“After Ukraine, the authorities understood that in a crisis situation, one must rely not on the apparatus, but on the masses. Police measures are also important, but they are limited in application: the police are not needed on political territory, where the healthy forces of society can operate.”~ Gleb Pavlovskii, 1 March 2005
During the present Ukrainian conflict the news popped up that a motorcycle gang, the Night Wolves, which has personal connections to Vladimir Putin, went to Crimea to join forces to “defend” the Russians against Ukraine’s new leaders in Kiev. As many other stories about Putin, it seems unimaginable that a president gets himself involved with such matters and groups. A story like this is far removed from stories you would hear about a ‘normal’ democratic leader.
In a way it illustrates the general paradox of post-communist Russia. The West celebrated the fall of Soviet-Russia as a liberation of Eastern Europe. Finally, so it seemed, Russia was free and on its way of becoming a genuine democratic state. However history, starting from the presidency of Boris Yeltsin, decided otherwise. A certain feeling of disillusionment, when thinking about the Russian case, is thus not surprising. This feeling of disappointment seems to be typical for every revolution or revolt against an authoritarian regime: at first sight it seems to be the opportunity for freedom and democracy to finally sprout, but in reality a revolution always seems to betray its own promises and relapses in new forms of oppression. There seems to be a spontaneous enchantment when we are faced with dissidents or rebels: they hold promise for a new form of democracy or to finally restore its vitality. This feeling is aptly described by Bernard-Henri Lévy in his book La Pureté dangereuse (1994):
« Aider les dissidents? Nous aidions les dissidents. Mais nous aimions dire – et penser – qu’ils nous aidaient plus que nous ne les aidions. Nous aimions l’idée – et pas seulement l’idée – de nous mettre à leur école avant de les mettre à la nôtre. La fin du communisme serait notre chance. Ce serait notre jouvence. Tous ces mots de “liberté”, de “droit”, de “démocratie” qui avaient, dans nos contrées, perdu leur force, presque leur sens, retrouveraient, au contact de l’événement, toute leur splendeur passée.»
In reality, the process of democratisation, or better experimentations with democracy, are always stained by their own accents. These accents are the product of the specific social-cultural-economic situation of the region. In this case, I want to examine the specific features of Russian political experimentations, and more precisely the role of a certain Russian youth organisation, namely Nashi. The Russian context is, of course, very important. There are certain factors that shape the Russian political field: the communist legacy and the loss of identity coupled with its collapse; the economic interests and forces, such as its gas extraction; the many clashes it has with neighbouring countries, mostly related to the Russian minorities who live there (such as Georgia, or Ukraine right now); and the recent boom of terrorist threats, for example in Chechnya. Consequences of these facts are, for example that in Russia far-right militancy, even in the form of public actions such as violence to minorities, is on the rise (Varga, p. 561-562) or that the Russian democratic process can be described as ‘an empty ritual’ (Horvath, p. 1.).
- The origins of Nashi
But let us focus on the youth movements and organisations in Russia. Although it might seem strange to focus on them, they play an important role in the political landscape. Youth-based organisations played a crucial role, for example, in the coloured or ‘velvet’ revolutions in post-communist countries such as Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004) and Kirgizstan (2005). It was in reaction to these revolutions that youth movements became a far more important object of Kremlin-driven political techniques in Russia. The main example is the creation of Nashi.
On March 1 2005 the pro-Putin youth movement Idushchiye vmyestye (‘Walking Together’) announced that it would create a new political movement, namely the Youth Democratic Anti-Fascist Movement Nashi (‘Ours’). It was officially founded by Vasily Yakemenko, but the ideological founder was Putin’s aide, Vladislav Surkov. So, although it claims to be independent, it is clearly supported by key Kremlinigures. Critics also refer to the incentives of these youths to join Nashi: joining this movement often results in receiving gifts such as cell phones, free trips or internships.
The ideology of Nashi is hard to grasp: on the one hand they can be characterised as xenophobic and nationalistic. This is immediately made clear by its own name: Ours and thus against ‘theirs’. Nashi claims that it wants to end the ‘conspiracy’ of oligarchs, anti-Semites, Nazis and liberals against Russia. Together with other opponents, such as communists and ‘Westernizers’, Nashi bundles them all under the umbrella term of ‘fascism’. Nashi can be characterised further by a cult-like adoration of Putin; extreme hostility towards the opposition, a romanticised view of the Soviet past and the belief that Russia’s rightful place in international politics should be restored.
However, this ‘xenophobic’ stand is not based on rampant racism, but on the social context and history of Russia. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has experienced twenty years of international development assistance and it is to this that they seem to be responding. They perceive it as an imposed form of neoliberal governance or an impudent promotion of the American way. This is also clear by their use of symbolic elements from the Second World War: just as their grandparents fought the fascists, who threatened to take over their land, so the Russian youth must do the same once again.
