One key concern arising from the recent spat with Russia is this awakening superpower is drifting into the foothills of fascism domestically. The simple defence Russians have offered in recent weeks is that Russians are by nature fiercely patriotic. I knew a Russian who, when the train stopped on the Russian border, picked up handfuls of Russian soil and started to sob.
The loss of their empire – the USSR – is keenly felt. Vladimir Putin, for example, described the end of the USSR as the greatest tragedy of the 20th century. It would have been more appropriate if he had given this title to the Ukrainian terror-famine of 1929-33 where the Russian occupier diverted all food from the collectivized peasants to the rest of the USSR. This terror-famine resulted in more deaths than all countries in the First World War. Russians refuse to apologise for the famine and still talk of Ukrainians in the same derogatory terms that some English used to use about the Welsh and Irish.
Putin is keen to maintain influence in the former Soviet satellite states and this is increasingly causing conflict. The key turning point was the Orange revolution in 2004 which discarded the Kremlin’s favoured candidate in Ukraine to bring in a pro-Western President with dreams of EU and NATO membership. The idea of losing “Little Russia”, the dearest of the CIS satellite states, to NATO shocked many Russians including Putin and ushered in more authoritarian tactics. The most worrying of these tactics was the politicised use of energy supplies. Ukraine had its gas cut-off shortly after its drift westward in 2004, and more recently Estonia has had oil supplies to its port disrupted by Russia during the statue crisis.
Putin is concerned that the loss of influence in the satellite states will threaten Russia’s power along its borders by its old adversary NATO. He blamed the Orange Revolution in part on the unchecked rise of a democratic youth movement in Ukraine called PORA, who opposed the authoritarian government.
To prevent a similar group being established in Russia, Putin created his own youth movement “Nashi”. The official line was that this group were supposed to counter the rise of fascism, in the National Boshevik party. However, it soon became apparent that Nashi’s true function was as a personality cult for Putin whose job was intimidate, bully and harass his opponents.
In the recent Estonia crisis, thugs from Nashi terrorized the Estonian Embassy forcing the ambassador into hiding. In the protests one person was killed and 99 injured. Similarly, the UK ambassador in Moscow was intimidated by Nashi thugs merely for attending an opposition conference. The 120,000 Nashi members must show total devotion to the president. Their young leaders meet Putin himself in training camps and have an audience with his potential successor, First Deputy Prime Minister Sergie Ivanov. Nashi actions are well-organised, they wear distinct red uniforms, have their own buses, power supply and well-financed phone-in campaigns. The comparison with Hitler Youth is beginning to be made more and more often.
The most sinister aspect of Nashi is the revival of Soviet-style propaganda. In the official manifesto, Nashi recruits are subjected to Soviet-style prejudices of xenophobia and anti-Americanism that existed in the Cold War. The domain name for the Nashi website is www.nashi.su, opting for the “.su” of the non-existant Soviet Union, rather than “.ru” for Russia. The manifesto calls on Nashi members to stamp out any colour revolution as this would represent “a loss of sovereignty to external influences”. A flashing banner on the Estonia crisis declares: “It’s our history, it’s our war, it’s our soldier!” A poster at a recent rally criticised the number of adoptions of Russian children to the US. The members of Nashi, aged 17-25, who could essentially hold progressive views, are being indoctrinated with anti-European and anti-American sentiment.
The opposition groups in Russia are denied the right to hold protest and not allowed access to any of the state-controlled media. Nashi, however, are allowed to hold marches, which are covered favourably on state television. Financing for Nashi comes from Gazprom, the Kremlin-controlled gas giant. Similar to Hitler Youth, the group undergoes paramilitary training and have been implicated in the attacks on opposition groups like the banned National Bolshevik Party, led by Limonov and the Estonian ambassador. Their actions mirror more widespread of violent intimidation towards opposition groups, human rights activists and the free press.
Since Putin came to power, 15 journalists have been murdered by contract killers. Marina Litvinovich, the chief political adviser to opposition leader Garry Kasparov, was beaten up so badly she lost two front teeth. Lidia Yuspova, a human rights campaigner based in Chechnya, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, only to receive and anonymous call warning her she would not live to receive it. Groups of black-shirted skinheads have been responsible for assaults and murders directed at immigrants from the Caucasus.
Putin’s popularity ratings run at 80 per cent, showing that his grip on the state-media has effectively kept Russians in an information vacuum. He has exploited the fierce national pride of his people and reinforced prejudices by accusing the US of hegemony and speaking of the NATO presence along the borders.
Social instability and health problems run rampant throughout the country. A 20-year-old Russian has less than a 50 per cent chance of reaching the age 65 (compared to 80 per cent for an American). Russia has three million drug users, with as many as two million may be HIV-infected. Its prisons are rife with tuberculosis and hold 1.3m people many of them young homeless boys. By effectively integrating an immigrant population Russia could help to swell its workforce but current immigration stands at zero. Russia is more than just the Nashi movement, state-controlled media and murdered journalists, but Putin’s legacy will be determined by how legitimately he can justify his people’s patriotism by improving the quality of living.