Thursday, August 21, 2014

Book Review: "The Quest for an Ideal Youth in Putin's Russia" Volumes I and II by Ivo Mijnssen and Jussi Lassila

The Quest for an Ideal Youth in Putin's Russia

In 2004 Ukraine had a revolution. This revolution was called the "Orange Revolution." No, it was not a dietary fad that proposed that Ukrainians eat oranges to improve their cholesterol and increase their Vitamin C intake.

Rather, orange was the color of democracy and hope. You see, the outgoing the president (Leonid Kuchma) designated a successor to the Ukrainian throne. This successor was none other than Victor Yanukovich who you might -or might not- remember as the former villain of this current revolution (version 2.0) who had a fancy house near Kiev that he abandoned to take a forced vacation in Russia.

Anyway, in the sad political career of the -poorly named- Victor, 2004 was his first go around at being the arch-enemy of everything that is good in the world. With enthusiastic backing from Putin and some enthusiastic ballot stuffing in Ukraine, Victor "won" the election in 2004.

His opponent, liberty-loving and pro-Western, Victor (common name, huh?) Yushchenko, did not concede his defeat. Instead "the Orange Revolution" happened. Somebody tried to poison Yushchenko because he loved freedom. He survived this attempt on his life and people rallied to his side. They asked for a free and fair election. They sang songs and wore orange scarfs, there was even some Ukrainian hip-hop with democracy-loving grandmas waiving their arms to the beat.

These events in 2004, once again led the West to the the discovery that Ukraine exists, and since Ukraine exists solely so that it can be perpetually saved from Russia, many a western statesman and opinion leaders swiftly galloped their way to Kiev on their white stallions. Europe and America demanded a good election for the Ukrainian people for whose welfare they care deeply even if their country is hard to understand or even find on the map.

As a result of internal and external pressure, the first election was annulled and a second one held. This time the bad Victor lost and the good Victor won. Ukraine was free!

The west promptly began to forget that Ukraine exists- because for Ukraine to exist it has to be involved in some sort of a conflict involving Russia. The forces of good has prevailed and the Orange Revolution looked like a success.

But unfortunately this tale doesn't have a good ending. For there is a group of sinister people for whom Ukraine never ceases to exist, they always want to pull her into their sad and downtrodden empire. These dark, undemocratic trolls are called Russians. These subhumans have an evil and crafty overlord troll and the mere mention of his name causes trepidation in hearts of all freedom-lovers everywhere- Vladimir Putin.

Putin observed the events in Ukraine with some concern, taking in all information like a hamster stuffing his ample cheeks with nuts. Now the KGB hamster in the Kremlin had some hard nuts to chew on.

Anyway, at this point I will cease my satirical approach and try to propel myself to actually review this book.

Since -as everyone now knows- Putin is a former KGB agent he views the world in a certain way. He viewed the events in Ukraine in 2004 as a western operation to change the post-Soviet geopolitical map. A manifestation of the desire of western powers to get closer to Russia by staging revolutions to overthrow pro-Russian governments. With the Kiev democracy crowd being nothing more than pawns in a new Great Game, with this Great Game being not so great because it actually concerned Russian borders and her key interest (aka Ukraine) as opposed to the other Great Games that took place in distant Asia a while back.

Since the westerners used a democracy movement to topple a pro-Russian government in Kiev, who's to say that they won't be bold enough to use the same party trick to topple the actual Russian government in Moscow?

Putin -and most Russians- believe that the West likes their Russia to be weak, pliable and chaotic. This is why the West loved the corrupt and frequently inebriated Yeltsin- he made the motherland soft like a marshmallow. For Putin, a possible Orange Revolution in Russia was not just a threat to his rule, it was a threat to mother Russia herself. The mother Russia he wanted to be seen as strong, hard, pragmatic and assertive on the world stage. Therefore countermeasures against a potential orange revolt needed to be taken- for the sake of both the fatherland and the tsar.

One of his countermeasures is the topic of these two volumes titled "The Quest for an Ideal Youth in Putin's Russia."

Putin needed a youth movement of his own, that would be shown on state television to warn potentially orange Russians from causing any kind of a silly ruckus in the capital, and to counter-protest such a ruckus should it arise. His strategist came up with such a movement, the pro-Putin oligarchs funded it, and it was christened... wait for it, wait for it... it was called, "Youth Democratic Anti-Fascist Movement."

Are you surprised by the title?

What did you think such a movement would be called? "Youth Fascist Anti-Democratic Movement" or "Papa Putin's Youth Brigade."

