It began with complaints from parents: their children attending camp at a famed Russian camp complex near the Black Sea shore were suffering from bad food, squalid bathrooms, shoddy accommodations, and bedbug-infested mattresses, among other things.
More than 35 families were so appalled by the conditions at the state-subsidized Orlyonok complex -- where as many as 20,000 school-age children and teenagers attend programs annually -- that they publicly appealed to President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin.
Now, according to an RFE/RL investigation, there is at least one explanation for the conditions at the famed camp, which got at least 7 billion rubles ($93 million) in government subsidies over the past five years: a scheme of inflated contracts with contractors and suppliers, exorbitant compensation for its general director, and posh, free-of-charge accommodations for VIP guests -- at the expense of summer campers.
Yulia Vitkina, a Muscovite who sent her 13-year-old daughter to the complex in 2021, said Agnia lived in a 55-year-old, barrel-like dormitory that packed two dozen teenagers into cramped conditions.
"The electric sockets don't work, there is no air conditioning, there are no mosquito nets on the windows, but there is a huge gap between the shutters, the doors can't be closed or locked, there are cigarette butts in the keyholes, there is rubbish everywhere," Agnia told RFE/RL.
Vitkina said she picked up her daughter after just a week. "I understand that 50 years ago these were normal conditions. None of us lived very luxuriously then," said Vitkina, who helped organize the public petition to government officials. "But in the 21st century this is unacceptable."
Agnia told RFE/RL that part of a concrete platform on which the dormitory is erected collapsed on August 12 while she was attending camp. Three campers and a counselor suffered only minor injuries.
She also described filthy conditions at the communal bathrooms, with no toilet paper and sometimes no electricity.
Yulia, a woman from the far-northern Yamalo-Nenets region whose 17-year-old daughter, Vika, attended camp at Orlyonok in 2021, said that the food was low-quality and there often wasn't enough. Once, she said, when Vika went on a hike with other campers, the counselors took up a collection from the campers to buy snacks for the trip.
According to another parent, Yelena Kovalyova, her 13-year-old son called the camp he attended this past summer "bread paradise" -- because the food was so awful, campers ate nothing but bread. Another camp counselor shared photos of mattresses infested with bedbugs.
Yury Kolevaiko, deputy director of the Orlyonok complex, told RFE/RL that some parents were exaggerating. "Children who come to us have different social statuses. Children have different attitudes toward different living conditions, different conditions at home, and reality," Kolevaiko said.
"We have more than 20,000 children annually [attending camp]; count the percentage of those who don't like it," he told RFE/RL.
Padded Contracts, Broken Contracts
The complex, which includes seven different camps as well as hotels, a hospital, and a museum, is federally chartered under Russian law, and receives billions in annual public subsidies: Some are paid to the camp's budget, some come from the scholarships that children receive back in their home regions to attend.
That means the complex is obliged to conduct public tenders for suppliers and subcontractors. RFE/RL's Russian Service examined dozens of contracts signed by the camp's administration for everything ranging from air conditioners to foodstuffs.
One food contract for 2019-20 showed 1.2 million rubles ($16,000) being earmarked for ice cream, and twice that amount for yogurt, for the camp's dining halls. But campers RFE/RL spoke to said there was never any ice cream or yogurt provided with meals.
Orlyonok -- the name means "eaglet" -- is a major purchaser of food and other goods from local suppliers. That, plus its politically connected administration, gives it outsized weight in contract disputes.
It is also the dominant employer for the region, including the nearby town of Novomikhailovsky, said one woman who asked not to be named for fear of jeopardizing her work prospects: "There is nowhere else to work, so people go for any money and any attitude."
Some local suppliers have sued for nonfulfillment of contracts. One large bakery in the nearby port city of Novorossiisk, which won a 6.8 million-ruble ($91,000) contract to supply bread in 2018, went to court after Orlyonok broke the contract. Another Ryazan-based supplier of gasoline and fuel oil saw its contract broken without justification, it said.
Other examples of budget items that don't appear to be used for campers' benefit: a pair of high-speed catamarans donated in 2016 by a nearby port. Campers, however, said no trips were ever taken with them aboard the boats.
The Boss Of Orlyonok
For the past 20 years, the complex's general director has been Aleksandr Dzheus, a member of the national ruling United Russia party and an elected lawmaker in the Krasnodar regional legislature.
Camp employees said he had access to three cars for business use, including a luxury Mercedes. One employee told RFE/RL that Dzheus flies business class when he travels by plane and stays in luxury hotel suites.
RFE/RL was unable to verify this.
Camp employees told RFE/RL that Dzheus allowed his family members, relatives, and other colleagues to stay at some of Orloynok's nicer facilities, an assertion backed up by an account ledger obtained by RFE/RL designated "N/O" -- no payment.
Camp employees, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said other important guests who stay in hotels on the complex, in modern accommodations, apparently free of charge, include the former top chief of the regional branch of the Federal Security Service, along with his wife and children.
Other law enforcement officials including representatives from the regional Interior Ministry and the office of the chief regional prosecutor are also regular guests of Dzheus at the complex, employees said.