“No to Fascism in Estonia!” reads a slogan at a Nashi picket in Ural city of Novosibirsk. “No to Genocide against the Russian Population in Estonia!,” another boldly proclaims. Hyperbole was hardly lacking at this small rally of the self-proclaimed “Young Democratic Anti-Fascist Movement Nashi” as several of its Novosibirsk activists gathered around a statute of Lenin in the city’s central square. The activists hoped to whip up the fervor of local youths over Estonia’s removal of the “Bronze Statue” from the center of Tallinn on April 27. Novosibirsk was not the only local Nashi organization to mobilize against the Soviet WWII memorial’s relocation. Over the past two weeks, rallies and communiqu?s of opposition have hailed from Nashi chapters in Tula, Ivanovo, Vladimir, Kaluga, Penza, Volgograd, Krasnodar, Tver, Kostroma, Lipetsk, Voronezh, not to mention its main chapters in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The events in Estonia, which Nashi calls the “Fascist Government of Estonia” in its propaganda, has made the issue the center piece of its activism, if not its present reason for being.
When looking at the Nashi website (which until recently appeared to be inaccessible to non-Russian IP addresses) one can’t help be reminded of the pages of the Young Communist League’s Komsomolskaya pravda. Editions from the 1920s and 1930s contained a daily section called “Around the League” that also featured the goings on of local cells. Often, like during the All-Union Cultural Campaign (kul’tpokhod) in 1928-29, they carried short reports about how local activists were rising to the challenge and zealously fulfilling the center’s directives. While there was some truth to these blurbs, the chorus always sang a bit too well in key.
Make no mistake. Nashi is the new Komsomol. But it is not the Komsomol of the 1970s and 1980s when the organization was merely a quasi-compulsory bureaucratic funnel into the Communist Party and other Soviet institutions. Currently, Nashi hardly has the numbers, let alone the political networks, to facilitate institutionalized upward mobility. Instead, Nashi better represents the Komsomol of the 1920s and 1930s—hardly a mass organization (At 2 million in 1928 the Komsomol only captured a fraction of Russian youth. Nashi even less so with an estimated membership of 300,000) but far more activist and militant. So militant that the League served as the spearhead for the Communist Party’s populist mobilizations in the Stalin Revolution. When the Bolsheviks called for “storming fortresses” it was a Komsomolets that often held the charging banner. Similarly, Nashi appears to be the spearhead of the Putin Administration efforts to stir nationalist populism among the masses.
Though it is one among many youth organizations in Russia, Nashi has become the most visible, not to mention the most funded and politically supported, youth movement in the country since its founding in March 2005. Separate from any political party in particular, (United Russia’s youth group is called Molodaia gvardiia. A name that also invokes Komsomolesque lineage), the attendance of several of Russia prominent politicians, including Putin, Kremlin chief ideologist Vladislav Surkov, and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, among others at its summer retreat in Tver and conferences makes formal connections superfluous. In a news conference last year, Surkov told reporters that “We have to try not to lead this too much. But of course we contact and support those who support us.” In fact, one might say that Nashi is none other than the Kremlin’s young guard. And while Nashi does not have the attention or influence among the majority of Russian youth, of all Russia youth groups they are the most recognizable. There is no doubt that their campaign against “Estonian fascism” will only boost their appeal among mainstream patriotic youth.
The past two weeks have seen a ratcheting up of Nashi activity focused around the Bronze Statute incident. The most widely reported incident involves the week long “siege” of the Estonian Embassy by Nashi activists in Moscow. The usual Nashi spectacles were all present: slogans, posters, activists in costume and the harassing of politicians. This time the victim was Estonian Ambassador Marina Kaljurand. Last Wednesday, Nashi activists attempted to prevent her from attending a press conference at the Argumenty i Fakty offices. A melee resulted with her bodyguards using mace to repel the would-be attackers. Eleven Nashi activists were reportedly detained by Moscow police. The “blockade” ended late last week when Nashi leader Vasilii Yakemenko announced that “We escorted the Ambassador all the way to the airport, watching out to prevent any possible provocations which could have been later blamed on us. Marina Kaljurand took the plane to Stockholm and left. She got really scared, and she feels ashamed. And we will pack a suitcase and send her things to her, — Estonian sprats and cheese.” This was of course a few days after Yakemenko told RIA Novosti that Nashi’s “blockade” was actually protecting the Estonian embassy. “Had we not been standing outside the embassy drunk or aggressive members of the public would have smashed the building to pieces. By being here we are preventing things that could have been used to say that Russians are uncivilized,” Yakemenko said.
Activities were not just centered on Moscow. At a panel discussion about Russia-Estonian relations in St. Petersburg, Nashi activists heckled Lauri Bambus, the Estonian consul general, with questions about Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip’s remarks that the Soviet soldiers buried near the Bronze Statue were “drunk and run over by their own tank,” or “shot down for looting,” or were “deceased patients from a nearby hospital.” As Bambus left the panel, Nashi activists chanted anti-Estonian slogans and held placards that read, “Wanted: a consul of a fascist state.” In addition, Nashi activists have also blocked highways at the Estonia border and called for economic boycotts of Estonian goods. There are even allegations that their hackers attacked Estonian government computer networks.
Several news organizations have decried Nashi’s tactics. The Moscow Times called the attempted assault on Kaljurand a “radical departure from the group’s origins” of defending Russia’s sovereignty. Their tactics were now wholly offensive. Moscow Human Rights activist Alexandr Bord told Moskovskii Komsomolets that “Nashi is much more dangerous that skinheads and nationalists.” Writing in Novaya gazeta, Andrei Ryabov argued that there was no doubt that Nashi’s activities are intimately tied to the Kremlin’s policies. So much so that “if Nashi and the rest receive different orders tomorrow, or if their funding is cut, the wave of turbulent protests by “Russian society” would quickly evaporate.”
Therefore the question is who is control of Nashi. There is some speculation that the Kremlin is trying to bring Nashi to heel after the embassy fiasco. In an interview with Moskovskii Komsomolets, Vasili Yakemenko admitted that Nashi “made certain mistakes” adding “and we have apologized for them.” When pressed as to what those mistakes were, he said,
I don’t think we should have obstructed Marina Kaliurand’s car, not even for 15 minutes. That happened on the first day of the picket, when the crowd outside the embassy included a few dozen people who had nothing to do with the Nashi movement. I intervened in that situation, and the car was allowed to proceed on its way. Second point: what happened to the Swedish ambassador’s car. That was unacceptable, and we have sent our apologies to the ambassador. Third: we shouldn’t have torn down the flag from the Estonian Embassy. I released an official statement from the Nashi movement, expressing deep regret about this and saying that we don’t approve or support the behavior of the activist who tore down the flag. He will certainly be punished. He might even be expelled from the movement. In other words, in each of the abovementioned situations, I considered such actions unacceptable.
Nikolai Chaplin, the Komsomol General Secretary for most of the 1920s, couldn’t have said it better. When the Komsomol unleashed its rank and file on Soviet society, activists more often than not went beyond the prescriptions of their leaders. Local activists translated “cultural campaigns” into beating up and terrorizing citizens, ransacking churches and mosques, and expropriating property. While Nashi’s leash is nowhere near as long and wrath nowhere near as violent, one wonders if the Kremlin’s two pincer strategy (that is authoritarian from above and populist from below) will one day get the better of them. Controlling power from above is easy. Letting loose young rank and file activists from below always produces excess. As the Nashi’s recent excesses show, sometimes the tail can threaten to wag the dog, if not urge the dog to chase its tail.