Andrew Osborn








The Kremlin's youthful vanguard

10th October 2009 16:25

A sea of red and white flags has fluttered outside a dismal Soviet apartment block in Moscow for more than a week now. Brandished by young men and women clad in identical hooded red jackets, the action is the latest Kremlin-sanctioned street protest. The target: a Russian journalist who lives inside who wrote an article that poured scorn on the Soviet era. “We demand an apology,” reads one placard. “Freedom of the press does not equal journalistic lawlessness,” screams another. As the Kremlin has cherry-picked the “good” parts of the Soviet period in order to stir feelings of patriotism so as to boost its own popularity, intolerance of anyone who dares question the official version of history is growing. The increasingly chill climate has even allowed Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s grandson to launch a bizarre court case in Moscow disputing an article he felt impugned the honour of his late and notorious relative. That a court has agreed to hear the case at all is a measure of how far nostalgia for the Soviet period has gone.  In the case of the “guilty” journalist who dared criticise the USSR, the reprisals are less subtle. The young activists stuff angry letters into the offending journalist’s letterbox several times a day and ring his doorbell attempting to deliver mystery packages. His wife, Alla, and his child are at their wit’s end.  The activists have also burst into the editorial office of one of the newspapers where he works trying to collar him. Their main charge: That the journalist’s article – published on an opposition online newspaper -  offended Soviet Second World War veterans, a scared cow in a country that lost more than twenty million people in the conflict. The activists are demanding a public apology. They have urged the “guilty” journalist to emigrate if he refuses to recant. His life, they suggest, should be divided into two distinct periods: before and after he wrote the article. “If he does not apologize,” says Gleb Kraynik, one of the activists “we’re warning him…that his life would be more comfortable somewhere else such as Estonia where state policies chime with the pro-Nazi views he likes so much.” Alexander Podrabinek, 56, a former Soviet dissident who was imprisoned for exposing punitive Soviet psychiatric methods in the 1970s, is starting to get the message. The journalist has gone into hiding complaining of death threats to him and his family and is keeping a low profile.

“(All) this shows that we are returning to our totalitarian past, gradually, step by step,” he says. “They have made psychological threats against my family and threats of physical violence against me.”

His harassment comes on the eve of nationwide local elections today (Sunday) that the opposition believes have been rigged in favour of the ruling United Russia party. The party, led by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, has built its popularity on a heady mixture of nationalism and patriotism. The timing of the attack on Mr. Podrabinek is not, he believes, a coincidence. He is convinced that the Kremlin ordered his very public persecution in order to whip up populist support ahead of the election and to stifle opposition media.

“They want to limit freedom of speech in Russia,” he says. “This is why they are doing this. They are gradually taking us back to the Soviet Union.” 

Many in Russia’s liberal rights and political circles agree.

The tool the Kremlin is using to do its dirty work is Nashi, (One of Us), a nationalist youth movement set up in 2005 to repel the alleged but in reality non-existent threat of a pro-Western orange revolution. Boasting tens of thousands of members, the movement idolises Vladimir Putin and believes it is spearheading Russia’s resurgence as a great power that will be ”one of the twenty first century’s leading nations.” The movement holds alcohol-free annual summer camps that mix elements of military training, political propaganda, and virulent nationalism. Activists are encouraged to marry one another at a young age and to have babies “for the motherland” in order to boost Russia’s declining population.  Nashi’s manifesto reaches out to young Russians in messianic terms, urging them to shape the future of their country. “We are the ones who believe in the future of Russia and that Russia’s fate is in our hands. We are Nashi. You’re either a leader, you’re led, or you’re a victim” it reads. Its ideology closely mirrors that of Mr Putin and it slavishly backs the Kremlin’s preferred storyline: That Russia voluntarily opted out of Communism, that the new Russian state descended into anarchy in the 1990s, and that it can only thrive with strong leadership. “Nashi will support Putin,” its manifesto reads. “It’s not about supporting his personality but his political course.” Critics disagree. They say the movement is essentially a vehicle for Mr Putin’s interests. Tellingly, the movement’s manifesto makes no mention of current President Dmitry Medvedev. 

Lured by the promise of career advancement, free training, and generous stipends, its network of activists stretches across Russia’s eleven time zones. Highly organised, its leaders – called commissars in a nod to Russia’s Soviet past - can bus tens of thousands of activists into Moscow from outlying regions at short notice. Often likened to the Hitler youth by critics, Nashi supplies the foot soldiers in any Kremlin-backed public demonstration, demonstrations that are often organised to drown out the voices of the enfeebled anti-Kremlin opposition. One of its primary missions is to hound Kremlin critics into submission and  to target opponents, both domestically and abroad. Famously, it took exception to the UK’s former ambassador to Russia, Anthony Brenton, after he attended an anti-Kremlin opposition conference in 2006. He was never allowed to forget it. Nashi followed him everywhere, heckled him whenever he spoke, and camped outside the embassy. In the end, the UK government was forced to complain to the Russian Foreign Ministry. After that, the harassment swiftly melted away.

