Putin’s Young Guard

Yesterday, I wrote about Putin and the task of controlling the regional power. An article in today’s Kommersant gives a picture of one of the methods the Kremlin is using to not only combat political opposition to its rule, but to combat corruption and oppositionists within United Russia itself. However, while this may be the end, the means hark back to both a Soviet past and the timelessness of generational conflict.

The method is a group of youths called Molodaia gvardiia (Young Guard). The name’s Soviet connotations can’t be missed. Molodaia gvardiia was the main journal and publishing house of the Komsomol, not to mention a synonym for its role in the Soviet Union. Its Komsomol roots, however, go much deeper than its namesake. Its task is to not only search for enemies of Putin; it also seeks to root out corruption and intransigent regional leaders, even if they are high profile politicians or members of United Russia. According to its leader Ivan Demidov, “No one in the Party is free from responsibility. We must influence power. And if conflicts arise in the regions, which Radov [a pioneering activist in Molodaia gvardiia] spoke about, we will be on the side of the law before anything.” When asked if this meant moving against corrupt officials in United Russia, Demidov cautiously answered, “all will depend on the situation.”

But others contend that there is no conflict between United Russia and Molodaia gvardiia. One representative from United Russia told Kommersant that “that United Russia was prepared to deal with internal corruption itself” and that the group was a good idea because “they could help us.” Others, like political analysis Stanislav Belskovskii see the youth group as a means to pit the young idealists against the entrenched old guard as a way to wage internal party struggles within United Russia. “In the upcoming elections in 2007, Molodaia gvardiia by its own initiative will search for enemies of Putin and possibly will be used to struggle against competitors of United Russia, with Party life first of all,” Belskovskii told Kommersant.

Conforming to the Party line might just be the task. In February, members of Molodaia gvardiia demanded the resignation the governor of Perm for aiding fascists by being lax support to antifascist efforts in the region. Observers then noticed that the apparent call from below coincided with the Kremlin’s desire to clamp down on the governor.

It is here that Putin’s Molodaia gvardiia harks back to a more particular Soviet incarnation: the Legkaia kavaleriia (Light Cavalry). The Light Cavalry was a movement within the Komsomol that Nikolai Bukharin initiated in a speech at the 8th Komsomol Congress in 1928. Bukharin, among others, called for the League to create “initiative groups” to conduct “raids” of Soviet shops and factories to root out corruption and bureaucratism. The move was justified with reference to a section of a speech Lenin gave at the 3rd Komsomol Congress in 1921, which outlined the tasks of the Youth League:

It is the task of the Young Communist League to organize assistance everywhere, in village or city block, in such matters as — and I shall take a small example — public hygiene or the distribution of food. How was this done in the old, capitalist society? Everybody worked only for himself and nobody cared a straw for the aged and the sick, or whether housework was the concern only of the women, who, in consequence, were in a condition of oppression and servitude. Whose business is it to combat this? It is the business of the Youth Leagues, which must say: we shall change all this; we shall organize detachments of young people who will help to assure public hygiene or distribute food, who will conduct systematic house-to-house inspections, and work in an organized way for the benefit of the whole of society, distributing their forces properly and demonstrating that labor must be organized. (“Tasks of the Youth Leagues,” Collected Works, vol. 31)

The Light Cavalry was more than simple “shock force” against poor accounting and bureaucrats. Their “raids” on Soviet institutions also incorporated class politics. Cavalristy routinely denounced corrupt Party members, traders, kulaks, and other “alien elements” they found in factories and shops. In addition, the military rhetoric of the Light Calvary should not be overlooked. Their penchant for military metaphors was part of a general cultural trends in the late 1920s, when Komsomols spoke of their activism in terms of armies, soldiers, campaigns, raids, scouts, fronts, fights, and battles. These expressions symbolized the attempt by a generation to memorialize a civil war that had preceded them by ten years.

If the Komsomols of the late 1920s were using the opportunity to fight their “civil war,” what are Putin’s young guardians fighting for? Social mobility is surely one. There is no better way to rise in the ranks by denouncing your elders. Battles against internal and external enemies is a good way to cut one’s political teeth. Access to regional power is another. Be sure that those who root out corruption will get the nod for those new vacant positions. Thus the young continues to eat its old. Or as Turgenev eloquently put it:

“So that,” began Pavel Petrovich, “that is our modern youth! Those young men are our heirs!”

“Our heirs!” repeated Nikolai Petrovich with a weary smile. He had been sitting as if on thorns throughout the argument, and only from time to time cast a sad furtive glance at Arkady. “Do you know what I was reminded of, brother? I once quarreled with our mother; she shouted and wouldn’t listen to me. At last I said to her, ‘Of course you can’t understand me; we belong to two different generations.’ She was terribly offended, but I thought, ‘It can’t be helped–a bitter pill, but she has to swallow it.’ So now our turn has come, and our successors can tell us: ‘You don’t belong to our generation; swallow your pill.'”

Update: There is another, perhaps more important Soviet connection to Putin’s Molodaia gvardiia. Molodaia gvardiia was also an Komsomol underground anti-fascist partisan group formed in 1942 after the Nazis occupied Krasnodon. Their existance and membership was revealed to the Nazis by turncoats in the groups. In Janurary 1943, the Nazis began arrests of its 80 or so members. Only eleven members escaped capture. All seventy arrested were tortured and thrown to their death in Coal Mine No. 5. Its leaders Oleg Koshevoy, Lyubov Shevtsova, Viktor Subbotin, Dmitry Ogurtsov, Sergei Ostapenkov were shot the next month in the town of Rovenki, only five days before the Red Army liberated it on Feburary 14, 1943. The Soviet novelist Alexsandr Fadeyev wrote a novel called Molodaia gvardiia commemorating its underground activities.

Of all the Soviet connections cited above, I now think that this is the memory the Putin group is hoping to tap–a patriotic youth organization committed to fighting fascism and enemies of the state.