by Michael Hammerschlag
July 6, 2007 International Herald Tribune (Putin's Children) Printed
Moscow: It’s official. To be patriotic in Russia is to be a fan of Putin, specifically a Putin Youth. During the June 12th Independence Day (of Russia from USSR in 1990) celebration, “the only groups allowed onto Red Square were Nashi (Our), 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 cardboard 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 Kremlin advisor Sergei Markov. Obsessed by the color revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia, the Kremlin decided to preemptively 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” (17-25 years old) so terrorized the Estonian embassy that the ambassador and some staff fled the country. In Estonia itself, Russia-endorsed violent protests killed one and injured 99. While the (Kremlin critic) Dissenters mild peaceful protests were brutally crushed by a 5 to 1 ratio of huge OMON riot police, the violent Nashi youth were invited into the Kremlin to talk to anointed successor Ivanov about their methods, an indication of the firm government backing they receive. “They have their kitchens, toilets, electricity, buses …it is clear actions are very well organized, financed, and orchestrated” said Estonian Ambassador Marina Kaljurand.” A nationwide cell “call President Putin with a message of support” campaign was estimated to cost many millions of dollars.
Red Sq. 2007 Copyright Michael Hammerschlag
On Red Square, the crowd broke down into 5 types: the missionaries- usually young girls, with scrubbed looks and religious zeal- they were 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 looking and hoping for some trouble. Once one penetrated the ticket and security entrance and the outside rows of metal detectors, the 50 M sq. concert stage set up opposite Lenin’s Tomb was ringed with a line of brown suited soldiers, with only one narrow entrance. It was unnecessarily 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, from their eyes.
Nashi also does positive campaigns to help children, poor, and disabled, a la, say the Salvation Army or a national Fraternity, 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.
In a dissolved Dissenters rally April 14th in Pushkinskaya Sq., a few people cheered as kids on the roof of Izvestia threw off leaflets, but the cheers choked in their throats and their stomachs twisted as they realized that the “protestors” were actually reactionary Young Guards tossing leaflets of derision and contempt. The kids were now the enemy.
When the marginal Presidential candidate, former Prime Minister Kasyanov, holds a rally or press conference, Nashi members try to break in and attack him dressed in doctor’s uniforms- to demonstrate how crazy it is to dare oppose father Putin. Big joke. This has particularly ugly resonance in a country that murdered the minds of tens of thousands of political prisoners by Frankensteinian “psychiatrists” in mental institutions. While their methods are still mostly street theater, at the Estonian embassy the Putinistas were throwing rocks, and the protests in Estonia involved Molotov cocktails, looting, and got one killed; but 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.
“Lets go in,” said my girlfriend an hour later outside the secured area. I declined, having only one ticket, but even with a concert of top Russian groups, I didn’t want to return to the Stepford gathering. I couldn’t escape the feeling that the young automatons would somehow realize I was not one of them, and turn as a group to point at me, open their mouths, and silently scream… like in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Michael Hammerschlag's commentary and articles (HAMMERNEWS.com) have appeared in Seattle Times, Providence Journal, Columbia Journalism Review, Hawaii Advertiser, Capital Times, MediaChannel; and Moscow News, Tribune, Times, and Guardian. He spent 2 years in Russia from 1991-94, while the Empire collapsed. After 13 years, he returned to Russia at the start of 2007.
Red Sq 6-12-07 Copyright Michael Hammerschlag