So, at first sight, Nashi seems to be a confirmation of the Russian authoritarian political structure. This is also clear when one looks at the official purpose of this movement: the prevention of a Ukrainian ‘Orange Revolution’ in Russia. And although the official version focuses on the threat of these foreign revolutions and groups described as coups, it can be argued that the main reason for Russia to create these youths movements was the domestic threat of the opposition, which saw itself inspired by these revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia.
Another related aspect is the constraints the Putin administration placed on (foreign) NGOs in Russia. On January 10, 2006 the Russian parliament signed a controversialtates that NGOs are required to provide government agencies with information on their activities and financial resources. Again the main, and official, argumentation is that these NGOs are funded by the West and thus impose a western model of civil society on Russia. They also stress the (alleged) importance of foreign – American – money in the velvet revolutions in Georgia or Ukraine. Many pro-government commentators refer to the case of George Soros. Soros is a American businessman and founder of the Open Society Institute (OSI): an institute that wantsto promote democratic values in post-communist countries in Eastern Europe. It played, for example, and active role in the Georgian revolution by funding a youth activist movement and a television station. For Russia this is seen as the West funding revolutions and groups that want to overthrow their own governments, an example of divide-and-rule tactics of the West: guaranteeing western hegemony by funding chaos in the East.
This argumentation explains the paradoxical structure of the Russian concept of civil society. It starts from a range of national security concerns, such as suspicion about foreign interference in Russia, and endorses the principle of sovereignty (gosudarstvennost). This leads to the strange concept in Russian politics of ‘sovereign democracy’: politics should be free from foreign interference and instead be based on Russian values derived from its own unique history. This leads to a distinct form of democracy, different from that of the West, and a civil society in the service of this sovereign Russian state.
A hidden assumption behind most critiques on Nashi’s and Putin’s crusade against NGOs and oppositional parties is that they presume that the western democratic promotion of a civil society is unquestionably good, stable and transparent. I’m not going to argue here that western civil society is problematic, although it is hard to believe that it is flawless. The only thing important here is how it is perceived, not how it really is. In Russia the western-sponsored NGOs were perceived as alienated from the real concerns of the Russian people and more concerned with their own agendas. Or, as the anthropologist Julie Hemment puts it: “At a time of increasing unemployment and an eroding safety net, as public health indicators plummeted and mortality rates went up, campaigns for abstract “rights” were easily dismissed as insubstantial, elite, and disconnected from the urgent crises facing the nation” (Hemment, pp. 241-242).
This explains the dual logic of Nashi: on the one hand they denounce the existing civil society formations, because of alleged western or liberal influence, but on the other hand they want to create their own version of a civil society. So this leads to the other aspect of Nashi’s ideology: they have a program of democracy, human rights and tolerance themselves. Besides the defence of Russian sovereignty, the main goals of Nashi are the modernisation of Russia and the formation of an active civil society. For example, there are many social oriented campaigns such as actions to support laws prohibiting sale of alcohol to minors, restoration of war monuments and churches, volunteering in nursing homes or environmental clean-up campaigns. Paradoxically it has ‘neoliberal’ elements as well: a focus on economy, technology and technical creativity was put forward on their new priority list in 2010 and “commodify your talent!” was one of their slogans in 2009 (Ibid, p. 254).
- A course in counter-revolutionary politics
This mix of human rights discourse, Soviet-era symbols and exclusionary solidarity is in a way archetypal for the Russian way of thinking. To give only one other example, there is a strange (mainly Russian) scientific discipline named culturology (Kul’turologiya). Going back to at least the 19th century, and linked to authors such as Mikhail Bakhtin. This discipline wants to study cultural systems and their interrelations (cf. Epstein, 1999). Just as Nashi, it stresses the unique character of every culture, but on the other hand it also states that these cultures can only exist in relation, or in opposition, to other cultural systems, which should be tolerated. Other cultures shouldn’t be destroyed, because the Russian culture’s identity is derived from the relationship with these other cultures.
This paradox of tolerance and hostility is also reflected in their actual activism. Although using strong military rhetoric to describe itself (active members as ‘komissars’) and the opponent (as ‘mercenary’), the methods of Nashi are a mix of economic, social or cultural means with ‘military tactics’. For example, every summer there is a summer camp at lake Seliger. Besides recreational activities there are workshops and lectures on politics and Russia, such as “The Ideology of President Putin”. However, there are military-style exercises and drills as well.
