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A Telling Letter from Russia

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

A popular neo-Soviet youth movement in Russia presages tough times for the bilateral relationship.

Recently, the American Enterprise Institute received several letters originating in the Russian Federation. Meticulously copied out on typical Russian notebook paper in neat, handwritten English, the letters present an emotional appeal addressed to “The American Nation” and “the relatives of soldiers injured and dead in Afghanistan and Iraq”.

After summing up the letdowns of U.S. Middle East policy, the authors also alert the American people to their government’s active interference in Russia’s domestic affairs, as exemplified by the intent of the State Department to “provide financial and technological aid to NGO [sic] and groups of civil society that operate in Russia." The consequences of such an erroneous approach will be dire, the appeal warns: “It means that the confrontation is irreversible. It also means the return to the times of the Cold War. At its best.”

The letters conclude by calling U.S. citizens to action: “Take to the streets! Cry for the resignation of the President and dismissal of the State Secretary! Stop fanatics at the State Department!”

Putin’s seven-year rule has given rise to government- sponsored surrogate groups such as Nashi—intensely anti-Western and well-skilled in toeing the official line.

The return address on one envelope yields a telling clue about the ideological underpinnings of its authors. The letters came courtesy of Nashi. Nashi, which means “ours” in Russian, is a fiercely patriotic pro-Putin youth organization formed to prevent the threat of purportedly Western-funded “color revolutions” and return Russia to the status of a global superpower.

(A scanned copy of the Nashi Appeal to the American People can be found here.)

At most, Nashi’s warnings will elicit a furtive smile or a listless shrug from the average American. The sentiments expressed in this “appeal”, however, are indicative of a broader phenomenon: the rapidly diminishing prospect of a genuine civil society in post-communist Russia. In its place, Putin’s seven-year rule has given rise to government-sponsored surrogate groups, such as Nashi—intensely anti-Western and well-skilled in toeing the official line.

In Russia, a sense of belonging is important. The pervasive mentality that group membership outweighs the individual stems not just from the Soviet era, but from the roots of Russian history. Thus, it’s not surprising that in the post-Soviet, post-“chaos” (read: Yeltsin) Russia, guided by the principles of Putin’s “sovereign democracy”, a group like Nashi is gaining prominence. It is also not surprising that this group parallels others from Russia’s past—ones that enjoyed the full support of the state in return for ideologically-tested, unflinching obedience, with a thorough dedication to combat all manner of “subversive elements”.

The closest historical equivalent of Nashi is the Soviet-era Komsomol, the infamous youth wing of the Communist Party. As Bolshevik leaders quickly realized the value that youth indoctrination possessed for fulfilling regime needs, the Komsomol was born in 1918. In October 1920, speaking before The Third All-Russia Congress of The Russian Young Communist League, Vladimir Lenin set the course to the rising generation of Bolshevik leaders:

You are well aware that, as long as Russia remains the only workers' republic and the old, bourgeois system exists in the rest of the world, we shall be weaker than they are, and be constantly threatened with a new attack; and that only if we learn to be solidly united shall we win in the further struggle and—having gained strength—become really invincible. Thus, to be a Communist means that you must organize and unite the entire young generation and set an example of training and discipline in this struggle. Then you will be able to start building the edifice of communist society and bring it to completion.

And so they did, generation after generation, railing against “imperialist aggressors” abroad and exposing “the fifth column” at home. Along with the Young Pioneers, they occasionally assisted the elderly and planted trees in school gardens.  So it went, until Gorbachev and Yeltsin brought an end to the “communist paradise”.

Now, fast-forward nearly nine decades from Lenin’s speech to a free Russia. Then, substitute the communist references therein to “sovereign democracy” – presto, the Nashi Manifesto.

We must be realistic. In the post Soviet space, the West—under the slogans of democracy and freedom —is conducting a major geopolitical game to force Russia out of global politics and attempting to institute external control of Russia itself. In the best case scenario, this will lead to economic decay and Russia becoming a resource appendage to developed economies. External control will never allow for a genuine modernization of Russia. In the worst case scenario, our country can expect a split along ethnic and religious lines and a civil war. Fascist organizations in Russia are helping to realize the latter scenario. They are the allies of Russian liberals. Our goal in this situation: to unite the Russian youth under the banner of a wide socio-patriotic movement, which will seek to preserve Russia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity; this movement is “Nashi."

The similarities do not stop at ideology, however. At the behest of the Kremlin, Nashi was created in 2005 as an “anti-fascist” organization to combat xenophobia and intolerance while promoting social responsibility, such as following a healthy lifestyle, organizing blood drives, or helping needy children. The main focus of the group, however, lies in assuring—by all means necessary—that Putin’s “course” is not altered by unpleasant perturbations such as Georgia’s “Rose Revolution” in 2003 or its “orange” equivalent in Ukraine a year later. Ilya Yashin, the youth leader of the opposition Yabloko party, predicts that “Nashi will serve as a cover for storm brigades that will use violence against democratic organizations."

'[Our goal is] to unite the Russian youth under the banner of a wide socio-patriotic movement, which will seek to preserve Russia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity; this movement is Nashi.'

But when it comes to acknowledging economic realities of the day, Nashi lags behind the Komsomol in the staunchness of belief.  While the young Soviet communists derided the global bourgeois “alienation of labor”, an independent Russia has vigorously pursued dealings with the former “oppressor nations” and as a result, developed a thriving market economy of its own. Although Nashi’s manifesto emphatically supports the “need for modernization”, it simultaneously employs the dreaded “resource appendage” bugaboo against foreign capital. Most recently, the Kremlin has pushed hard for WTO entry, although the latest round of consultations has not yielded the desired results. Nashi is conspicuously silent on WTO entry, but the cognitive dissonance is not entirely shocking, since its Kremlin bosses have employed the same jarring double standard in regard to foreign companies in Russia

Nashi operations are conducted with a disconcerting uniformity. The ideological training of new recruits occurs during the annual summer camp at Lake Seliger, 350 kilometers north of Moscow. Guided by the wise tutelage of founder and ideological guru, Vasiliy Yakemenko, the 10,000 red t-shirt wearing activists – or commissars as they are called – rise early, conduct mandatory mass exercise sessions, and attend lectures on current politics and other ideologically-suitable topics.

Western aggressor nations remain a perennial concern for Nashi. For instance, in protest of Estonia’s controversial removal of a Soviet-era World War II monument in April, portraits of Estonia’s leaders with Hitleresque moustaches have been posted all over the Seliger complex. Furthermore, Nashi members with a penchant for history can attend the “museum of double standards”, aimed at exposing the Western bias toward Russia’s record on human rights and democracy, while ignoring more atrocious violations at home. As related by Times reporter Tony Halpin, “One exhibit shows a grandmother pushing a policeman at a pro-democracy protest in Moscow next to an astonishing claim that 80 died in riots at the G8 summit in Germany.”

The group’s members are trained to view the opposition (primarily the anti-Putin umbrella coalition, Other Russia) as fascists and traitors. In an exhibit in the camp center, the faces of the three main leaders of Other Russia are pasted onto the bodies of prostitutes, while a separate area with dilapidated cabins and broken glass is “reserved” for its members. To drive the point home, on-site paramilitary training is conducted to prevent “destabilization” of the upcoming Duma elections in December and the presidential contest in 2008.

Given the past Nashi harassment of foreign envoys as well as of assorted domestic opposition, Putin’s critics can consider themselves well-warned.

Kara Flook and Igor Khrestin are research assistants at the American Enterprise Institute.

Image credit: Photo (of a Nashi youth) by flickr user miraluz06.

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