With rumors of Nashi’s demise floating amid embarrassing revelations about launching cyber attacks on some media and paying people to troll the Internet and show up at rallies, it’s a perfect time to release a documentary about the pro-Kremlin youth group.
But there are reasons beyond the recent headlines that make the Danish film Putin’s Kiss worth seeing now, for it hits on what role a younger generation is going to play in the Russian political landscape from now on.
The film, which was released in the United States this month and is making the festival circuit, tells the story of Masha Drokova, a young woman who rose through the Nashi ranks as a protégé of the group’s mastermind, presidential aide and later cabinet minister Vasily Yakemenko.
In brief, we follow Drokova from her time as the group’s spokeswoman to her ambivalent departure from Nashi. Along the way, we see her struggle to square her allegiance to the group’s feel-good slogans about a strong, prosperous Russia with Nashi’s dark side, which sees political opponents as enemies of Russia who must be silenced. Doing so involves disrupting their speeches, making sure they cannot hold rallies, and even defecating on their cars.
Those who don’t know much about Nashi will probably be appalled. (Even those who do will feel a chill watching the ceremonial shaming of “Russia’s enemies” in which Nashi members, holding placards that bear photos of journalists and activists, form rows and throw the signs face-down on the ground when their row is called. “They have to know that we won’t accept them amongst us!” a speaker exhorts.)
The film is probably a good reality check for those who see the throngs in the anti-Putin protests and look on Russia’s next generation with hope. Or, likewise, for those who believe that the pro-Putin rallies are peopled by an older generation, haunted by the rough and tumble 1990s and afraid of a future without their strongman leader.
What it says to me is that the next generation of Russians is likely to be having the same arguments their parents did, although the liberal-reformist side will likely have more of a say in the debate (it could hardly have less).
As Denis Volkov, a pollster with the Levada Center, told me in a podcast that will run later this week, many of those in the pro-Putin rallies depend on the state for their livelihood. That might not cut across all of Russia’s demographic groups – it’s more likely to be true outside the cities than in, for instance – but it does cut across age groups. The government’s share of the workforce has grown over the last decade by nearly 45 percent, according to a recent report. As long as the Russian economy is dominated by the state, should we expect many of those people to see their interests any differently?
Economic considerations aside, when the Kremlin’s political braintrust, rattled by the Orange revolution in Ukraine, created Nashi it didn’t have any trouble finding huge numbers of young people who wanted to feel as if they were fighting for good versus evil. In the film, Drokova points out that Nashi’s summer camp attracts 25,000 people. It can summon more than that for a march. Even if the group disbands, they’re not going anywhere.
Opposition activist Ilya Yashin, 29, tells the filmmakers, “It’s a pity that cynicism has come to characterize a part of my generation. Conformism and cynicism. I’m sure our children will criticize us for this. For putting on T-shirts with leaders’ photos, for marching in formation – for taking part in disgraceful projects like Nashi. … And we’ll be ashamed of marching in formation – for when young people march in formation, it’s embarrassing. It means that the generation is rotten.”
The way out of this is simple but not easy. Drokova fell in with liberal journalists who let her defend herself but didn’t hold back their criticisms of Nashi or the regime. In other words, she entered a world where ideas are allowed to compete.
The likes of Yakemenko and his masters (and minions) work very hard to make sure that that world does not exist in any significant way in Russia – it was not the journalists, but Yakemenko, who made Drokova choose between the two camps.
A lot of people understandably long for the day when the opposition is as well-funded and organized as the ruling elite, holding rallies and fielding candidates that are as formidable as those of Putin and Co. In the meantime, Putin’s Kiss has me hoping for more of the conversions that, like Drokova’s, take place in coffeehouses.
Photo: A Nashi member grinds his heel into a photo of one of “Russia’s enemies” in a screen grab from Putin’s Kiss.