. Like the Winter Olympics of 2014 and the football World Cup next year, the 19th World Festival of Youth and Students is an exercise in brand management for Russia that the Kremlin hopes will translate into votes at the forthcoming election and, one day perhaps, votes at the UN. “Thank you, President,” reads a banner stretched out before the stage by a group of Serbian students. Money well spent.