My latest article for the eXile, “Nashi: Is it Really the End?” is now online. Here is an excerpt:
This year, there has been much speculation in the Russian print media about the demise of the Kremlin youth organization “Nashi,” which has been as much a darling of the Russian state as it has been the bane of the Russian opposition and the Western media.
But the situation is not so simple as merely shutting down Nashi. As a new president comes to power in Russia, some are speculating that Nashi’s task is done and they’re no longer needed. This is perhaps wishful thinking for a host of reasons. In order to understand where Nashi is going in the post-Putin era, it is necessary to understand where they came from, and what role they have played.
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“Do you want to realize your plan? Do you want to change the world around you? Do you want to influence your country’s future? Do you want the world to remember you? Are you searching for your place in life? If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions, don’t despair, there is an answer.”
In America, a pitch like that would signal a “Tony Robbins” alert, but in Russia, a far more sinister organization offers the answers to your prayers: the Antifascist Democratic Youth Movement “Nashi,” waiting for you with open arms.
All you have to do is, first, click onto their site and fill out your online application. A few days after you fill it out, Nashi promises to invite you to a “get-to-know-you” pow-wow. If accepted, Nashi promises to give you “a chance to change your life, influence world politics, and become a member of the intellectual elite.”
Given the demanding, competitive environment in Putin’s Russia, it’s easy to see how Nashi’s offer would look attractive. Its flashy website, spectacular rallies, and lock-step marches produce images of power and success. Through spectacle, it projects an image of unity and devotion to a cause. Nashi considers itself the vanguard for protecting the moral, political, and cultural fiber of Russia. For most people around the world, an organization like this evokes the worse aspects of totalitarianism—where youth are mobilized to blindly fulfill the whims of a repressive regime.
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By Sean — 11 years ago
So everyone is declaring Nashi’s death. According to Kommersant and other Russian media, Nashi plans on shutting down 45 of its 50 branches. All that will remain are chapters in Tula, Ivanovo, Vladimir, Voronezh, and Yaroslavl. The consensus reasoning is that Nashi has outlived its purpose. Russia is no longer threatened by “colored revolution,” which Nashi was created to battle, and some feel the pro-Kremlin group has gotten of control. Perhaps even downright embarrassing to its Kremlin sponsors. Nashi’s persistent protests against Estonia over the Bronze Soldier have gone beyond containment. The last straw appears to have been when the EU began denying Schengen visas to Nashisty. In an act of defiance, organization protests in front of the European Commission in Moscow and some of its member decided to illegally enter the EU anyway. Both acts resulted in arrests.
Moreover, present political conditions make Nashi a further liability. As one unnamed Kremlin source told Kommersant, “The Nashi movement’s services certainly won’t be required in this election. In the new political configuration, with the current results being what they are, there’s no need for a cheering throng.” And its an expensive “cheering throng” at that. Nevertheless, if Nashi is indeed eventually folding, it still has enough money for another Lake Seliger camp. In late 2007, it received a $10 million grant from the government to fund its fourth annual powwow.
According to Gazeta, one theory on Nashi’s ultimate fate suggests that it will be dissolved and then reconstituted into smaller branches that focus on military recruitment. This is based on documents obtained by Kommersant that recommend modernizing the Russian Defense Sports-Technical Organization (ROSTO) by establishing networks between the armed forces and a youth group called DOSAAF-Defense.
Whatever Nashi’s future, it appears to be one where it is demobilized. Just read what Vasili Yakemenko told Kommersant, “People have grown accustomed to large public events. But most youth movements, including Nashi, should now pay more attention to effective projects – for example, they could work with problem teenagers or gifted young people, and promote patriotic education.” Nashi reiterated as much on its website. It called Kommersant‘s article nothing but “rumors and lies” and “sensationalism,” noting that Nashi’s activities are more than just mass protests. Their day to day activities focus on giving its members a higher education and sending the cream of its crop to study. It also has three of its members in the Duma. Moreover, while Nashi may be consolidating organizationally, it plans on recruiting 50,000 more members. In a press conference today, Nikita Borovikov, Nashi’s new federal commissar, told reporters that the group’s immediate future will concentrate on its “10=5” campaign, which seeks to make Russia the 5th largest economy in the world in 10 years.
I think that people are sounding Nashi’s death knell to quickly. Declaring Nashi’s death is based on a complete misunderstanding of state sponsored youth organizations. Yakemenko’s right. People are too accustomed to Nashi’s flash and mass. No youth organization or movement can maintain that level of activism for long. It takes too much energy and too many resources with little long term return. Plus as we’ve seen, having Nashi run the streets is an open invitation for “excesses,” as they used to say in Soviet times. Such is the dialectic of youth mobilization. You can turn the switch on, but at some point the reins of control begin to slip from your grasp. Plus, a lot of youths have joined Nashi because of the opportunities it provides. Folding up the operation now and reneging on those promises will only piss off a lot of youth.
