I have spent the last several days in Georgia (Sakartvelo, not the Peach State), where the level of irritation with Russia is high. It seems to manifest itself into a particular animus directed at Vladimir Putin – or the stature-challenged Mr. Lilyputin, as some of my Georgian friends call him. A couple of days back one of them was trying to convince me that the assessment presented in my speech from Friday was too positive. I should have dwelt on all of Putin’s bad spots, I was told. Deep in his heart, Putin is a wannabe totalitarian who would dearly love to establish a cult of personality. Why, he has even established an official youth organization. I filed this away for the moment, but my immediate reaction was that they were going a bit overboard, as Georgians are wont to do. But now I see that I dismissed the comment too quickly. Indeed the New York Times, our paper of record, has reported on the Putin youth organization.
As Hannah Arendt chronicled in her great work on totalitarianism, in the period between the wars, dictators of all stripes were quick to form youth organizations. Indeed, they had a special focus on these organizations. They were the “hope for the future,” because they would provide a new generation of perfectly indoctrinated new party members. Every ounce of conventional morality would be wrung from them. They would understand the party as their family, and the leader as their parents. In the Soviet world, of course, there were several organizations that played this role, the most important of which was Komsomol, the Communist youth organization. It provided a model for training, but also for the selection of new party cadres. The young elite Komsomolnets would link with his equals around the country, establishing an elite network just under the surface. Indeed, some have made the case that in the first years following the collapse of the USSR, it was the Komsomol underground that kept the post-USSR alive.
Which brings us to Putin’s youth organization, Nashi. Steven Lee Myers reports:
Nashi, which translates as “ours,” has since its creation two years ago become a disciplined and lavishly funded instrument of Mr. Putin’s campaign for political control before parliamentary elections in December and a presidential election next March.
It has organized mass marches in support of Mr. Putin — most recently gathering tens of thousands of young people in Moscow to send the president text messages — and staged rowdy demonstrations over foreign policy issues that resulted in the physical harassment of the British and Estonian ambassadors here. Its main role, though, is the ideological cultivation — some say indoctrination — of today’s youth, the first generation to come of age in post-Soviet Russia.
To Nashi, young people are neither the lost generation of the turbulent 1990s nor the soulless consumerists of Generation P (for Pepsi) imagined by the writer Viktor Pelevin in 2000. They are, as Nashi’s own glossy literature says, “Putin’s Generation.” “Why Putin’s generation?” Nashi’s national spokeswoman, Anastasia Suslova, asked at the group’s headquarters. “It is because Putin has qualitatively changed Russia. He brought stability and the opportunity for modernization and development of the country. Thus we, the young people — myself, for instance, I am 22, and these eight years were the longest part of my conscious life when we were growing up, and the country was changing with us.”
One of the major questions hanging over Russia today is which way forward? The rise of Nashi reflects a familiar path. But it seems more into the dark past than into a hopeful future.