Patriotism And Putin Rock!

To Russia's youth, the President embodies reform and longing for the superpower past

It's 7:30 on a Saturday morning in July. On the scenic shores of Lake Seliger, about 360 kilometers northwest of Moscow in the Tver region, some 3,000 young Russians are emerging sleepily from their tents underneath tall birch trees, summoned to morning assembly and exercises by the booming strains of the Russian national anthem. Camp Seliger offers its teenage denizens hiking, swimming, sports, and cookouts. But this camp has a twist. It is run by a new political youth movement called Nashi ("Our Own" in Russian). Its purpose, along with outdoor summer fun, is to build up patriotic fervor in young people through a series of lectures and seminars.

Nashi was born earlier this year as the Kremlin's answer to Ukraine's Orange Revolution, in which thousands took to the streets to back pro-Western opposition leader -- now President -- Viktor Yushchenko. The Kremlin fears that the revolutionary bug may be contagious, which is why it has openly backed Nashi's creation. Not since the days of the Komsomol, the Soviet-era youth movement, have Russia's leaders lavished so much attention on the nation's young people. "Your task is to physically resist any attempts to carry out an unconstitutional coup," guest of honor Gleb Pavlovsky, a well-known political consultant who advises Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, told enthralled campers. They are also instructed to stay vigilant against manipulations from the West. On display at the camp are political drawings by Nashi activists, eerily reminiscent of Soviet propaganda cartoons. One depicts fat-lipped characters in suits bearing instructions from the U.S. government to "sell out Russia." Asked if the U.S. was a threat to Russia, camper Dasha Ninova, an 18-year-old public-relations student from Kaluga, in western Russia, answered: "The U.S. is a country that wants power over other countries."

Ninova and other Nashi followers don't come across as scary nationalists. Most say they joined up out of a patriotic desire to help out in their communities. And although Nashi claims it has 100,000 supporters nationwide, the movement is not yet a force in Russian politics. According to one survey, only 15% of those under 25 have heard of the group. Still, Nashi taps into attitudes that are widespread among Russia's youth. Unlike their rebellious neighbors in Ukraine, young Russians are even more likely than their parents to support the Putin government. A recent poll by the Public Opinion Foundation found that 80% of Russians approved of the President's policies. The proportion among Russians under 35: 87%. "Young people regard Putin as one of their own. They constantly see him skiing, driving around in tanks, piloting planes, and talking to young people," says Konstantin Chistyakov, 22, a project manager for marketing firm ITM in Moscow.


Such patriotism was on parade at this year's grandiose celebration of the 60th anniversary of Russia's victory in World War II. A May 15 Nashi-organized street march in Moscow to commemorate the victory and honor war veterans drew 60,000. In contrast, youth demonstrations against Putin's curbs on the media, the war in Chechnya, or threats to civil liberties rarely attract more than a few hundred. Nashi member Andrei Moiseenko pines for the days when the Soviet Union was a superpower. "There was a great deal of patriotism," says the 19-year-old accounting student from Kursk, who bemoans the post-Soviet "degradation" of Russian youth through alcoholism and drug addiction.

This mindset is in sharp contrast with other former Communist countries in Eastern Europe, where the collapse of the Soviet bloc was welcomed by young people as a chance to reassert their suppressed national and European identities, buttressing support for integration with the West. "Young Russians are responsive to imperial and 'great power' values," says Natalia Zorkaya, a sociologist at the Levada Center, a leading Moscow public opinion research institute. "In the search for a positive national identity, of course there's nostalgia."

But nostalgia for the glories of the old Soviet Union goes only so far. Unlike older Russians, who often believe life was better under Communist rule, a majority of young Russians say the market reforms and democratization of the 1990s were necessary. If so many support Putin, it's partly because they view the Russian leader, widely condemned in the West as a Soviet-style autocrat, as a Western-oriented reformer.

Young Russians, after all, have been more successful than their parents in adapting to the rigors of the new market economy. Even more than their Western counterparts, they are focused on individual success. One 2004 opinion poll asked 18-to-24-year-olds to identify their heroes. After rock stars, wealthy oligarchs were held in the highest esteem, while left-wing icon Che Guevara didn't scrape past the 1% mark. Politicians didn't rate very highly either -- Putin ranked fifth. In the race to get ahead, university enrollments have doubled since the end of Communist rule, giving Russia one of the highest enrollment rates in the world. "In Soviet times it was fashionable for kids to want to become cosmonauts. Then they wanted to become gangsters. Now they want to be bankers and lawyers," says Alexander Zhludnev, 17, who traveled to Camp Seliger from Kursk, where he is studying public relations.

All of this sounds encouraging for those who believe that, as today's generation of capitalistic youngsters reaches maturity, Russia will change for the better. Yet while young Russians are embracing the freedom to pursue careers in the private sector and travel the world, few seem interested in influencing the political course of their country. Election turnout is lowest among young voters. And just one-quarter of Russians under 25 say they would take part in marches and demos. "Young people are more educated, more successful, better off financially, and more liberally oriented [than their parents]," says sociologist Zorkaya. "But on the other hand, the success of young people has had more of an individual character than a social character." She fears that so long as the country's youthful elite continue to shun politics, the country's main institutions will remain in the hands of the old bureaucracy.

For now, most of Russia's teens and young adults seem content to leave politics in the hands of the politicians. Putin, whose rhetoric combines nostalgia for the Soviet past with calls for political and economic modernization, has successfully captured the contradictory mood of the nation's youth. But his liberal critics hope that the resurgent nationalism represented by groups such as Nashi is a passing phenomenon on the road to a more mature political future.

By Jason Bush in Lake Seliger, Russia

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