Putinjugend: More bad news from Russia

I’m back for a visit to the op-ed page of the Boston Globe, with a column on “Nashi”, the rather sinister youth movement on the rise in Russia.

A couple of months ago on an Internet forum I frequent, a discussion of human rights in Eastern Europe turned to the brutal suppression last May of a demonstration in Moscow protesting the city’s ban on a gay pride march. Then came a remarkable response from a Russian forum participant, a 19-year-old university student from St. Petersburg: “RUSSIA THE BEST!!! AMERICA SUCKS!!!” she wrote in capital letters. “Next time write about the things that happen in your gay country, leave Russia alone!!!! Putin is the greatest president and we have the greatest history ever!”

I thought of that young woman when, shortly afterward, I read alarming reports about a new force in Russian public life: a youth movement called Nashi. The word is typically translated as “Ours,” but that doesn’t quite capture the nationalist, triumphalist overtones of the Russian name. “Nashi,” in Russian idiom, means “Our Guys” or “Our Kind”; it’s the “us” in us versus them.

“Them,” for Nashi, includes everyone from Americans to former Soviet republics that bristle at Russian diktat to Russians who don’t subscribe to Putin’s authoritarian vision of “sovereign democracy.”

Nashi was launched in the spring of 2005, largely in reaction to the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine in 2004, where young adults played a key role in the massive street protests, sit-ins, and strikes that helped pro-Western presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko prevail in an election dispute. With Nashi and several smaller pro-Kremlin youth groups, the Putin regime is hoping not only to co-opt political activism among the younger generation but to use it as a club against its enemies.

And make no mistake: While ostensibly independent, Nashi is a Kremlin creation. Officially, its lavish funding comes from pro-government business owners; it is widely reported that the group also receives direct subsidies from the Kremlin. Nashi activists land coveted jobs and internships in government agencies as well as state-owned oil and gas corporations. Putin’s top advisers have met frequently with the group’s leaders.

Last July, its two-week training program in a camp 200 miles outside Moscow, attended by 10,000 young men and women carefully screened for ideological fitness, was capped by a video message from Putin in which the president proclaimed Nashi a part of his team. Several days earlier, he had met with a group of Nashi “commissars” at his summer residence in Zavidovo.

Nashi claims to be over 100,000 strong; according to some reports, it has a core of 10,000 activists ages 17 to 25, with another 200,000 or so who regularly attend its events.

At the core of Nashi’s credo is personal loyalty to Putin, admired as the strongman who saved Russia from weakness and decline — and venomous hate toward the opposition and its leaders, such as chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov. (Posters at the Nashi summer camp depicted Kasparov and two other male opposition figures as lingerie-clad prostitutes.)

Beyond this personality cult, Nashi champions the ideology of the Putin regime, which blends elements of the Soviet legacy and that of imperial Russia. Though officially secular, the movement has a Russian Orthodox wing. It promotes conservative social values and healthy lifestyles, condemning such scourges as draft evasion, drinking, smoking, birth control, and abortion. Its leaders speak of “freedom” as essential to the Russian people — but what they mean is freedom from outside interference and infringements on Russia’s sovereignty.

Propaganda is not the only weapon in Nashi’s arsenal. The movement offers paramilitary training that prepares members for breaking up opposition rallies (under the guise of combating “fascism”) and intimidating those who run afoul of the Putin regime. Last year, when the governor of the Perm region recklessly allowed a member of an opposition party to attend a youth conference, Nashi protesters picketed his offices until he apologized.

In April, the group’s protests against the Estonian government’s decision to relocate a memorial to Soviet soldiers turned violent: Hundreds of Nashi goons besieged the Estonian embassy in Moscow, unmolested by the police as they threw rocks, blocked traffic, and tore down the Estonian flag.

Some have compared Nashi to the Komsomol, the Soviet-era Communist Youth League. But in a way, Nashi is much more frightening. By the 1960s, the Komsomol was largely devoid of genuine ideological zeal, unless you count rote recitation of party slogans. Membership in the organization, while not mandatory, was practically universal, and joining it at 14 was largely a formality. Even Komsomol activists, with few exceptions, were interested in career advancement, not political causes. Today’s Nashi undoubtedly have their share of cynical careerists, but they also include a large number of true believers.

Perhaps more aptly, some Russian liberals refer to Nashi as “Putinjugend.” The movement’s brownshirt tactics certain evoke shades of Hitler Youth, as does the emphasis on physical fitness, clean living, and procreation for the Motherland. (At the Nashi summer camp, sex was encouraged as an answer to Russia’s demographic crisis, and 40 couples were married.) While the Nashi platform condemns ethnic bigotry, there is little doubt that if the Kremlin decided to single out an ethnic or religious minority as “the enemy,” Nashi would fall into lockstep.

I don’t know if the young Russian woman who posted that angry message on the Internet forum was a member of Nashi; but she certainly had the slogans and the mindset. If so, she speaks for a large segment of Russia’s new generation: a generation that is being taught to see national greatness in a bully state that inspires fear abroad and tramples the individual at home.

Many links on Nashi can be found here. By the way, for a charming Orwellian touch, Nashi’s full name is, “The democratic anti-fascist youth movement Nashi.” Fascist, in Nashi parlance, equals anyone critical of Putin.

