Escape From Putin’s Cult
As opposition leader Ilya Yashin tells Pedersen, Putin’s regime grew increasingly restless and paranoid after the 2005 “Orange Revolution” threw the post-Soviet autocrats out of power in neighboring Ukraine. (Arguably, the Orange Revolution has itself been largely undone by current Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, but that’s another story.) Nashi was initially led by shadowy Putin lieutenant Vasily Yakemenko, perhaps operating at the behest of Vladislav Surkov, a guy who seems like a boring, puffy-faced Kremlin apparatchik but is widely described as the “gray cardinal” or ideological puppet-master behind Putin’s regime. (At the risk of derailing this whole review, the more you read about Surkov the weirder he gets. He may have written or co-written a satirical novel making fun of the system he helped create, and reportedly has portraits of Che Guevara and Tupac Shakur, alongside Putin, in his Kremlin office.)
As we see from Pedersen’s often chilling footage inside Nashi rallies and summer camps, Surkov and Yakemenko created a two-faced organization on a familiar and unfortunate 20th-century model, one part calisthenics and canoeing classes and ritualized teen romance, one part ultra-nationalist ideology. Older Russians of course liken it to the Soviet-era Komsomol, by all accounts one of the communist state’s more successful endeavors. Other people have simply started calling it the “Putinjugend” (a reference to the German name of the Hitler Youth). At any rate, saying that the group is pro-democratic and anti-fascist doesn’t make it so; Nashi has frequently been used to humiliate and harass opposition politicians, journalists and human-rights activists, and is at least circumstantially connected to racist violence against Chechens, Georgians, Armenians, Azeris and other minority groups.
Nobody knows for sure — or nobody who’s talking — whether it was Nashi activists who beat Oleg Kashin into a coma in the fall of 2010, breaking both his legs and both his jaws, after he wrote a series of investigative pieces critical of Putin’s business dealings. And nobody knows exactly who the two guys were who took a crap on top of Ilya Yashin’s car, right on a Moscow street. (We see both incidents, via grainy surveillance footage. Russia is just that kind of place.) The ingenuity of the political system engineered by Surkov lies precisely in the fact that orders to quash the opposition often don’t have to come from the top,