The anti-fascist part originates from the fact that at the time Russia had a flowering of different neo-nazi gangs, that screamed "Russia for Russians" and attacked migrant workers from former Soviet republics who came to Moscow and other cities to do underpaid construction work among other things. The Russian nationalist extremists would beat up and sometimes even kill those migrants because they didn't fit into their idea of an ethnically pure motherland.

Because a pro-government youth organization would readily be accused of being neo-fascist by snarky Russian liberals and western reporters, it made perfect sense for this movement to loudly proclaim their anti-fascism cred right in their very name.

The democratic part stems from *cough* Valdimir Putin's life-long commitment to democracy. Or could also be interpreted in the same vain as the "anti-fascist" part of the name, an attempt to preempt obvious criticisms that a pro-government youth movement is by definition anti-democratic. The Kremlin seems to be saying that since most Russians support the government, of course our youth movement is democratic- giving voice to the Putin-loving masses!

However in Russia and abroad this movement was almost never referred to as "Youth Fascist Anti-Democratic Movement" instead the movement itself (and its critics) called it "Nashi."

The Russian word "nashi" vaguely translates as the English word, "ours" as in, "John is our man in Baghdad."

In Russian, the word implies a kind of spiritual affinity and kinship. If a Russian were to say, "John is our man (nash chelovek)" it would imply that -unlike most foreigners- John shows a deep insight into and a deep connection to the Russian condition. For a Russian to say that to John would be almost the highest form of compliment if John really wanted to be a Russian bro in spite of his non-Russia origin. Kind of like if a black rapper called an inspiring white rapper, "my n***a." Major props in the common American lexicon.

Anyway, a pro-Putin youth movement calling itself "nashi" clearly hinted that the anti-Putin opponents of the youth movement were "ne nashi" or "not ours" in English. Meaning that in spite of their Russian birth those "ne nashi" people supported (either through stupidity or treason) foreign ideological currents designed by Russia's enemies to weaken -or maybe even destroy- the country.

Predictably opinions on Nashi varied depending on who you asked. To Russian liberals and westerns observers, Nashi were a type of a "Hitler's Youth" organizations highlighting Russia's slide away from democracy. To enthusiastic supporters of Putin, Nashi were an ideological defense force guarding the motherland from internal and external enemies. To the vast majority of Russians, Nashi were a marginal presence they apathetically observed on state television staging demonstrations, picnics and singing patriotic songs.

In the two volumes of The Quest for an Ideal Youth in Putin's Russia, the academic authors wanted to chronicle and analyze this pro-government youth movement and make conclusions about what Nashi told us about Putin's Russia.

Right off the bat I want to state my personal dissent from the title of these two very good books. I never saw Nashi as a part of a broad government quest to shape an "ideal youth" in Russia.

I basically saw it as a useful but fundamentally reactionary organization, created to react against perceived threats rather than chisel out an outline of an ideal Russian youth.

Imagine yourself as Putin sitting in the Kremlin, if there is a mass youth demonstration against your rule, you certainly have the resources and the power to break up this demonstration with brute force. But that solution doesn't feel satisfying. That outcome wouldn't be satisfying because by breaking it up by force you undermine your own democratic legitimacy. Russians and outsiders see a dichotomy of peaceful protesters and a ruthless state working to suppress them. You will certainly win the battle but you will -just as certainly- lose the image war.

Now imagine yourself as the Russian president who has a youth organization that loyally supports you. Now if there is a democratic demonstration against you, you have your own card to play called "the Youth Democratic Anti-Fascist Movement" aka Nashi.

Not only are they youths but they are also "democratic" and "anti-fascist" and they have your back!

With this organization you can stage "democratic" counter-demonstrations against your opponents. The simple black and white picture of the state being opposed by democratic youths will be muddied by a presence of another "democratic" force that supports the state. The presence of pro-government youths will make the need of suppressing the anti-government youngsters less urgent. You can let them have their demonstrations unless they get too crazy, knowing that the anti-government crowd will not enjoy the monopoly on presenting the "youth perspective" to the Russian public.

Since this youth movement was created by the Kremlin in the aftermath of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine it makes sense to return to the way that event was interpreted by Putin. Foreign intelligence agents used the Ukrainian masses to advance their geopolitical goals of prying Ukraine away from Russia's sphere of influence. Just as those CIA agents behind the scenes didn't have the lofty aim of creating an "ideal Ukrainian youth" the Russian government need no concern itself with this task at home.
What was needed was a controlled movement that would make a Russian Orange Revolution less likely. Nashi could be viewed as an internal intelligence operation created to empower the state's ability to persevere in light of a possibility of a foreign-sponsored revolt.

