“Puppeteers and Puppets”

I promised to write an update on Russian youth organizations, especially the August 29th attack on a meeting of the National Bolsheviks and other youth groups at a Communist Party office at Avtozavodskaia. But time has got the better of me. However, an article published and translated in JRL #9261, “Puppeteers and Puppets” by Andrei Vol’nov from Rossiiskie Vesti has saved me. Instead of writing something of my own on this issue, let me provide and comment on some of its key passages. Russian readers can find the entire article here. Pavel Pushkin did the JRL translation, from which these excerpts are taken.

The article speaks about the recent increase in Russian youth organizations at both the national and local level. According to the article, this rise is in part because “it’s become fashionable to use young people for either “revolutionary” or “counter-revolutionary” activity.” The most significant is Nashi (Our Own), which is pro-Putin and vows to prevent “orange revolution” in Russia. In addition, youth organizations have sprouted in Moscow, Civil Change, which is under the patronage of Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov; and Youth Chamber in Kazan, among others. The basic logic behind these organizations is similar to what the Komsomol was: to funnel young and politically loyal members into city and regional political institutions. This seems to be one of the main thrusts behind Nashi as their week long retreat near Tver showed.

But some of these groups, especially Nashi seem to have “extra legal” intentions. Especially, with using football hooligans as shock troops. The article reads:

“It might seem unlikely that the reasonably law-abiding Nashi would have anything in common with aggressive groups of football fans from the outer suburbs. Nonetheless, according to leader of Dynamo fan club Alexander Shprygin, the football fans have rushed to join Our Own, a well-funded organization (in comparison with other youth groups). Shprygin added, “Nashi’s leader, Yakemenko, has said that if force is needed, he will provide it. He was referring to the football fans. It is known that Spartak fans were responsible for the attack on the National Bolshevik headquarters.”

And it is has been the repeasted attacks on the National Bolsheviks that has increased the tension between left and right wing youth organizations. The facts of the attacks on the Natsbols are narrated as follows:

“It should be noted that no definite connection has yet been established between the Nashi movement and the organized and pre-paid groups of “fans” who were ordered by someone to “sort out” the National Bolsheviks. We can only set out the evidence: on January 29, 40 men armed with baseball bats attacked the NBP headquarters; on March 5, 25 masked men destroyed ransacked the NBP office and assaulted NBP members with baseball bats; on February 12, ten NBP and Communist Party members were attacked by masked men on their way home from a rally. In all these cases, some of the suspects were detained and usually released “after a phone call from above.” No charges were issued against them.

The largest and most well-publicized attack by “organized fans” took place on the evening of August 29. This was an attack on the Communist Party headquarters on Avtozavodskaya Street in Moscow, during a meeting of National Bolsheviks, young Communists, and members of other left-wing organizations. According to various sources, there were about 40 attackers, wearing camouflage and masks, armed with baseball bats and pneumatic pistols. Several young leftists were injured: fractured skulls, concussion, broken bones. The National Bolshevik Party maintains that the attackers were members of a football fan group based on Yaroslavskoe Road, connected with the Nashi movement. NBP leader Eduard Limonov emphasized that members of his party recognized the faces of some attackers, recalling them from previous attacks. But Nashi leader Yakemenko denies any involvement of members of his organization in the incident. The law-enforcement agencies (they released the detained people with the bats again “according to a phone call from above”) keep silent mysteriously again. There is an impression that these are persistent attempts to change behavior and to “monitor” NBP members (now with assistance of football fans).”

When I’ve mentioned these attacks to friends, they immediately respond that it sounds like Germany in the 1920s when fascists and communists fought in the streets. While it does echo that, I’m a bit more guarded with such an analysis. If the left wing begins to strike back with equal intent, then I think a process will be unleashed that will certainly culminate during the 2008 elections.

There is, however, some from liberal/left groups who are calling for just that: battle ready detachments. NBP leader Eduard Limonov has hyperbolically called the attack at Avtozavodskaia the beginning of a “civil war.” Rodina youth leader Sergei Shargunov has called that it is time to organize “self-defense detachments” to combat Nashi. Other liberal/left groups are talking seriously about uniting under the name League of United Youth, or LOM. Don’t let the acronym pass unnoticed. The word “lom” (???) means “crowbar” in Russian. There are hopes that LOM will also include more radical left groups such as the Natsbols, the Communist Youth League, and Red Youth Vanguard.

The article is also presents a view that I have held since Nashi was formed earlier this year:

“It is very interesting to watch how the process of formation of the “pro-government” and “anti-government” youth groups coincide in essence (although not in form) with what the authorities are doing on a higher level of political parties.”

Indeed. What has struck me about all of this is how the center has either dropped out or has been redefined after the Ukrainian elections in November-December, 2004 and the pension protests in January this year. By February, the more moderate pro-Putin group, Walking Together, was liquidated, and the more ardent Nashi suddenly appeared. They now claim to be the “center.” The National Bolsheviks, as well, as other far left groups have increased their activities. The liberal electoral opposition in the form of Yabloko, though their initial presence should not be overestimated, has dropped out almost completely. Even United Russia has grown so large that it has split into left and right wing factions. But the article is also quick to point to the fact that,

“Along with this, it is necessary to say at once that there is no own activeness of the opposition, both rightist and leftist. All its actions have a nature of responses to external events (the terrorist act in Beslan, appointment of governors, monetization of social allowances or persecution of Khodorkovsky) along with complete absence of the own program. Diversity of the PR pretexts only emphasizes fictitious nature of existence of the opposition as a political player. Calling a spade a spade it is possible to say that the opposition is on the lead of the authorities and this lead had been put on voluntarily. In the current circumstances of transition to elections according to the party lists (accompanied with increase of the registered number of party members from 10,000 to 50,000 members) Yabloko, the Union of Right Forces, or Motherland may simply disappear having failed to recruit the necessary number of members.”

Where will this opposition come from? One possibility is that United Russia’s factions will cannibalize themselves and make a formal split. Another is that increased pressure from below, which is now represented by youth organizations, will coalesce into an opposition from outside the electoral process. This possibility is only made more likely with the escalating political polarization and the increased readiness to use violence and oppression against political opponents, whether they are youth organizations or not.

Suffice to say, this is far from the end of this story.