As critical public debate is largely being forced out of Russian media, physical meeting places are assuming an increasingly important role in public discussion. Representatives from Sweden’s Embassy in Moscow and the Consulate-General in St Petersburg recently took part in a ‘BarCamp’ in the forest outside the city of Syktyvkar in north-western Russia.

Courses in Latin American dance, lectures on vegan food and advice on legal issues – these are examples of the activities organised as 500 young people gathered in the forest outside the Russian city of Syktyvkar in early July for a two-day outdoor conference. The concept, known as BarCamp, can be described as an open event for public debate, where participants themselves determine the content.

The event was organised by a group of journalists and bloggers who started a local journalism platform called ‘Horizontal Russia’.  The group is represented in some 20 regions in north-western and central Russia, and for its founder, businessman Leonid Zilberg, it is precisely this ‘horizontal’ meeting in the forest – where participants themselves call the shots – that is central to the whole concept.

– This is the free Russia, says Mr Zilberg.

Participants included human rights activists, lawyers, LGBTQ people and other engaged members of society. Also taking part were representatives of the indigenous Komi people, a minority group that primarily earn their living from reindeer husbandry, fishing and small-scale agriculture.

This is the sixth year in a row a BarCamp has been organised outside Syktyvkar. Participants live in tents and bring their own food. The organisers cover the cost of bus transportation to the campsite 60 km outside the city. The money is provided by local entrepreneurs and various funds, including the fund of the Committee of Civil Initiatives, started by former Minister of Finance Alexei Kudrin.Project leader Pavel Andreev would like to see BarCamps as a school of debate – a place to ask questions rather than seek answers. He also rejects claims that the event is a meeting place for the opposition.

– Many people confuse opposition with civic discussion. We are not against authority; we want to conduct dialogues on human conditions, said Mr Andreev.

The organisers also plan to hold other similar BarCamps in other parts of Russia. The city of Kirov, east of Moscow, is next in line and there are also plans for an event in Petrozavodsk, the capital city of the Republic of Karelia.

This is taking place at a time when free debate and social criticism has all but disappeared from Russian mass media, which is almost exclusively controlled by the State – a development that has simultaneously resulted in the increasingly important role played by physical meeting places for conducting public, democratic dialogue.

– Russia has not fallen silent. Social debate has been forced out of the media, but public debate continues. There are lots of meeting places where Russians are having discussions, asking questions, criticising, debating, testing ideas, says Per Enerud, Media and Communications Counsellor at Sweden’s Embassy in Moscow.

He and his colleague Louise Morsing from Sweden’s Consulate-General in St Petersburg were invited by the organisers to take part in the BarCamp outside Syktyvkar.

– It was inspiring to meet the people who participated in the discussions, says Mr Enerud.


Photo: Per Enerud.