Nashi’s actions during the “Bronze Soldier” fiasco has without a doubt increased its political statue in Russia. As a result Western media is beginning to take more notice. For example, take this week’s edition of Newsweek International where one of their main articles is a feature on Nashi titled “Putin’s Powerful Youth Guard.”
The article paints an ominous picture of Nashi where its members are “highly disciplined and lavishly sponsored” and “a bona fide private army fanatically loyal to one man, the president.” There are passing comparisons to the Komsomol and the Hitler Youth. To their credit, the article’s authors claim that the latter is an “overstatement” because while Nashi may be “fanatically loyal to Putin” they are really only a “sinister parody of democracy movements in Ukraine and elsewhere.” I assume that their “sinister parady of democracy” lies in Nashi’s propensity to through the word “fascist” around without regard. Sadly, it seems to work too well. As Boris Kagarlitsky notes, “the Russian political establishment has made the issue of the fascist threat its best-seller. Politicians and the mass media show far more interest in the notorious fascist threat than in the real fascist organizations operating in the country.”
Newsweek’s characterization of Nashi is for suresteeped in hyperbole. This is to be expected. Most articles about Russia in the Western media tend to place it on a narratological pendulum that somehow always swings a bit too far toward “totalitarianism.” Plus, anytime youth organizations are reduced to mere “disciplined” and “fanatical” puppets of the regime, I can’t help but cast a critical eye. Sure the Kremlin may want “to win—or control—the hearts and minds of Russia’s youth” but actually doing it is always a more complex and difficult task. If one wants to compare Nashi with the Komsomol, which I have, then one should not also swallow the organization’s own image of themselves. The Potemkin village shouldn’t be taken for the actual village.
Still, Nashi bills itself as the counter revolutionary shock force against the specter of colored revolutions. This, according to Sergei Markov, who helped establish Nashi in 2004, is its original purpose. “The crucial role that young people played in those revolutions made us realize that something should be done. The plan was simple,” he explained to Newsweek. “We launched Nashi in towns close to Moscow so that activists could arrive overnight on Red Square, if needed. The idea was to create an ideology based on a total devotion to the president and his course.”
Creating an ideology is not all. Nashi and other pro-Kremlin youth groups also engage in paramilitary training (this was the case with the Komsomol too).
The paramilitary flavor is unmistakable. Every summer, Nashi runs recruiting camps all across Russia. New members watch propaganda films and receive basic military-style training, says Nashi boss Vasily Yakemenko. They are lectured by top bureaucrats and politicians, including Deputy Defense Minister Yury Baluyevsky and the thuggish Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov—honored as a “Young Politician of the Year” at last year’s Nashi congress. Activists who sign up a hundred new members qualify for promotion to commissar, so long as they pass a grueling three-day series of paramilitary assault courses and physical tests. “We had to demonstrate physical strength, endurance and team leadership,” recalls Leonid Kurza, 23, the leader of the St. Petersburg chapter of Nashi, inducted last winter. Nashi also runs volunteer police troops, who wear black uniforms and, according to the movement’s press service, “help police to patrol streets—and if necessary beat hooligans.”
On Saturday, Moscow oblast got yet another taste of such pledges. In a counter-demonstration to the March of Dissenters in Samara, over a 1000 members of the pro-Kremlin group Mestnye gathered to show their solidarity with the Kremlin. “When the county calls on us, Mestnye leader Alexander Kazakov told the crowd. “We will be in the center of Moscow in an hour and we will not allow a single dissenting bastard assemble here! We will drive them out of the city!”
Somehow police felt that they didn’t need to protect the public from these rabble rousers . . .