The most striking element however is Nashi’s shift from ordinary political means to ‘counter-revolutionary’ means. The workshops and trainings the Nashi members receive are mostly not teachings in political debate or party politics, but in technologies of mass actions and ‘political PR’. Nashi members have to be, first of all, experts in manipulation of images: the image of the hero, the enemy, the state. Secondly, they have to master ‘street politics’: being able to control the streets, the squares, the cities. Once Nashi is informed of a future demonstration of the opposition, it organises itself to occupy the streets or squares where the counterparty was planning to protest. For Nashi, politics are no longer a battle of ideas, but a battle of the masses.
Another interesting use of language is the framing of the Russian ‘crisis’ in biological terms: the youths are ‘degenerated’, the nation is ‘dying’ or is ‘contaminated’ by the West. Nashi sees itself as the ‘antidote’ against this and its tactics resembles that of white blood cells: being present everywhere, ready to intervene at the first signs of ‘corrupt’ opponents, patrolling the boundaries of the public sphere. The problems of Russia are framed in terms of groups, masses clashing with each other, not in terms of ideas or individuals, and the squares and cities are the territory where these clashes take place.
The mastermind behind these new politics was Gleb Pavlovskii, the director of the Foundation of Effective Politics’. Experiencing the Orange Revolution as a personal defeat, he advocates for a radical change of politics in Russia. As the political scientist Robert Horvath states: “It was no longer enough to manipulate elections with phoney parties and press coverage. Aggressive crowds had to be organised, indoctrinated and motivated to disperse the revolutionaries. The possibility of violence could not be ruled out” (Horvath, p. 15). Paradoxically, to avoid the revolution, one had to become revolutionary in tactics oneself.
Let me give some examples: after the decision of Estonia to move a statue of a Soviet soldier in the capital Tallin, Nashi responded by setting up a tent city around the Estonian embassy in Moscow and plastered fences with ‘wanted’ posters, accusing Estonia of fascism. This lasted for days and was followed by cyber-attacks on Estonian government sites. The same happened with the British ambassador Anthony Brenton, who was intimidated for four months by Nashi members because he attended a meeting of the opposition. Both ambassadors had to be replaced to cool down the situation.
- Nashi and Populism
Seen as this, Nashi seems to be a weapon in the hands of the Kremlin and used to silence the oppositions. However, the Nashi movement is internally very diverse and heterogeneous. Besides Putin fanatics and ‘combatants of sovereign democracy’, there are also opportunists or simply young people who are bored and longfor some action. So what is the glue that sticks all these groups together? The answer seems to be Vladimir Putin and the idea of a foreign conspiracy against Russia. So their program is largely negative: in order to achieve a better Russia, one has to erase or suppress certain aspects from its society. Putin is no more than the focal point that bundles these complaints. This resembles, to a great extent, the politics of populism.
To understand the resemblance, we have to understand what populism is. Populism is not defined by (a link with) a certain ideology, but, to use an expression of Ernesto Laclau, by a ‘Populist Reason’. In his book On Populist Reason (2007) Laclau describes three operations of this populist reason:
(a) Logic of equivalence: the demands, worries and frustrations of different groups are represented as the same or equivalent. All frustrations are for example represented as frustrations of the ‘people’, of ‘the Russian citizen’, etc. These terms, such as ‘the ordinary people’ or ‘the Russian patriot’ are crucial here: they link the different demands, but remain at the same time empty terms. This explains the vagueness and ambiguities in populist programs. Nobody really knows what is meant by ‘the Russian patriot’.
(b) Antagonism: secondly, this umbrella concept has to be opposed to something else, some other group. It is claimed that the wishes of the people are all genuine and justified, but are somehow blocked by the ‘corrupt establishment’, the oligarchs, the alienated bureaucrats or technocrats, etc.
(c) Consolidation: the combination of (a) en (b) results in the formation of a popular identity: we, the people, are such and such and differ from them, the corrupt establishment.
The result is the famous populist triangle: the people, the leader and the establishment. The establishment is seen as the enemy of the people and it is the populist leader who will speak in name of the people and set forth their real demands. The main objective is, of course, to disable the establishment and restore the ‘sovereignty of the people’. The leader is, paradoxically, part and representative of the people. Or to be more precise: his representative role is denied. The leader’s statements are a direct expression of the wishes of the people. His words coincide completely with the opinion of the people.
In the case of Nashi all of these elements seem to be there: the Russian people is represented as a homogenous group, which stands against an establishment of “oligarchs, anti-Semites, Nazis and liberals”. Putin, on the other hand, is the leader who expresses the real needs of Russian patriots. However, for the Russian case there are two deviations: firstly, populist parties are mostly oppositional parties, while Putin holds power in Russia. Secondly, Nashi isn’t a real party nor is Putin a member of it. The consequences of these deviations are reflected in the politics of Nashi: because Putin already holds power on the constitutional scene, one could say that the ‘populist energy’ of Nashi is deflected to other domains, namely to the politics of the streets. The only reason, so it is argued, why Putin wouldn’t be able to complete his program is because there exist other powers which threaten to hinder his program. These powers don’t hold up in the parliament, but in the streets, the cities, the buildings, the NGOs.
