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.
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.