Putin's Cultural Revolution

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 7/09/2007 12:01:00 AM
Two recent article reminded me of Vladimir Putin's desire to shape Russia's political economy well after he is gone. (He cannot run again in 2008 due to term limits.) In line with this objective, he has been instrumental in forming and nurturing what his critics like to call the Putin Youth, otherwise known as the Nashi or "Ours"--do use Babelfish to translate the page into English if you're interested in its contents. This organization benefits from serious political and financial support. With such a name, you should be unsurprised by its nationalist (clamoring for the Soviet past) and xenophobic leanings. Ostensibly a youth organization opposed to fascism, it has been involved in brutal actions over the "Iron Soldier" incident with Estonia and related shenanigans against former Soviet states. Indeed, many see it as harking back to the old Komsomol (Young Communist League) founded during Russia's socialist era. The International Herald Tribune's Michael Hammerschlag offers strong opinions on this organization:

It's official. To be patriotic in Russia is to be a fan of Putin, specifically a Putin Youth. During the celebration on June 12th of Independence Day (Russia from the Soviet Union in 1990), "the only groups allowed onto Red Square were the youth group Nashi" - which means "ours" - "the Young Guard and Young Russia," according to Sergei, a Nashi supporter. Tickets were carefully dispensed only to the faithful near the Krasny Ploshad Metro from a truck, I finally discovered after questioning a dozen reluctant people holding the tickets.

The 120,000-odd Putin Youth members are perhaps the most creepy demonstration of Putin's "Back to the Future" cult of personality - youth groups created, supported, and used by the Kremlin to harass, bully and intimidate opponents and critics. "The idea was to create an ideology based on a total devotion to the president and his course," says a Kremlin adviser, Sergei Markov. Obsessed by the color revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia, the Kremlin decided to create their own loyal youth brigades.

During the campaign against Estonia in the most recent enemy-of-the-month club (Lithuania, Georgia, Poland, et al) for the heinous crime of moving a statue and some Soviet graves, the Nashi "kids" (who are 17 to 25 years old) so terrorized the Estonian Embassy that the ambassador and some istaff members fled the country. In Estonia itself, Russia-endorsed protests killed one and injured 99. While mild peaceful protests were brutally crushed by riot police, the violent Nashi youth were invited into the Kremlin to talk to Putin's anointed successor, First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, about their methods, an indication of the firm government backing they receive. "They have their kitchens, toilets, electricity, buses. . . . It is clear that their actions are very well organized, financed and orchestrated," said the Estonian ambassador, Marina Kaljurand.

A nationwide cellphone campaign - "call President Putin with a message of support" - was estimated to cost many millions of dollars.

On Red Square, the crowd broke down into five types: the missionaries - usually young girls, with scrubbed looks and religious zeal, doing good works for which they expected rewards; the provincials - the slightly rough-hewn youth who had glommed onto the orgs for a trip to the capital or some nationalistic sentiment; the suburbans, average-looking kids who wanted to be part of something larger; the professionals - the youth who realize in today's Russia, United/Just Russia and Putin are the only game in town (in the old days they would belong to the Komsomol); and the goons - sharp-faced thugs who constantly scanned the crowd hoping for some trouble.

Once one penetrated the ticket and security entrance and the outside rows of metal detectors, the 50 square meter concert stage set up opposite Lenin's Tomb was ringed with a line of brown suited soldiers, with only one narrow entrance. It was claustrophobic and unpleasant. They were there, of course, in the secured, ticketed, metal-detectored area to protect the precious Putin Youth from some imaginary foreign figment that might invisibly penetrate the area.

There is something deeply contemptible about propagandizing and poisoning the minds of the young, even more so when they are carelessly used as government shock troops to intimidate and bully critics. The government is now eating the seed corn of young minds for some cheap political advantage, a tactic of all dictatorships, which try to ensure their permanence by instilling robotic loyalty in the young, and Russia will pay for it for many years. The Putin Youth get to be punks, terrorizing foreigners and "traitors" with near complete impunity (a few $20 fines for attacking an ambassador), and receive training, free college and professional connections that can give them high-powered careers - a win-win situation, from their point of view.

Nashi also does positive campaigns to help children, poor and disabled, although Sergei scoffed at that. There is a feral intensity in their training and mission statements: energy, dominance, patriotism, optimism and passion mix in a wildly uneven stew that can be ugly and corrosive, but also occasionally admirable...

While their methods are still mostly street theater, it's probably only a matter of time before they graduate to more serious violence. Indeed, their recruiting boot camps feature paramilitary training to fight against fascists (which includes Estonia, Yabloko or anyone that has ever criticized Putin).

Another deeply disturbing government initiative is labeling critics "extremists" and criminals, another tactic of all serious totalitarian states. When you can criminalize criticism of the government, there is nothing you can't get away with, and all remaining freedoms are hanging by a thread.

Meanwhile, the New York Times views the Nashi as being promoted by Putin to consolidate his politico-economic standing after he steps down from office. Also, it points out that encouraging youth activism may turn out to be a double-edged sword should these youths become dissatisfied somewhere down the line and turn on their benefactors:
Yulia Kuliyeva, only 19 and already a commissar, sat at a desk and quizzed each young person who sat opposite her, testing for ideological fitness to participate in summer camp.

