MOSCOW — 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 in Moscow 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.
During an antigovernment rally on April 14th in Pushkinskaya Square, a few people cheered as kids on the roof of Izvestia threw off leaflets, but the cheers choked in their throats as they realized that the "protesters" were actually reactionary Young Guards tossing leaflets of derision and contempt. The kids were now the enemy.
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.
Michael Hammerschlag, a journalist, lived in Russia from 1991 to 1994. He returned at the start of this year.Continue reading the main story