Of course even a government-engineered youth movement cannot be created around this narrow goal of protecting the ruling regime, so -naturally- some sort of a movement ideology needs to be quickly slapped together to make things look legit. This slapped-together ideology then creates an illusion that the project was about shaping an "ideal youth" when in reality it had much more programmatic and limited objective. Nashi was a tactical weapon in my view.
Therefore analyzing the movement's ideology to gain insights into Putin's Russia -while having some use- is fundamentally misguided. Nashi were created primarily to act and not to believe. Some sort of a belief system is necessarily for acting but a dissemination of this sorry excuse for an ideology in these books shows its basic irrationality and hollowness.

"Fascism is bad but supporting the state is good."

"Democracy is good, but foreign sponsored democratic organizations are a sinister foe."

"Russian Orthodox Church is vital to Russian identity but the atheist Soviet state that almost destroyed this church is worthy of sentimental nostalgia."  

"Spirituality is important but material acquisition is a sign of progress made under our wise leader."

The most useful thing that could be gained from dissecting Nashi's "ideology" is the revelation of the total ideological confusion that characterizes post-Soviet Russia.

Russians see communism as a utopian pipe-dream but reminisce fondly about living in the mighty and cultured USSR. The average Russian hardly ever goes in for a church service, but the Russian Orthodox church is a widely respected moral and cultural institution- a vital link to Russian history and spirituality. Russians live in a formally democratic state but most seem not to be perturbed by and support a man who ruled this state for over 14 years, defying western democratic norms. Russians revel in making self-deprecating jokes and criticizing their government, but often become easily offended and sometimes even outraged when criticism of their country comes from abroad. Russians know that Stalin is viewed in the same vein as Hitler by outsiders, but have their own complicated view of the dictator because under him Russia became an industrial superpower and won the existential battle of the Great Patriotic War (aka WW2). In post-Soviet Russian, the last tsar and his family were made saints by the church, proclaimed as martyrs for the faith. And yet statues of Lenin adorn the squares that house the churches where people pray the royal family whose execution he ordered.

The question as to whether Nashi were a part of a quest for an "ideal" youth goes to the heart of the question about the nature of Putin's regime. It does so because only truly totalitarian regimes, like Stalinist USSR, have the resources or the will to undertake a project like that.

It is not my opinion that Putin is a head of a totalitarian regime with well-defined ideological objectives.

There are two basic types of dictatorships- authoritarian and totalitarian. Authoritarian regimes emphasise patriotism, tradition and the national leader but aside from that don't have a grand ideological design. Totalitarian regimes emphasise the national leader and patriotism but they often battle tradition (religion, old customs, etc.) seeing in those traditions an implicit threat to its rule. While the main goal of an authoritarian regimes is simply to stay in power and reach some economic or foreign policy objectives, the goal of totalitarian regimes is to completely reshape society. We can see this most clearly in the Cultural Revolution in China, when literally thousands of priceless historical monuments were destroyed by fanatical Red Guards following the direction of Chairman Mao to decimate the old so a new communist society could rise from the ashes of antiquity.

Its clear (hopefully to even the most fanatical Putin-haters) that he is no Chairman Mao. In fact, I personally wouldn't classify the current political system in Russia as either totalitarian OR authoritarian.

All dictatorships rest and gain their power through the use of force against the population. The population -depending on the segment- may or may not believe the state ideology but everyone knows that their freedom and life are in danger if they cross the state. This threat of force underlines all dictatorships regardless of whether they are totalitarian or authoritarian, whether they are on the right or left of the political spectrum.

I don't see the majority of Russians living in this state of fear. And I don't see this state of fear as a foundation of Putin's rule. Throughout his reign, Putin has always enjoyed the support of the majority of the population - this according to both Russian and foreign opinion polls.

His legitimacy in Russia rests on this popular support expressed in poll and repeated election victories. These election victories are not seen as legitimate by Russian liberals and many westerners but what matters to Putin is that they are seen as legitimate by the silent majority of Russians.

Thus the most apt description of Putin's rule that I have encountered goes by the strange name of a "managed democracy." Managed democracies and regular democracies are the same only in the sense that in both systems the governments cares about public opinion and see winning elections as the origin of their legitimacy. Both western democracies and Russia's managed democracy try to influence public opinion but in Russia's case the cards are stacked. Russian government controls national television and limits the rights to protest.  

