Putin's Young Elites and Thugs

IN PERSPECTIVE. Putin's Kiss offers a rare look at Nashi, the Russian youth movement that's even more interesting to examine now that its great icon, Vladimir Putin, is set to return as president of Russia.

Numerous commentators, inside and outside of Russia, have described Nashi as Putin's "Hitler Youth". Indeed, elements of the movement act as storm troopers, attacking "enemies of Russia", the opposition to Putin.

Nashi sees itself as a young creative elite in the new Russia dominated by Putin. In the opposition's view, "Nashi is crippling the morality of young people".

Nashi sees itself as a young creative elite in the new Russia dominated by Putin. In the opposition's view, "Nashi is crippling the morality of young people".

Nashi gangs bash opposition members with clubs and baseball bats. Other times, they defecate on their cars. Nashi's agenda is not just to support the system Putin has created. The gangs on the organisation's extreme wing seek to terrorise the opposition into silence by using violence, and they are rarely put off by police intervention.

Nonetheless, Nashi also counts well-mannered, articulate, ambitious young Russians like 19-year-old Masha, the protagonist of "Putin's Kiss". A Nashi commissar and spokesperson, Masha is a middle-class girl from a Russian family that sporadically resides in the provinces, an altogether typical family. Masha is attracted by the career opportunities that membership in Nashi opens up, an express elevator to the heights of power. Joining the organisation at 16 and quickly rising through the ranks, Masha became the protégé of the minister of youth and Putin awarded her a medal. It was during a visit by Putin to the Nashi summer camp that Masha kissed him.

The otherwise reserved Putin obviously has a thing about kissing himself. He once kissed a horse and a tiger on TV. But judging from the reactions, he crossed the line when he pulled up the shirt of five-year-old Nikita on the street and kissed him on the belly. "It's not about homophobia. When a father does that to his son, it's sweet and fine. But kissing a random kid on the stomach is abnormal and bizarre," someone wrote in a heated online discussion. Others considered it an expression of "Putin's enormous love for his people". As Putin himself explained it, he acted spontaneously and simply couldn't help himself.

Like Masha, Nikita refuses to wash away Putin's kiss. At the summer camp, everyone talked about "the girl who kissed Putin".

After losing an election to Nashi's leadership to a candidate who puts the fight against Russia's enemies at the top of his programme, Masha begins to doubt the movement she is in. She meets people with other political outlooks, notably the journalist Oleg Kashin, at a TV debate. Although they disagree wildly, they become close friends.

Masha's friendship with Oleg causes her no end of trouble at Nashi. All of a sudden, she is an enemy spy. She is greeted with suspicion in Oleg’s circle, as well. When Oleg is attacked by "unknown assailants", Masha realises she can't keep leading a double life.

"Putin's Kiss" is the story of Russia's politicised youth. Meanwhile, the vast majority of young Russians stay away from politics. Nashi sees itself as a young creative elite in the new Russia dominated by Putin. In the opposition's view, "Nashi is crippling the morality of young people".

While youth from the opposition yell "Russia without Putin", Nashi yells "Forward Russia" and "Fight Russia's enemies". The organisation is fighting for Putin's plan to rebuild the superpower. Nashi's young lions vie to be like Putin and get closest to the Kremlin trough.

As in the rest of Russian society, paranoia is rampant in the youth movement, which thunders against Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution. Like the Kremlin, Nashi is concerned that inspiration from Ukraine will wash over Russia. Though that never came to pass, Nashi ramps up its rabid witch hunt against the opposition.

While very few young people join opposition movements, Nashi boasts around 70,000 members between the ages of 15 and 25. Nashi draws 30,000 youths to pro-regime demonstrations in Moscow and to its summer camps.

"Shitting in public is the essence of Nashi," an opposition leader states after finding faeces on his car. But Nashi is a hatchery for new leaders. Many Russian commentators have been pining for a generational change in Russian politics. The Nashi troops marching into the regime's top tiers, after serving some time as toadies and thugs for Putin, will usher in generational change without the generational change.

Vibeke Sperling is the Eastern European correspondent for the Danish daily Politiken. A former Moscow correspondent for the national broadcaster DR. Author of books about conditions in Eastern Europe.