A better understanding of what might be going on with Nashi might be culled from the history of the Komsomol. In its early days, the Komsomol was also expanded and contracted as politics demanded. During the Civil War, the organization ballooned from 22,100 members in October 1919 to 400,000 in October 1920. That is some rapid growth. Then in February and March 1921, as Bolshevik victory in the Civil War was all but assured, the Komsomol’s ranks were purged in an all-Russian “reregistration.” In June 1921, Komsomol membership fell to 250,000. Weak cells and those that simply existed on paper were folded up. A lot of fat was trimmed. Moreover, the Komsomol changed ideological course. No longer did it mobilize its members. Instead following Lenin’s speech at the 3rd Komsomol Congress in 1920, it urged its members to “learn, learn, learn.” Civil War militancy was out and the members that held on to it were denounced as immature, and even psychologically unstable idiots.
When the Party pushed forward with industrialization, collectivization, and cultural revolution in 1928, the Komsomol was mobilized again. Its membership went from 1,960,000 in May 1928 to 2,897,000 in June 1930. Komsomol youth were mobilized to storm the “economic front” and the “cultural front.” They formed brigades of “cultural soldiers” to battle against “illiteracy, dirt, and drunkenness” throughout the country. Komsomol youth were the spearhead in collectivization and flooded the ranks of the 25,000ers. “Excesses” of course ensued, and the Komsomol leadership looked reign its rank and file in. When the smoke cleared from Stalin’s tripartite revolution in 1933, the Komsomol was purged again. Between 1933 and 1935, it is estimated that the League kicked out 500,000 members. This was part of the resolution “On the reconstruction of the VLKSM” passed at the 17th Party Congress in 1934. This move tried to reinstitute “iron discipline,” which really meant a return to centralization and an end to mobilization, back into its fervent ranks.
There is no reason to think that Nashi isn’t doing something similar. The Duma elections were the culmination of a long period of activism. Now that the political situation looks different, its time to fold up the tents, put away the flags and signs, and ditch the gimmicks. Plus I would guess that many of the organizations Nashi is folding up merely exist on paper or don’t have enough members to sustain them anyway. Some of Nashi’s flash will surely remain. It has to have something to give its rank and file injections of enthusiasm. Overall, in political and institutional terms, Nashi’s reorganization and consolidation makes political sense.
By Sean — 9 years ago
HIV-AIDS is something that hits close to my heart. My brother died of the disease in 1993. One of my earliest blog posts way back in 2005 addressed the issue in Russia. Sadly, the situation here has little improved though the UN reports that the number of global HIV infections has dropped 17% in the last eight years. 33.4 million people are living with the disease worldwide, and Russia is one of the places were news cases are growing rapidly.
RIA-Novosti reports some startling statistics about HIV in Russia to mark today, World AIDS Day. Russia reported 59,000 new cases of HIV in 2008. The number for 2009 is expected to reach 60,000, reports Marina Semenchenko of UNAIDS Russia. Gennady Onishchenko of the Russian Health Ministry said last week that 12,759 died from AIDS in 2008, up 14% from 2007 death toll of 11,159. He estimates that around 300,000 Russian citizens are currently living with the disease. The horror, of course doesn’t stop there. A recent World Health Organization report says that over 1% of Russian residents are HIV-positive.
The fastest growing population are among “at-risk” youth, particularly street kids. “In a study involving street youth (aged 15-19) in St. Petersburg, 37.4% of the people surveyed were HIV-infected, with a positive HIV status strongly and independently associated with injecting drugs and sharing needles,” said the UN report. About 37% of Russia’s 1.8 million intravenous drug users are HIV-positive. Russia is not alone in the alarming rise of HIV cases. Several countries in the post-communist world are posting alarming figures.
According to the report, three countries in the region – Estonia, the Russian Federation and Ukraine have HIV prevalence that exceeds 1%, with Ukraine showing the most alarming infection rate of 1.6%.
The estimated number of people living with HIV in Eastern Europe and Central Asia rose to some 1.5 million, up 66% from 2001.
In regard to the photos in the video above, Alex Majoli was quoted on The Fader:
Are the big challenges privileges for strong human beings? I would like to believe, but it’s not true. Both heroes and criminals have that imperturbability I saw in Igor, Alexey, and Oksana. It is not about courage or will, but simply about the tenacious attachment to ourselves: It’s hard to die, until the end. Many times I tried to imagine what it means to die, until the end. Many times I tried to imagine what it means to die alone, as Alexey did. I tried during my visits at the hospital, where his life was ending. I tried after all the phone calls I had with my girlfriend and my daughter. I still have no idea how that must feel.
This is not the first time I’ve faced AIDS in my life, either professionally or personally. I’ve worked on the subject various times before, and I’ve shared many thoughts with close friends affected by the virus. “So why not Russia?” I asked myself when I saw the list of possible countries to work in. I thought of all that Russian literature, from Mikhail Bulgakov to Andrei Makine, the plague, the loneliness among the characters of those novels. The collapse of the Soviet Union has profoundly affected everyone’s pride. And this extends to AIDS. They act like they know everything, when in fact they don’t. What happens in this situation? The whole story is mainly about stigma, about pride, about the lack of information.