The second deviation however, has different consequences. Because Putin isn’t a part of Nashi¸ the intimate connection between leader and people is somewhat ambiguous. The hold of Putin on Nashi is rather loose and it has developed a far-reaching autonomy. This autonomy however entails the risk that Nashi could turn against the government. The anti-establishment tone of some of its members has, for example, provoked some anxiety amongst leading supports of the Kremlin. But is Nashi really autonomous? Nashi is most of the time represented as a tool of the Kremlin or as an “expensive electoral toy”. It is doomed to disappear the day Putin decides he doesn’t need it anymore. This assumption is both shared by supporters and critiques of the regime, but can be questioned.
For example, it was predicted that Nashi would disappear after the elections of 2008, when Dmitry Medvedev became the official president of Russia. Following the elections, there was a major reform of Nashi. Yakemenko stepped down as Nashi’s leader and was replaced by Nikita Borovikov who announced reorganisations: the 50 regional branches were replaced by a few nationwide projects. So at first sight this seemed to be the end of Nashi and an attempt of the Kremlin to gain full control over the organisation. However, this prediction didn’t come true and mainly because it underestimated the resilience and vigour of Nashi itself. As the political scientist Maya Atwal puts it: “the measures taken by Nashi leaders to reorganise the movement with the aim of securing its future have contributed to a discernible shift in the balance of power away from both the state and Nashi leaders themselves in favour of Nashi activists” (Atwal, p. 757).
The reorganisation didn’t abolish the organisations, but gave it a more horizontal and autonomous structure. Even worse, because the youth movement is already active for almost ten years, former members are infiltrating the (regional) political institutions, and in that way, the power balance is shifting: Nashi stops being a tool of political structures, but political structures become tools of Nashi. It is a false assumption to state that one side has all the power and the other has none. Power shouldn’t be seen as possession you either have or haven’t, but more like a shifting field of relations which can always change. So, it isn’t true that the Kremlin pulls all the strings. There is power in Nashi as well: it has its own tools, own actions, own ambitions. And on one moment they may walk side by side with Russia’s government, but the next moment they might turn out to be an enemy.
There is an anecdote about Karl Popper and his famous book The Open Society and its Enemies (1945). Popper, a defender of the open society and the right to criticise everything, became as his age progressed more intolerant towards criticism of his own work. And because of this, Ernest Gellner, a student of Popper, stated that a better title for his book would have been: The Open Society Defended by One of Its Enemies. In fact, one could say the same of Nashi: while originally it was there to defend Putin from any opposition, recently it has shown signs that it could become one of those very same opponents it used to fight. Nashi, the Closed Society defended by One of Its Enemies.
- Atwal, M., ‘Evaluating Nashi’s Sustainability: Autonomy, Agency and Activism,’ Europe-Asia Studies, 61 (5), July 2009, pp. 742-758.
- Epstein, M., “Chapter 1: From Culturology to Transculture” in Transcultural Experiments: Russian and American Models of Creative Communication, New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1999.
- Hemment, J., ‘Nashi, Youth Voluntarism, and Potemkin NGOs: Making Sense of Civil Society in Post-Soviet Russia,’ Slavic Review, 71 (2), 2012, pp. 234-260.
- Horvath, R., ‘Putin’s ‘Preventive Counter-Revolution’: Post-Soviet Authoritarianism and the Spectre of Velvet Revolution,’ Europe-Asia Studies, 63 (1), January 2011, pp. 1-25.
- Laclau, E., On Populist Reason, London, Verso, 2005.
- Schwirtz, M., ‘Russia’s Political Youths,’ Demokratizatsiya, 15 (1), 2007, pp. 73-84.
- Varga, M., ‘How Political Opportunities Strengthen the Far Right: Understanding the Rise in Far-Right Militancy in Russia,’ Europe-Asia Studies, 60 (4), June 2008, pp. 561-579.
- See also
- “The Putin Generation”, The New York Times, 7-08-2007, accessed 16 March 2014.
“Наши” кликнули молодежь – Новое движение ищет себя в интернете, коммерсант.ru, 1-03-2005, accessed 16 March 2014.
 Salem, H., ‘Crimea’s Putin supporters prepare to welcome possible Russian advance,’ The Observer, 1 March 2014, accessed at 19 march 2014.
 Lévy, B.-H., La Pureté dangereuse, Grasset, Paris, 1994, p. 16.
 Finn, P., “Protesters in Moscow Harass Estonian Envoy Over Statue,’ Washington Post, 3-05-2007, accessed at 20-03-2014.