Nevertheless -as I have already stated- in a managed democracy the government doesn't resort to the use of massive force against the population. A managed democracy is not a true democracy because it actively works to limit spontaneity and a managed democracy can easily morph into an authoritarian regime (as happened in Belarus) if it loses the support of the population. Without popular support, the government will have to shift to using massive force to retain its rule. Thus far, the Russian population continues to support Putin, in fact -after the recent events in Ukraine- he once again enjoyed public approval upward of 70%.

This to Putin's critics (inside and outside the country) proves that he is a master propagandist with most Russians presented as gullible sheep. But to me, while I do acknowledge the awesome power of managing public opinion, I don't think that Putin's approval could be explained by effective propaganda alone. I think Putin's critics have to reconcile themselves to the fact that most of his most controversial policies (fighting and imprisoning oligarchs, warring for Russian interests in Ukraine, severely limiting gay rights, putting much of the natural resource economy under state rule, etc.) are supported by most Russians not because they were brainwashed into supporting them but because they were naturally inclined to support these policies in the first place. The fact is that Russia is a conservative country that is often suspicious of the west and has a long history of being ruled from the center. Thus Putin is as much an expression of Russian democracy as he is its manager.

Therefore for me, the Nashi movement is another manifestation of a managed democracy. Instead of imprisoning or killing potential Russian revolutionaries -as dictatorships would have done- he created a parallel youth movement to counterbalance their influence and give voice to what he sees as the legitimate opinions of the patriotic and silent Russian majority that is weary of pro-western revolutions. Instead of creating a compulsory youth ideology as a totalitarian regime would do, he created a movement where participation was voluntary (and often well-compensated). Nashi was another example of an attempt to massage public opinion instead of crushing it. Once the threat of an Orange Revolution receded in Russia, Nashi were effectively disbanded. They have served their purpose and were no longed needed.

While I don't agree that Nashi were a part of Putin's "quest for an ideal youth" I do understand why this title graces the covers of these two fine books. After all, it beats the title of, "The Quest for an Ideal Tactical Movement to Dissuade People from Supporting an Orange Revolution in Putin's Russia."

 The first volume written by Ivo Mijnssen covers the history of the movement from its inception in 2005 to its dissolution in 2013. Volume II written by Jussi Lassila focuses on Nashi's communications, belifs, political rituals. The struggle between Russia's youth political apathy and Nashi's conformism. The first book is more focused on the interplay of Nashi's activities and beliefs in the context of current and past Russian realities. The second volume is a little more abstract focusing on Nashi's communications, their ideology, the meaning the movement had to participants in it.

If you are dying to know about the Nashi movement but can't afford both of these books, I would recommend the first one if you had to choose between the two.

My reason has to do with my bias where I believe that the Nashi were created to act rather than believe. They movement was born in the minds of Kremlin men to appear on television, to demonstrate, to fight the regime's ideological enemies. They were not created to write books or write manifestos because their handlers knew quite well that -aside from academics, critics of the movement and a few of its participants- no one would want to read that crap.

Let me give a brief overview of Nashi's ideology, "The motherland is great! Putin's regimes works for the benefit of the country and Russia is rising from its knees, shaking off post-Soviet weakness and humiliation. There are enemies of Russia -foreign and domestic- who want to put her back on her knees, these enemies must be identifies as such and protested so they don't weasel their way into positions of power. Now YOU, young Russian, love your country! Participate in sports! Don't drink too much! Support papa Putin and his cuddly cub Medvedev! Respect veterans and remember the Great Patriotic War! Go make some babies, our demography isn't that great!"

That's about it. Reading too much into those platitudes for the sake of finding a key to the hidden essence of modern Russia isn't that useful. Especially if you consider that this "ideology" directly effected on youth movement that existed for less than a decade and was completely marginal and peripheral to they eyes of 99% of Russian young people who hardly noticed it at all.

Unlike the Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution that killed thousands of people and destroyed countless landmarks of the ancient civilization, the Nashi movement hardly effected Russian history in any tangible way. They were a created phantom of the regime, they served their purpose of keeping stability to attacking ideological currents that could undermine it and they they were disbanded when their antics became a little too enthusiastic and embarrassing to the Kremlin. The Red Guards overturned and destroyed Chinese history; by contrast, the Nashi gave a quick hand job to Russia's public opinion and left the scene. That's about the extent of their overall importance from the world historical perceptive.      

Therefore the first volume that covers the history of the movement seems more useful to me because it is equally concerned with what Nashi did as well as what they believed. But I would recommend both books if you are really hungry for Nashi knowledge.    

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