The student activist, looking bohemian with stylishly mussed hair, pointy black shoes and black jeans, had to beg off his appointment. He had just been summoned by “the authorities.”
But Nikita Borovikov didn’t seem particularly apprehensive. In fact, he seemed rather pleased.
As one of the leaders of a new wave of youth groups that are loudly rallying around President Vladimir V. Putin, he’s already met with the Russian leader two times, he said.
“So what?” he added defensively. “Let me ask you a philosophical question: What’s bad about supporting the authorities?”
Meet Putin’s sidewalk avengers, scruffy cheerleaders and foot soldiers. In the last few years of the powerful president’s reign, tens of thousands of Russian students have joined hastily organized youth groups and headed into the streets, young people who believe that the stability of their homeland depends upon squashing political opposition and propping up their beloved father figure.
Members of Borovikov’s organization are bombarded with talk of the dangers of “fascists,” a term organizers throw around to refer to political rivals, including neo-Nazis and pro-democracy liberals such as former chess champion Garry Kasparov.
“We’re trying to tell people about the movements that don’t say they’re fascist, but they are,” said Borovikov, deputy head of Nashi, or Ours.
“People should understand what can happen if they support this or that political force. . . . They are fascists in disguise. We want to open their eyes.”
The youth groups were formed around the spring of 2005, after the pro-democracy “color revolutions” had swept through the former Soviet bloc. In Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, street protests had pushed Kremlin-backed leaders out of power, bringing in governments that leaned toward the West.
The groups are a symptom of the times in Russia, of the peculiar buzz around Putin that is somehow both neo-Soviet and relentlessly capitalistic. Having reinvented himself, going from unknown KGB spy to revered and iconic leader, Putin is to leave the presidency in May. He has announced his willingness to serve as prime minister, and is widely expected to keep hold of his considerable power.
In Russia, they call these youths “Putin’s generation”: too young to remember much of Soviet times, but old enough to recoil from memories of the tumultuous Boris Yeltsin years.
“Young people identify themselves with Putin and the regime, and they don’t want any changes,” said Boris Dubin, senior researcher at the Levada Polling Center. “They support the interpretation of stability imposed on society by the mass media. They are shaped by the Kremlin in the form the Kremlin finds acceptable.”
Many Russians, particularly among the older generations, are squeamish about the youth groups. They have seen political heroes rise and fall, and many remain suspicious of the extreme language they hear shouted on the street.
“I don’t know what they’re really up to, but what they’re doing is a tone higher than normal. The wording is too sharp. They’re insulting,” said Nadezhda Bukhenskaya, a 55-year-old university professor who wandered past a recent Nashi demonstration, then stopped and frowned. “Were they brought into politics by somebody else, or are they doing it by themselves?”
Talking to Nashi members offers a sample of the kaleidoscope of fears that swirl in Putin’s Russia. An alleged U.S. plot to infiltrate politics, get hold of natural resources and shatter mighty Russia into smaller, more easily managed countries is a recurring theme.
“We’re here to protect the sovereignty of our country,” said Zaur Aminov, a 20-year-old economics student and Nashi leader who moved among thousands of other students at a recent pro-Putin rally at the edge of Red Square.
Asked who is threatening Russian sovereignty, the answer came quickly: “The American State Department.”
Most of the recent recruits are neophytes; often, they are unsophisticated youths from the provinces who are unable to articulate why they are chanting in the streets of Moscow.
“My boyfriend was a member, and I joined him for one of the actions and I thought it was cool,” said a teenage girl with a pierced lip, tarry mascara and blond hair that kept sliding into her eyes. Another protest, at the Georgian Embassy, had just broken up.
“What are you talking about? You should say you’re worried about the fate of the country,” hissed the young man at her side, who’d slipped the headphones off his ears to join the conversation.
The Kremlin and Nashi often try to downplay their relationship. But the youth group takes much of its funding from the Presidential Chamber, a board of hand-picked private citizens established by Putin. The group’s website explains its mission as “attracting citizens and public organizations to the realization of state policy.”
Borovikov defends his alliance with the Kremlin.
“For some reason it’s bad to be connected with the authority or the state, but the history of Russia shows the country was only successful when the state was strong,” he said. “Career success was always connected to state service, and there’s nothing shameful about that.”
Nashi, the largest and most prominent of the youth groups, is heavily wrapped up in the concept of upward mobility. Many of the youths have been lured to Moscow with promises of yuppie dreams; they view Nashi as an investment in their careers, akin to joining the right fraternity at a U.S. university.
Not all the Kremlin-backed groups are so clean-cut.
Across town, in the headquarters of Young Russia, students are shooting pool and plotting their next scandal. These are young, radical Putin activists, less squeamish about getting their hands dirty than their peers in Nashi.
They’ve taken over a prime piece of real estate, a sprawling building that was once a bar at the edge of the Bauman Moscow State Technical University campus. “We kicked the owners out,” leader Maxim Mishchenko said casually, shrugging a little. “It was a rotten joint, drunken brawls all the time.”
Mishchenko doesn’t mind boasting a bit about the considerable influence and wealth commanded by this fierce-eyed pack of students. Like so many shadowy figures in the noir landscape of modern Russia, his power flows from thuggery and connections. Barely out of law school, Mishchenko is expected to get a seat in parliament this coming term; he ran on the slate of a pro-Kremlin party.
When Young Russia needs money, he explains earnestly, they find some local businesspeople to shake down. If the businesspeople are sensible and pay up, Young Russia will “lobby their interests with the organs of state power,” he says.
If they prove stingy, forget about it.
“We’re talking here about a civilized protection racket,” he says, cool as ice. “If they don’t give us money, we attack them.”
Attacks, he explains, entail blocking roads or holding protests outside shops until they are forced out of business.
Consequences are light: When his activists posed as reporters and assaulted the Estonian ambassador, they were hauled down to the police station. But nobody was prosecuted.
Mishchenko vaguely explains that “a lawyer” showed up and proved the charges of hooliganism were false.
Young Russia was back on the streets.