Saturday, September 15, 2007

Putinjugend On The March

This is Jason Rickner; Dr. Denner mentioned me doing a piece on Счастливы вместе, but there's been a subject on my mind for some time that I want to address instead: the rise of ultranationalistic youth movements in Russia. There are apparently a lot of them, so I'll focus on the most famous one, "Наши" (Ours).

Nearly everything about Наши harkens back to the Soviet era, from their pseudo-military outfits and organization to their website, for which they managed to snag the long-defunct .su (Soviet Union) domain code. Their original stated mission was to act as a counter-weight to what founders claimed was a growth in Neo-nazi and other "extremist" groups in Russia (although with Russian law now labelling more and more opposition leaders as "dangerous extremists," one has to question their notion of what constituts an extremist group). Their de facto purpose is to serve as an outlet for nationalist, bigoted and anti-western aggression; this usually manifests itself with on-the-street hooligans beating opposition figures and foreigners (especially dark-skinned Central Asians from the former Soviet states).

Наши has managed to sneak into the Western press recently as their "street warriors" have come in contact with what they perceive to be threats or insults to the conservative Russian status quo. For example, when Estonia removed a 1947 monument to the Red Army from a squre in its capital, Russian youths associated with Наши took to the streets, started a harassment campaign against the Estonian ambassador, and were even the primary suspect in a cyber-attack on the Baltic government's extremely integrated online framework. The British ambassador to Russia faced similar harassment after attending a conference of opposition groups, and earlier this year police watched on as thugs descended on a gay rights march in Moscow (one of the images in that article identifies an attacker as a "Nao-nazi," but given the widespread homophobia among many Russians, such "collaboration" in beating up demonstrators is not surprising).

The most disturbing things about this group is the fact that it's funded and sanctioned by the Kremlin itself. Most members are slavishly pro-Putin to the point of establishing a small personality cult around him; this devotion has earned them the nickname "Putinjugend" (from "Hitlerjugend," the German term for the Hitler Youth). This leads me to wonder if Putin's apparent decision to personally cede the presidency will dilute the fervor of some supporters, or if the core values of these extremist youths will lead them to simply transfer their adoration from one leader to the next. In any case, it's an unsettling development in Russia's turbulent political history.

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