The Expanding Role of Russia's Youth Groups

7 MINS READJun 8, 2011 | 20:28 GMT
Activisits from the pro-Kremlin youth groups celebrate the victory of the United Russia party.
Activists of pro-Kremlin youth groups "Moldaya gvardiya" and "Nashi" ("Young guard" and "Ours") attend a rally as they celebrate the victory of United Russia party in the parliamentary elections in central Moscow on December 5, 2011.

When it was founded in 2005, the Russian youth group Nashi was meant to instill nationalism in the next generation of Russian society. Since its inception, Nashi has incorporated other youth groups and founded new groups with the goal of training their members to respect the primacy of the Kremlin; it has eventually evolved into something the Kremlin could use as a foreign policy. Now the Russian state's focus is to use the youth programs to train the next generation to take leadership roles in government, business and civil society.

Over the past two years, the Kremlin has been steadily shifting its focus from consolidation within Russia and in Moscow's former Soviet territory to planning for Russia's future. Part of that planning involves launching a series of massive economic projects involving modernization and privatization. A more controversial component of Moscow's plans is the use of the government's nationalist youth groups, like Nashi and the Young Guard, to create the next generation of leadership.

Nashi's Inception and Growth

The first step in Russia's becoming a Eurasian power once again was consolidation — years spent pushing Western influence out of Russia and its periphery and regaining control of Russia's society and strategic assets. The success of Moscow's social consolidation efforts became evident in 2005, when the Kremlin created a youth organization called Nashi. The Kremlin realized the Russian youths about to come of age were born after the Soviet era, when nationalism and the primacy of the state were intrinsic, and were more familiar with the Russian decline and the proliferation of foreign influence. Nashi was created to instill a sense of nationalism in the new generation and to counter any attempt the West might make at starting a pro-Western "color revolution" like those seen in Georgia and Ukraine.

The creation of Nashi — "Ours," in Russian — was spurred by then-Russian President Vladimir Putin and his loyalists. The group appealed mainly to lower-class ethnic Russians, who found a sense of community and purpose in the organization. Nashi also gave them an opportunity to network with a higher class and gain advantages for education and work. The concept of Nashi is nothing new. Aspects of it have been widely compared to the Soviet Komsomol and even the Hitler Youth. Throughout the years, Nashi inspired and incorporated many other groups (both officially and unofficially). Among them are Nashi's official children's group, Teddy Bears, and the group Stahl, which calls itself "a weapon for Russia" and takes a more aggressive approach to anti-Kremlin elements. The Young Guard, which is an unofficial brother group of Nashi, is the most important youth group outside of Nashi. Officially, it is affiliated with Russia's ruling political party, United Russia.

With an estimated membership of 150,000, the Young Guard started off differently from Nashi in that its members, previously nicknamed "golden youth," come from families already in power in the government or in state businesses. The Young Guard prepares its members to be active in the government. Although these pro-Kremlin groups are not officially part of the government, they all receive a great deal of funding from the government. According to Stratfor sources, the Russian government spent approximately $250 million on Nashi in the organization's first year. Most large businesses in Russia are encouraged to donate to the youth programs, which means such donations help a business stay in the Kremlin's good graces. Members of eight different youth organizations — mostly Nashi, the Young Guard and Stahl — sit on the council of the Russian Federal Agency for Youth Affairs. Nashi's founder, Vasily Yakemenko, previously ran the government's Federal Youth Agency, and the two organizations share a press secretary. As Nashi spread nationalism among Russia's up-and-coming generation, racism and xenophobia — particularly anti-Western and anti-Muslim sentiment — escalated among Russian youths.

Nashi and the other youth movements have changed from simply consolidating Russia's youth under the Kremlin to implementing social programs and preparing the next generation to lead the country.

The major racist groups in Russia are the highly controversial Slavic Union, the People's National-Patriotic Orthodox Christian Movement and the banned Movement Against Illegal Immigration. Many Nashi members also belonged to these extremist groups because the organizations share a goal: a strong and nationalist Russia. This meant foreigners and non-Slavic or non-Orthodox populations were subject to intimidation and attack. As such, an uptick in radical xenophobic attacks has coincided with the burgeoning nationalist youth movements in Russia.

By 2007, Nashi had become a major movement in Russia, with more than 170,000 members. (Some estimates put its current membership near 600,000.) The group began to organize further, holding an annual summer camp attended by thousands of members. Putin and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, along with other influential government members, visit the camps, which include seminars on Russian culture, business, politics and sports. Russian youth at a Nashi summer camp in 2007 Also in 2007, the Kremlin began using Nashi as a tool not just to unite Russian youth in nationalism but also to act against many anti-Kremlin elements in Russia and beyond. Nashi organized activities targeting embassies, diplomats and international organization offices. Nashi's activities typically are nonviolent, but the group does have a government-trained paramilitary branch that has been used to ensure security and to incite riots. Nashi also took part in protests in Finland and riots in Estonia and is thought to have been responsible for the 2007 cyberattacks against Estonia.

Nashi's New Role

The purpose of Nashi and the other youth movements has changed from simply consolidating Russia's youth under the Kremlin to implementing social programs and preparing the next generation to lead the country. Nashi and the other youth organizations have taken on a large social role in the country by organizing large programs with goals ranging from promoting education to discouraging drinking. These programs, plus the unifying element of the youth groups, are preparing the new generation for leadership roles in the government, business and civil society. This is meant to keep Russia strong, nationalistic and united.

Seeing the success of the youth groups in Russia, the Kremlin has begun spreading the groups' influence. This summer, Nashi will hold a different summer camp comprising several thousand Nashi members and nearly a thousand Dagestanis in the Caucasus. Nashi has started a related youth movement in Chechnya called Ramzan, whose members call themselves "Putin's foot soldiers." The goal of these activities is to start spreading pro-Kremlin sentiment beyond ethnic Slavs and to consolidate the next generation in Russia's Muslim Caucasus republics under the Kremlin as a way of combating Islamist extremism after two decades of wars.

Russia has been spreading its youth groups into Europe as well, with both Nashi and Stahl forming partnerships in Serbia with various national parties' youth wings. The Russian youth groups have also expanded their social programs like the Orthodox Project, Project Steel and the Voluntary Youth Militia (also known as the DMD Brigade) to Serbia. The Russian groups hope to continue this expansion as part of Russia's overall foreign policy. Thus the Kremlin could use Russian youth groups to cooperate with other countries, and it would also have a presence in these other countries if Moscow believes aggression, rather than cooperation, is needed.

With the role of Nashi and the other Russian youth groups evolving and expanding in recent years, nationalism and consolidation in Russia appears to be steadfast. The youths involved in these organizations have been educated in the primacy of the Kremlin and the power of the Russian state and will become the next generation of Russian leaders, continuing on the path set by those who came before them.

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