The stories of the people I met are so sad. Igor was really young when he went to prison and his wife was killed. Oksana had emotionally shut down. Alexey was in very bad condition—he had a hole in his hip; you could see the bones—but with the ARV treatment he was already improving. AIDS wasn’t Alexey’s real problem, however. It was like fighting against a dead man already, because of all his other issues.
By the time of my second trip, most of my subjects had died. I felt sad and angry. As Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa once wrote, “The four walls of my squalid room are at once a cell and a wilderness, a bed and a coffin. My happiest moments are those when I think nothing, want nothing and dream nothing… I savor without bitterness this absurd awareness of being nothing, this foretaste of death and extinction.” Maybe this is what Alexey felt when he died.
In 2005, I wrote, “The problem [of HIV-AIDS in Russia] is real. All too real. It is also being consistently ignored by the Russian government and society. All one can do is scream. Scream so loud into the darkness of ignorance and denial in hopes that a ray of sense pierces through.” Unfortunately, these words still apply today. Only now we can also list a few post-Soviet governments as targets for our screams.
By Sean — 12 years ago
According to my unscientific survey, the Russian diaspora in Israel is an under reported topic in blogs on Russia. I present excerpts from two articles from Haaretz in hopes of beginning a discussion. The first tells of Russian anti-Semitism toward Orthodox Jews in the form of neo-Nazis, while the second reports on the Israeli oppression of Russians because of their adherence to the Orthodox faith. Both point to the contradictions the post-Soviet aliyah to Israel that began in the 1990s. Excerpts are below.
“Fear and loathing in Petah Tikva / Neo-Nazi gangs assaulting ultra-Orthodox Jews”
By Moti Katz
Haaretz, May 11, 2006.
A week after the desecration of the Great Synagogue in Petah Tikva, nothing remains of the horror the worshipers encountered there last Thursday when they arrived for morning prayers. The walls, which had been sprayed with swastikas and blasphemy, have been newly painted, the floor polished and the curtain covering the holy ark replaced.
However, the danger is far from over. For the past two years the ultra-Orthodox community there, which includes some 5,000 families and 300 synagogues, has been subjected to incessant attacks by street gangs from the former Soviet Union (FSU). The gangs have been beating ultra-Orthodox men, hurling curses at them and desecrating synagogues.
“These youths feel out of place in the Russian community they belong to, but they are not accepted in Israeli society either,” says Bella Alexandrov, the director of the multi-disciplinary youth center in Petah Tikva. She distinguishes between two kinds of immigrants – punks and skinheads.
“The skinheads buy Russian videos about ‘white power’ that call for cleansing Russia of Jews. They don’t get it from home. It comes from not belonging and not finding answers to their distress.”
On Sukkot eve last year, a number of teens bearing knives burst into the big Lithuanian yeshiva Or Israel on Rothschild Street in the city center. They started beating pupils, and throwing prayer books and scriptures on the floor.
Yeshiva head Rabbi Yigal Rozen has no doubt that these incidents are anti-Semitic.
“Persecution only strengthens us”
By Lili Galili
Haaretz, June 6, 2006.
Vladimir Gridin, a professor of solid-state physics, is certain that the fact our meeting took place last Sunday, on Pentecost, the day believed to mark the birth of the Russian-Orthodox Church, was no coincidence. Nor did he believe that it was coincidence that the church where we met, at the end of Hagai Street in Migdal Haemek, was vandalized right before the sacred holiday. “Divine providence,” he says. Even if one can ascribe a degree of divine providence to the timing of our meeting, it’s doubtful the youths who desecrated the church and the adjacent priests’ graves a few days before the holiday were so attuned to the nuances of Russian Orthodoxy that they specifically picked that day to commit their act of vandalism.
“A pogrom in the church,” was the cry that echoed from the small community whose spiritual life is centered on the Church of St. Nikolai. What took place wasn’t quite a pogrom, but it was the latest in a series of attempts to damage a holy place. On Friday morning, when they arrived for services, the congregants found the church windows broken, the icons overturned, a cross uprooted from a priest’s grave and the edge of the grave ruined. A lot of effort went into shattering the windows, which were protected by a dense metal screen. A particularly malicious hand had to work hard to get in between the spaces to break the squares of thick glass one after the other. And yet, the police, whose local headquarters are very close to the church, insist the vandalism was just a prank by a bunch of 8- and 9-year-olds. “We’ve gone back to the early days of Christianity,” said Gridin sadly. “Christians are being persecuted again.”
A somewhat unusual group gathered this week at the door to the church. Unusual, both because of the way they’d broken with convention in the choices they’d made in their lives, and because they were all situated on the delicate seam between the Law of Return and the rules of halakha (Jewish law). This is the congregation of Father Romanus, a 46-year-old Arab Orthodox priest from Haifa, who is just as fluent in Russian as he is in Arabic and Hebrew. He learned the language while studying at a Russian theological seminary in the U.S., and founded his community here.