The US embassy and the embassies of Ukraine, Georgia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are, however, more common targets for Nashi. In the case of the Estonian embassy, Nashi activists have hurled rocks at the building and spray painted it. The police usually turn a blind eye. Fond of bizarre political theatre, Nashi keeps a live pig in its Moscow headquarters that it  says represents the Estonian president. Its hatred of the Baltic states stems from its belief that they are rewriting history to Russia’s disadvantage and are breeding grounds for neo-Nazis. Estonia is a particular source of hatred. When its government decided to relocate a Soviet war monument from the centre of Tallinn, the Estonian capital, Nashi activists travelled to the former Soviet republic and helped organise street protests that turned violent. Its members are also accused of orchestrating powerful cyber attacks on the Estonian and Georgian governments.

Its hostility towards Washington is more straightforward. Along with international terrorists, Nashi says it is convinced that the United States is vying for control over Russia and the former Soviet Union. “Russia is a key military and strategic space in Eurasia,” it says. ”Control over Russia is important for those who want to dominate Eurasia and the entire world. That’s precisely why Napoleon and Hitler dreamed of extending their power over Russia.”

Nashi’s star has not always been in the ascendancy though. After President Medvedev assumed office last year promising real reform and a move away from a de facto one party state, Nashi went quiet. There was even talk that it would be wound down and that it had outlived its usefulness. But as hopes that Mr. Medvedev can deliver real change have faded and people have understood that Mr. Putin remains the country’s most powerful politician, Nashi has mounted a powerful comeback. Few expect Mr Medvedev to serve a second term with most predicting the formal return of Mr Putin to the presidency in 2012.   

Just last month, Vladislav Surkov, a senior Kremlin official close to Mr. Putin praised Nashi, crediting it with helping contribute to recent Russian foreign policy successes.

Mr Surkov, often called the Kremlin’s pre-eminent grey cardinal, is thought to have created the movement in the first place and appears to continue to pull its strings. He evidently still rates his brainchild highly. In a closed-door meeting in September, he was even quoted as crediting Nashi with having helped persuade Washington scrap its controversial missile defence plans in Eastern Europe. “You are the leading combat detachment of our political system,” he told activists. “I continue to think that dominance on the street is also a necessary advantage for us, an advantage that we have thanks to you, thanks to all those who are so brilliant at staging mass actions.”

Far from winding Nashi down, Mr Surkov appears to be readying it for fresh challenges. “It is thanks to the Nashi movement,” he said “that our political leadership…proved to the whole world that we were an independent centre of force, an independent centre of power, and that one could not do anything they wanted with us,” Nashi’s press service quoted him as saying.  On November 4, Russia’s national day of unity, tens of thousands of Nashi activists are expected to take to the streets of central Moscow in a carefully calibrated show of force.   

Critics argue, however, that Nashi’s actions have in fact backfired on the Kremlin. “The movement is not fulfilling any useful functions,” contends Stanislav Belkovsky, a Moscow-based political analyst. “On the contrary, is it actually harming the Kremlin because it (Nashi) has a negative effect on Russia’s image in the world.”

Ilya Yashin, a prominent anti-Kremlin opposition activist, says Nashi is all about trying to create the impression that Mr Putin and his team are genuinely popular.

“One of the key tasks of the authorities is to show  alleged mass support in society, especially among the young,” he told Ekho Moskvy radio station. “Showing such support is particularly important for the authorities because support (for the authorities) is in fact falling.”

Mr Yashin says the Kremlin modelled Nashi on China’s fanatical Communist youth movement in the 1960s.

“Honweibing members were also told that they were a forward political detachment and that they were maintaining stability in the country,” he said. “And under these slogans they trashed universities and burnt and smashed things. Fortunately Nashi have not yet killed anyone.”

Criticising Nashi, it turns out, can be risky. When Ella Pamfilova, a prominent human rights activist and a member of a Kremlin human rights council spoke out against Nashi’s harassment of journalist Alexander Podrabinek she faced a flurry of criticism and calls for her resignation. Ms. Pamfilova described Nashi’s hounding of the journalist as extremist. “Certain final arbiters of the truth are emerging which are dictating how everyone else should think and speak,” she complained. When asked about the furore, Nashi’s pin-up, Mr Putin strangely said he knew nothing about it.