Youth Politics in Putin's Russia: Producing Patriots and Entrepreneurs

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Julie Hemment provides a fresh perspective on the controversial nationalist youth projects that have proliferated in Russia in the Putin era, examining them from the point of view of their participants and offering provocative insights into their origins and significance. The pro-Kremlin organization Nashi ("Ours") and other state-run initiatives to mobilize Russian youth have been widely reviled in the West, seen as Soviet throwbacks and evidence of Russia's authoritarian turn. By contrast, Hemment's detailed ethnographic analysis finds an astute global awareness and a paradoxical kinship with the international democracy-promoting interventions of the 1990s. Drawing on Soviet political forms but responding to 21st-century disenchantments with the neoliberal state, these projects seek to produce not only patriots, but also volunteers, entrepreneurs, and activists.

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1 Collaborative Possibilities, New Cold War Constraints: Ethnography in the Putin Era

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DECEMBER 2006, TVER’

Flushed with success, I scuttled toward the familiar apartment. The city streets were crowded, full of shoppers on their way home at the end of the day. Young people clustered around the kiosks and benches, drinking beer and crowding the paths. As I pressed the button and waited to be buzzed in, I hoped I would not have to encounter more crowds on the other side of the door. Valentina lived in the center of town, in one of the old pre-revolutionary-era apartments that abutted the city’s main pedestrian thoroughfare. Like many city-center dwellers, her stairwell was often crowded with young people, mostly of college age, though sometimes much younger, who hung out in the entrance of her apartment block all day, drinking beer, smoking, leaving litter, and intimidating residents and their guests. She was frustrated daily by the situation. She understood it to be symptomatic of the times: the kids had nowhere to go. Clubs and associations were being shut down and they could not afford to frequent the expensive new bars and cafés that now proliferated in the city. During the winter months, when they clustered in large numbers, she had devised her own ingenious solution to this problem: she went out on her balcony to read drafts of her gender studies lectures to them! It had worked, she told me. The comical intervention took them by surprise and jogged them into a kind of respectful recognition, interrupting the potentially adversarial relation (aggravated homeowner confronts troublemaking youth). Some of the kids had been really interested in what she had presented, she told me – and they promised to keep the noise down.

 

2 Nashi in Ideology and Practice: The Social Life of Sovereign Democracy

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ONE FRIGID DECEMBER MORNING IN 2006, I STRUGGLED OUT OF bed at 5 AM to join several hundred local youth at the Tver’ railway station. I was joining a campaign organized by the pro-Kremlin youth movement Nashi (Ours). We were traveling to Moscow to meet with World War II veterans, bearing gifts and best wishes for the new year. Our train was one of many traveling from the provinces to Moscow that morning. Kirill, my Nashi activist contact (a “komissar” in the movement who had participated in our research project), explained that the campaign, entitled “A Holiday Returned,” was timed to coincide with the sixty-fifth anniversary of the Battle of Moscow – to give back to surviving veterans the New Year’s holiday celebration that had been cruelly snatched from them by the Nazis during the winter of 1941. Kirill had explained that the campaign would bring one hundred thousand young people to the capital in specially commissioned trains. Each group of one hundred was to meet with a group of veterans and present them with a New Year’s gift.

 

3 Seliger 2009: “Commodify Your Talent”

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AS I PREPARED TO RETURN TO TVERDURING THE SPRING OF 2009, I realized something was afoot. In the aftermath of the 2008 presidential election, state-run youth projects were in flux. While liberal newspapers jubilantly reported Nashi’s demise (it had ostensibly been disbanded), the media announced the launch of some new high-profile federal youth events. Indeed, 2009 had been declared Russia’s Year of Youth (God molodezhi, or Godmol, as it was abbreviated). Its flagship event, scheduled to take place at a lakeside resort in Tver’ region (about 190 kilometers outside the city of Tver’) was the summer educational camp, Seliger 2009.

Official accounts and promotional materials emphasized this event’s distinctiveness from the projects that had preceded it, energetically denying its association with Nashi. This, newspapers claimed, was no longer a narrow Nashi forum (as past Seliger camps had been); Seliger 2009 was organized by the newly founded Federal Youth Affairs Agency in partnership with the Ministry of Sports, Tourism, and Youth Policy. It was a competitive forum that invited all “talented” youth to apply from across the federation.

 

4 From Komsomol’tsy-Dobrovol’tsy to Entrepreneurial Volunteers: Technologies of Kindness

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THIS CHAPTER CONSIDERS A THEME THAT ANIMATED MANY state-run youth projects and which featured prominently at Seliger 2009: the promotion of youth voluntarism. Voluntarism was one of eight thematic sessions launched at Seliger 2009. Understanding our interest in the topic, Vitaly brought promotional materials about this session, which included brochures and a video, to our miniconference when he visited in May 2009. After congratulating us on our work (“There are a lot of voluntary projects taking shape now, but there is very little theoretical understanding”), Vitaly urged the students in the room to participate. “I hope that some of you will attend this important session,” he said, explaining that voluntarism [volonterstvo] was one of the priority directions of the Russia 2020 project, the youth program laid out by the Federal Youth Affairs Agency (Rosmolodezh). Unlike the play of patriotism and entrepreneurship observed in state-run youth projects so far, this one introduced a new and seemingly transcendent theme to the table: human kindness. However, it was rather jarringly linked to technology. Indeed, here the Russian state screamed its governing intent: the session was called “Technologies of Kindness” [Tekhnologiia dobra].

 

5 “Arousing” Patriotism: Satire, Sincerity, and Geopolitical Play

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ON THE ROAD TO THE SELIGER YOUTH CAMP THAT DAY IN August 2009, my Russian colleagues were in high spirits. As we pulled out of the city, the jokes began. “I wonder what food they serve at Seliger,” Maria pondered, suggesting that it would have to be patriotic; perhaps they would serve food in the colors of the flag, she hypothesized, “something red, something blue, with a dollop of [white] Smetana [sour cream]!” As we sped through the Tver’ countryside in Maria’s husband Alexei’s comfortable Ford Focus, we listened to various songs, debating which should be our “anthem” for the day. Somewhere between Torzhok and Ostashkov, Maria slipped a CD into the player to entertain us – the soundtrack to the satirical film Election Day by the popular band Neschastnyi Sluchai. One song in particular had my friends in stitches; as I struggled to follow the lyrics, Valentina explained to me that it was about village girls who were unable to achieve orgasm until Putin arrived in their village.1 A version of the film, based on a play and familiar to them all, had been shown on television prior to the 2008 elections.2

 

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