“Tell me, what achievements of Putin’s policy can you name?” she asked, referring to Russia’s president since 2000, Vladimir V. Putin.

“Well, it’s the stabilization in the economy,” the girl answered. “Pensions were raised.”

“And what’s in Chechnya?” Ms. Kuliyeva asked, probing her knowledge of a separatist conflict that has killed tens of thousands and, although largely won by Russia’s federal forces and Chechen loyalists, continues.

“In Chechnya, it’s that it is considered a part of Russia,” the girl responded.

“Is this war still going on there?”

“No, everything is quiet.”

Ms. Kuliyeva is a leader in the Ideological Department of Nashi, the largest of a handful of youth movements created by Mr. Putin’s Kremlin to fight for the hearts and minds of Russia’s young people in schools, on the airwaves and, if necessary, on the streets.

Nashi, which translates as “ours,” has since its creation two years ago become a disciplined and lavishly funded instrument of Mr. Putin’s campaign for political control before parliamentary elections in December and a presidential election next March.

It has organized mass marches in support of Mr. Putin — most recently gathering tens of thousands of young people in Moscow to send the president text messages — and staged rowdy demonstrations over foreign policy issues that resulted in the physical harassment of the British and Estonian ambassadors here.

Its main role, though, is the ideological cultivation — some say indoctrination — of today’s youth, the first generation to come of age in post-Soviet Russia.

To Nashi, young people are neither the lost generation of the turbulent 1990s nor the soulless consumerists of Generation P (for Pepsi) imagined by the writer Viktor Pelevin in 2000. They are, as Nashi’s own glossy literature says, “Putin’s Generation.” “Why Putin’s generation?” Nashi’s national spokeswoman, Anastasia Suslova, asked at the group’s headquarters. “It is because Putin has qualitatively changed Russia. He brought stability and the opportunity for modernization and development of the country. Thus we, the young people — myself, for instance, I am 22, and these eight years were the longest part of my conscious life when we were growing up, and the country was changing with us.”

Nashi emerged in the wake of youth-led protests that toppled sclerotic governments in other post-Soviet republics, especially in Ukraine in 2004. It was joined by similar groups, like the Youth Guard, which belongs to the pro-Putin party United Russia; Locals, a group created by the Moscow region government that recently launched an anti-immigrant campaign; and the Grigorevtsy, affiliated with the Russian Orthodox Church.

The groups, organizers and critics say, are part of an effort to build a following of loyal, patriotic young people and to defuse any youthful resistance that could emerge during the careful orchestration of Mr. Putin’s successor in next year’s election. Nashi, the largest and most prominent of the groups, now claims 10,000 active members and as many as 200,000 participants in its events...

Nashi’s ideology is contained in a manifesto, based on the writings of Vladislav Y. Surkov, Mr. Putin’s chief political adviser, who has been called the Karl Rove of the Kremlin. At Nashi events and in interviews like Ms. Kuliyeva’s, members cite the manifesto’s passages, or “Surkov’s text,” like cant...

Nashi’s platform is defined by its unwavering devotion to Mr. Putin and by the intensity of its hostility toward his critics, including his former prime minister, Mikhail M. Kasyanov, the former chess champion Garry Kasparov and a nationalist writer, Eduard Limonov. Nashi’s members denounce the opposition leaders as fascists with a fervor that can be disquieting...

Like Mr. Putin himself, who recently seemed to compare the foreign policy of the United States to the Third Reich, Nashi also laces its campaigns and literature with an undercurrent of hostility to Europe and the United States. At the rally promoting ethnic harmony, a poster denounced American adoptions: “In 2005, 3,966 Russian children became citizens of America.”

“Putin’s Generation” is growing up with a diet of anti-European and anti-American sentiment that could deepen the social and political divides between Russia and the West for decades to come.

“Today the United States on one hand and international terrorism on the other strive to control Eurasia and the whole world,” Nashi’s manifesto says. “Their gaze is directed at Russia. The task of our generation is to defend the sovereignty of our country as our grandfathers did 60 years ago.”

Although Kremlin officials have tried to portray the groups as independent players, Nashi and the others owe their financing and political support to their status as creations of Mr. Putin’s administration. They are allowed to hold marches, while demonstrations by the opposition are prohibited or curtailed. Their activities are covered favorably on state television, while the opposition’s are disparaged or ignored.

Although Nashi’s financing is opaque, the group receives grants from the state and big businesses like Gazprom, the state energy giant, and Norilsk Nickel, whose principal owner, Vladimir O. Potanin, is a Putin loyalist. Nashi repays Mr. Potanin’s support in its literature by distinguishing him from the “oligarchs” who are widely reviled in Russia...

Mr. Yashin, the Yabloko leader, said the Kremlin ran a risk of unleashing a wave of activism that could spread beyond its control, especially as Mr. Putin’s loyalists fight for control after he steps down, as promised, next year.

“The authorities may face serious problems,” he said, “because all the young people whom they teach today, in whom they invest, whom they teach to organize mass actions, may find themselves in the real opposition when they see that their interests are violated.”

“Today they are loyal, but tomorrow they may become the opposition,” he added. “And this may not be the young Red Guard’s Cultural Revolution, like in China, but something much more serious.”