Russia’s Two Youths

Youth political activism in Russia is a tale of two youths. One stands in front of a line of police in riot gear in St. Petersburg, a black or red handkerchief over his nose and mouth to disguise his face. He is probably a member of Red Youth Vanguard (AKM), the National Bolshevik Party, an anarchist, or an environmentalist. He will most likely get beaten and then arrested. He will spend up to 10 days in jail or until the Russian authorities decide to release him.

In many ways he is lucky to get this far. Many activists protesting at the G8 Summit this past weekend, like St. Petersburg Natsbol leader Andrei Dmitriev and AKM leader Sergei Udal’?tsov were victims of preemptive arrests. According to Kommersant, Udal??tsov was scooped up with several other AKMtsy and taken to Moscow, where they were then released. On June 13, Dmitriev was arrested and taken by bus to Tver Oblast, where he was kept incommunicado for more than a day. His relatives made a complaint to the Petersburg prosecutor arguing that his disappearance was “comparable to abductions in Chechnya.”? Official charges against Dmitriev were never filed. He says that UPOB officers (the Department for the Struggle Against Organized Crime) told him that the leadership wanted him held until the end of the Summit. As of today the Russian State still holds 200 activists in prison without charges or for minor offenses of “disrupting the public order.”? Such is the nature of youth political dissent in Russia.

The other Russian youth is currently at Lake Seliger in Tver Oblast at the second annual Nashi summer camp. Last year this time, 3,000 Nashi commissars met for festivities and training. This year the camp holds 5,000 Nashi members from over 50 cities. If last year’?s camp more resembled the Soviet Pioneers, with Soviet songs drifting through the camp grounds and youths meeting with important officials from Putin’?s government, this year’?s Camp Seliger has taken more pages from the Soviet Komsomol rather than its younger charges. The youth at this Nashi Camp was treated to lectures in “Putin’?s Domestic Policies”? and the “?Ideology of Vladimir Putin”?. Putin has enjoyed a personality cult among the Nashisty from its inception. Adulations to Putin aside, the main focus of this years camp was much more nationalistic and militaristic. The main theme of the camp revolved around its new program called “?Our Army,”? which was adopted at Nashi’s Congress in April. Like the Komsomol before it, “Our Army”? specifically looks to encourage youths to join the army. They even get a taste of army life at the summer camp. “We must explain to the entire generation that the question of whether to serve in the army or not does not have a right to exist,” says then Nashi leader Vasilii Yakemenko.

Providing paramilitary training to Nashi members immediately raises the systemic problem of dedovshchina. I won’t belabor this issue again since I’?ve written about it several times before. It also can’t help Nashi’?s cause when two more brutal cases of dedovshchina came to light this week. The Kremlin has done nothing but give lip service to the problem, and it seems that, according to the St. Petersburg Times, the trial of Private Sychyov assailants has hit a roadblock because on the prosecutions “star witnesses,” one Artyom Nikitin, has recanted his testimony. Sychyov was severly beaten six months ago to the point where his legs had to be amputated because they developed gangrene.

Still, the fear of dedovshchina among Nashisty is probably fairly low. You can’?t sway the converted. For them, the culture of hazing in the Russian military is the result of a few bad apples and not a systemic culture that has been born, bred and tolerated, if not encouraged, but the authorities. Good, well trained and dedicated Nashisty, like their Komsomol forefathers, will simply solve the problem by their sheer presence in the armed forces. After all, members of “Our Army”? being trained at Segiler are addressing the question of hazing so that “it will not occur.”? After all, like in Soviet times, if the Party says “????!,” the Komsomol replies, “????!”

So there you have it, two youths. One anti-Putin to the core. The other ready and willing to act as his shield and dagger. There is a middle ground between them that is occupied by more moderate, and liberal forces. And like always, a mass of politically neutral, if not apathetic, Russian youth surrounding them all. We should not forget that even to Nashi’s right there are the skinheads and other anti-immigrant and racist youth groups like the Eurasian Youth League. These only help Nashi appear like they occupy the center and gave their antifascist slogans sincerity. In reality, they have more in common with these political undesirables than with the radical left.

While Nashi may conjure illusions to the Komsomol, the far left is not antithetical to the League’s history. Not all Komsomol members kowtowed to the Party. In fact, post-revolutionary militancy found a home in the organization. During the doldrums of the New Economic Policy in the 1920s, many Komsomols felt that the Revolution entered a Thermidor, as they were told to “learn”? communism rather than fight for it; and to tolerate class enemies rather than liquidate them and throw their remains into the dustbin of History. The Bolshevik Party appeared moribund and conservative, and after Lenin died in 1924, many Komsomol youth felt it was them and not the Party that carried the true banner of Leninism. These were the youths often took to Trotsky’?s message of anti-bureaucratism and the destruction of NEP. That is, until he was exiled and they were expelled in a wave of Komsomol purges in late 1920s. Ironically, these “bratishki” as they were called because of their adherence to Civil War methods, found solace when Stalin called on them to “?liquidate the kulak as a class”? and root out class enemies in his Revolution from Above. One gets the impression that if the tables were turned, and the Natsbols or the AKM were in the same position of power as Nashi, the Civil War myth of the bratishka would find a new audience.

Some may point to the fact that the present youth movement in Russia is marginal. Even Nashi has small numbers in relation to population. Enthusiasm, belief and will backed with power, however, can overcome most numerical deficiencies. The Komsomol was only 2 million in 1928 and it moved social, political, economic, and cultural mountains. Putin’?s camp as well as Limonov’s seems to understand this.

Even if groups like Nashi and the Natsbols are hatched from the same historical ilk, they are as reconcilable as Cain and Abel. The Komsomol had to squash its opposition on both the left and the right, and I would imagine that Nashi will try to do the same. There is already some indication that they are already making an attempt, if last August’s attack on a meeting of radical left youths near Avtozavodskaya is any indication. One would also suspect that the far right will be gradually assimilated. Skins and Eurasian Youths are not a contradiction to Nashi’?s ultimate goals; only their rhetoric is misguided.

As of now our two archetypical political youth are more standing face to face rather than fist to face. But opposing mass movements can??t withstand detente for long. Leftwing youth promise to push forward during the 2008 Presidential election. Nashi plans to push back and prevent any disruption of a smooth transition to Putin’s handpicked successor. As for the Russian security forces, they got to test out a variety of repressive methods this past weekend. In two years we just might see Nashisty next to them, cuffing and dragging away a Natsbol for a stint in the black hole of incommunicado.

Photos: Kommersant and Reuters.