I wondered how long after the appearance of my column it would take for someone to ask why I’m not being equally critical of the College Republicans. Not long at all. The analogy comes from paleocon Daniel Larison, who thinks that “a bully state that inspires fear abroad and tramples the individual at home” describes the U.S. government as much as the Putin regime. We’ll talk when George Soros (like Mikhail Khodorkovsky) is in jail on trumped-up charges of financial wrongdoing and when every news channel on American TV is reduced to an obedient mouthpiece of the government. I could list a few more “whens” here, but that’s an issue I’ll address in a separate post soon. (For the record, I’m not a fan of the Bush administration’s record on civil liberties; but I’m also not a fan of facile comparisons to Putin’s Russia.) Larison also asks what makes Nashi so important:

Putin theoretically has at his disposal the entire military, intelligence and internal security apparatus of the Russian government, so how on earth could a band of occasionally thuggish nationalist youths be of greater concern to someone who opposes Putin?

If you want to get exercised about the treatment of Estonia (whose own government’s removal of a Soviet war memorial started the whole fracas), you might focus on the massive cyber-war waged against E-stonia rather than the bussed-in protesters who threw rocks at an embassy. But there’s no anti-Nazi cachet in that. Drawing attention to Russian cyber-warfare would emphasise that these are not just some dusty bunch of old commie-Nazis, but represent something different. Writing an article about “Putin’s young brownshirts” is much catchier, because it allows the audience to avoid thinking.

I’m not sure why the two are mutually exclusive; I have, in fact, written about Russian cyber-warfare. As for why Nashi merits attention: in the past 15 years, Russia has developed at least something of a civil society that could, theoretically, serve as a buffer against the power of the state apparatus (at least as long as Russia has elections). Groups like Nashi are one of the ways in which this civil society is being co-opted and turned into an instrument of the state; especially dangerous in this case, because it’s young people, traditionally a group associated with anti-authoritarianism, rebelliousness, and the demand for freedom, who are being co-opted in this way.
Larison also trots out the idea (which has cropped up elsewhere, from paleocons and liberals alike), that Russia’s turn to authoritarianism is partly the fault of U.S. policies intended to “humiliate” post-Cold War Russia, and invites me to criticize those policies. I’d love to know what this “humiliation” consisted of; if there’s anything to criticize about our Russia policy, it’s the insistence on treating Russia as an ally and a democracy when it’s obviously neither. But that’s a discussion for another day. Whatever the cause of Russia’s authoritarian slide, the emergence of a state-blessed cultish youth movement whose members are all too willing to serve as goon squads for the government is a new landmark in that slide.

11 Comments

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11 responses to “Putinjugend: More bad news from Russia

  1. Revenant

    Has Putin extended his term of office yet, or is he ostensibly still supposed to leave office next year?

  2. mabman

    I think Vladmir is still officially supposed to vacate his office in 2008, but given the recent build-up of his personality cult, I expect his announcement of an “unlimited national emergency” any time. I think he has to become Supreme Leader for Life now – think of all the calendars and wall posters that would go to waste if he left!

  3. Andrey

    Слава Богу, Вам Екатерина страшно… Значит, наконец, у нас все в порядке… Спасибо Вам за этот комплимент

  4. Susan

    Cathy, two questions; I just want to form a clearer picture of the trend/threat: (1) what percentage of population of their age group is the 100,000 members that Nashi claims? (2) what are their recruitment tactics? (I.e., persuasion, bullying, perks, etc.)

  5. Anonymous

    because it’s young people, traditionally a group associated with anti-authoritarianism, rebelliousness, and the demand for freedom

    I always thought that teenagers are natural conformists. It is just that if you put many of them in one spot, they all start to conform with each other.

  6. susan

    Anonymous, I agree: teenagers are a born herd of independent minds. You can drive this herd pretty far by telling them how rebellious, nonconformist, and anti-establishment they are. Uniting and conquering teenagers is like shooting fish in a barrel. I think Macchiavelli might be too scrupulous to mess with children. Oy, I’m such a no-fan of teenagers…

  7. Panu

    Fascist, in Nashi parlance, equals anyone critical of Putin.

    More to the point: Fascist is the Russian word for foreigner, or foreign-influenced person.

  8. Olga

    Panu, where did you learn your Russian? “Fascist” means the same in Russian as it does in English and is not even a Russian word for foreigner/foreign-influenced person, never mind the Russian word. There is a word zapadnik, which used to be in use in the 70s and meant, disparagingly, “a fan of the [decomposing/stagnating/rotting] West” – not sure if it’s still in use – and some other contemptuous labels denoting an inappropriate, in the eyes of the labeler, fascination with things not-Russian, but Fascist is not, nor has it ever been, one of them.

  9. Cathy Young

    For the benefit of other readers, I’ll translate “Andrey’s” comment in Russian, which says a great deal about a certain kind of Russian mindset:

    Thank God you’re scared, Catherine. That means we’re finally doing things right. Thank you for this compliment…

  10. Cathy Young

    In response to Panu: Olga is right. “Fascist” in Russian has many connotations, many of them different from the ones in the West (for instance, connotations of wanton cruelty and even sadism); but “foreign-influenced” or “foreigner” is not one of them.

    To Susan: the population of Russia is estimated at 142 million. For comparison, a Nashi-sized movement in the US would be about 150,000 strong.

    As for recruitment tactics, that’s a fascinating question to which I don’t know the answer.

  11. Susan

    the population of Russia is estimated at 142 million.

    Thank you, Cathy. And of these, how many fit the “youth” demographic? In other words, what percentage of total (more or less) youth population of Russia is 100,000? Considering how low their birth rates have been in the past couple of decades, this could be a very high percentage – or not necessarily.

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