Sadly, Fascism was always popular and Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin has rediscovered that. Excerpts below:
Remember the mammoths, say the clean-cut organisers at the youth camp's mass wedding. "They became extinct because they did not have enough sex. That must not happen to Russia". Obediently, couples move to a special section of dormitory tents arranged in a heart-shape and called the Love Oasis, where they can start procreating for the motherland. With its relentlessly upbeat tone, bizarre ideas and tight control, it sounds like a weird indoctrination session for a phony religious cult. But this organisation - known as "Nashi", meaning "Ours" - is youth movement run by Vladimir Putin's Kremlin that has become a central part of Russian political life.
Nashi's annual camp, 200 miles outside Moscow, is attended by 10,000 uniformed youngsters and involves two weeks of lectures and physical fitness. Attendance is monitored via compulsory electronic badges and anyone who misses three events is expelled. So are drinkers; alcohol is banned. But sex is encouraged, and condoms are nowhere on sale. Bizarrely, young women are encouraged to hand in thongs and other skimpy underwear - supposedly a cause of sterility - and given more wholesome and substantial undergarments.
Twenty-five couples marry at the start of the camp's first week and ten more at the start of the second. These mass weddings, the ultimate expression of devotion to the motherland, are legal and conducted by a civil official. Attempting to raise Russia's dismally low birthrate even by eccentric-seeming means might be understandable. Certainly, the country's demographic outlook is dire. The hard-drinking, hard-smoking and disease-ridden population is set to plunge by a million a year in the next decade.
But the real aim of the youth camp - and the 100,000-strong movement behind it - is not to improve Russia's demographic profile, but to attack democracy. Under Mr Putin, Russia is sliding into fascism, with state control of the economy, media, politics and society becoming increasingly heavy-handed. And Nashi, along with other similar youth movements, such as 'Young Guard', and 'Young Russia', is in the forefront of the charge.
At the start, it was all too easy to mock. I attended an early event run by its predecessor, 'Walking together', in the heart of Moscow in 2000. A motley collection of youngsters were collecting 'unpatriotic' works of fiction for destruction. It was sinister in theory, recalling the Nazis' book-burning in the 1930s, but it was laughable in practice. There was no sign of ordinary members of the public handing in books (the copies piled on the pavement had been brought by the organisers).
Once the television cameras had left, the event organisers admitted that they were not really volunteers, but being paid by "sponsors". The idea that Russia's anarchic, apathetic youth would ever be attracted into a disciplined mass movement in support of their president - what critics called a "Putinjugend", recalling the "Hitlerjugend" (German for "Hitler Youth") - seemed fanciful.
How wrong we were. Life for young people in Russia without connections is a mixture of inadequate and corrupt education, and a choice of boring dead-end jobs. Like the Hitler Youth and the Soviet Union's Young Pioneers, Nashi and its allied movements offer not just excitement, friendship and a sense of purpose - but a leg up in life, too. Nashi's senior officials - known, in an eerie echo of the Soviet era, as "Commissars" - get free places at top universities. Thereafter, they can expect good jobs in politics or business - which in Russia nowadays, under the Kremlin's crony capitalism, are increasingly the same thing.
Nashi and similar outfits are the Kremlin's first line of defence against its greatest fear: real democracy. Like the sheep chanting "Four legs good, two legs bad" in George Orwell's Animal Farm, they can intimidate through noise and numbers. Nashi supporters drown out protests by Russia's feeble and divided democratic opposition and use violence to drive them off the streets....
Nashi fits perfectly into the Kremlin's newly-minted ideology of "Sovereign democracy". This is not the mind-numbing jargon of Marxism-Leninism, but a lightweight collection of cliches and slogans promoting Russia's supposed unique political and spiritual culture. It is strongly reminiscent of the Tsarist era slogan: "Autocracy, Orthodoxy and Nationality". The similarities to both the Soviet and Tsarist eras are striking. Communist ideologues once spent much of their time explaining why their party deserved its monopoly of power, even though the promised utopia seemed indefinitely delayed. Today, the Kremlin's ideology chief Vladislav Surkov is trying to explain why questioning the crooks and spooks who run Russia is not just mistaken, but treacherous.
Yet, by comparison with other outfits, Nashi looks relatively civilised. Its racism and prejudice is implied, but not trumpeted. Other pro-Kremlin youth groups are hounding gays and foreigners off the streets of Moscow. Mestnye [The Locals] recently distributed leaflets urging Muscovites to boycott non-Russian cab drivers. These showed a young blonde Russian refusing a ride from a swarthy, beetle-browed taxi driver, under the slogan: "We're not going the same way." Such unofficial xenophobia matches the official stance. On April 1, a decree explicitly backed by Mr Putin banned foreigners from trading in Russia's retail markets. By some estimates, 12m people are working illegally in Russia.
Those who hoped that Russia's first post-totalitarian generation would be liberal, have been disappointed. Although explicit support for extremist and racist groups is in the low single figures, support for racist sentiments is mushrooming. Slogans such as "Russia for the Russians" now attract the support of half of the population. Echoing Kremlin propaganda, Nashi denounced Estonians as "fascist", for daring to say that they find Nazi and Soviet memorials equally repugnant. But, in truth, it is in Russia that fascism is all too evident. The Kremlin sees no role for a democratic opposition, denouncing its leaders as stooges and traitors. Sadly, most Russians agree: a recent poll showed that a majority believed that opposition parties should not be allowed to take power.....
A new guide for history teachers - explicitly endorsed by Mr Putin - brushes off Stalin's crimes. It describes him as "the most successful leader of the USSR". But it skates over the colossal human cost - 25m people were shot and starved in the cause of communism. "Political repression was used to mobilise not only rank-and-file citizens but also the ruling elite," it says. In other words, Stalin wanted to make the country strong, so he may have been a bit harsh at times. At any time since the collapse of Soviet totalitarianism in the late 1980s, that would have seemed a nauseating whitewash. Now, it is treated as bald historical fact.
Terrifyingly, the revived Soviet view of history is now widely held in Russia. A poll this week of Russian teenagers showed that a majority believe that Stalin did more good things than bad. If tens of thousands of uniformed German youngsters were marching across Germany in support of an authoritarian Fuehrer, baiting foreigners and praising Hitler, alarm bells would be jangling all across Europe. So why aren't they ringing about Nashi?
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