Nashi: Russia’s youth counter-movement

About the author
Armine Ishkanian is a lecturer in NGOs and development in the department of social policy, London School of Economic. Her books include Democracy Building and Civil Society in Post-Soviet Armenia (Routledge, 2008)

Nashi (Ours) is a pro-government, patriotic Russian youth movement that was created in March 2005. Since then, the movement has rapidly grown throughout Russia and presently has over 200,000 members of whom 10,000 are regular activists or Nashi "commissars". The majority of Nashi members are in their late teens or 20s, and for some membership is a path of career advancement. Behind the opportunities for individual progress and social mixing, however, a more ambitious political project is at work.  

The movement's activities include voluntary work for members in orphanages and helping restore churches and war memorials; organising educational and training programmes; and mobilising demonstrations and rallies. Nashi's critics, who number Russian opposition activists as well as western observers, argue that the movement is the Kremlin's attempt to co-opt young Russians and control dissent in the wider aim of preventing a "colour revolution" from occurring in Russia.

Armine Ishkanian is lecturer in the Centre for Civil Society, London School of Economics. She further explores the issues addressed in this article in "Democracy Promotion and Civil Society", a chapter in the Global Civil Society Yearbook 2007-08 (forthcoming, October 2007).

Armine Ishkanian's book, Democracy Building and Civil Society in Post-Soviet Armenia, will be published by Routledge in 2008

It is true that that youth groups played an instrumental role in preparing the mass demonstrations that helped overthrow the regimes of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia in 2000 (Otpor [Resistance]), Eduard Shevardnadze in Georgia in 2003-04 (Kmara [Enough]), and Leonid Kuchma in Ukraine in 2004-05 (Pora [It's Time]). For Nashi's supporters, this is sufficient evidence for them to take pre-emptive action - especially as the forthcoming parliamentary (December 2007) and presidential (March 2008) elections approach.

Nashi has been described as a neo-Komsomol (the Soviet-era youth movement) body. It is indeed similar to its communist predecessor in that it trains and prepares its members for leadership positions; but it does so by using the forms (e.g., demonstrations, sit-ins), techniques (e.g., master classes, trainings), and language (e.g., rights, participation) of civil-society organising.

A document for "sovereign democracy"

The Nashi manifesto declares the movement's aim to be support for Russia's development as a global leader in the 21st century - in a process achieved by economic, social and cultural means rather than military and political domination. The key theme throughout the manifesto is that of sovereignty, which is interpreted as the freedom and independence to set the "rules of the game" in one's own country and the rejection of western (i.e., American) hegemony. The manifesto also condemns and calls for the liquidation of "oligarchic capitalism"; it credits President Vladimir Putin as being the first to have challenged the oligarchs' power, strengthened the state, and turned Russia into a global power. Nashi pledges its support for Putin's policies and vows to work toward these goals in a variety of ways including by creating a "functioning civil society".

The manifesto criticises the existing "liberal" civil society as being the "worst advertisement for democracy". It commits Nashi to promoting civil debates; working with multiple stakeholders (government and business among them) in promoting Russia's economic and social development; fighting against fascism, intolerance toward ethnic minorities, and violence in the army; and restoring people's faith in Russia's future.

Nashi's manifesto is greatly influenced by the work of Kremlin ideologue, Vladislav Surkov, and his idea of suverennaya demokratsiya (sovereign democracy). This rejects the idea that there can only be one type of democracy and argues that each country should have the freedom and sovereignty to develop its own form. Indeed, the only sources cited on the movement's website are Surkov's works. The concept of sovereign democracy is, clearly, a critique of western democracy-promotion efforts implemented following the collapse of the Soviet Union (see Ivan Krastev, "'Sovereign democracy' Russian-style", 16 November 2006).

Also in openDemocracy on Russia politics and society under Vladimir Putin:

Ivan Krastev, "'Sovereign democracy', Russian-style" (16 November 2006)

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski, "New Russia, old Russia" (5 April 2007)

Oksana Chelysheva, "Russia's iceberg: a Nizhny Novgorod report" (25 April 2007)

Tanya Lokshina, "Russian civil society: an appeal to Europe" (30 April 2007)

George Schöpflin, "Russia's reinvented empire" (3 May 2007)

The idea of sovereign democracy as espoused in Russia is spreading beyond its borders. In July 2006 the Nashi Rossiya-Uzbekistan movement was established in Uzbekistan (see Gulnoza Saidazimova, "Uzbekistan: New Pro-Russian Youth Movement Launched", 14 July 2006). Meanwhile, Dariga Nazarbaeva, the daughter of President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, praised sovereign democracy as a sign of freedom. She said:

"For a long time, we trod a path to democracy guided by maps prepared in the West. But times are changing. We see more and more countries and peoples in the world refusing to live according to identical patterns set up for them by someone else. Even the failure of the European constitution, was in defence of the national and the homegrown. [It was] in defence of sovereignty" (see Daniel Kimmage, "Kazakhstan: 'Sovereign Democracy' In Almaty And Moscow", RFE/RL, 10 July 2006).

The art of provocation

The political opposition in Russia - including members of the opposition Drugaya Rossiya (Other Russia) coalition - have faced repeated harassment from police and have had their rallies and meetings broken up or otherwise disrupted by security forces. By contrast, Nashi's actions have received official support and promotion.

In the past two years Nashi has organised numerous demonstrations, both high-profile and provocative. In 2006 its members spearheaded a campaign against the British ambassador in Moscow, Anthony Brenton, on the grounds that he had attended a conference organised by the "Other Russia" coalition. The campaign was marked by vocal gatherings in front of the ambassador's official residence and disruptions at public events where he was due to speak. Nashi claimed it wanted Brenton to apologise for having shown support for what the movement defined as extremist and nationalist groups.

On 17 December 2006, over 70,000 Nashi members (many dressed in seasonal costumes, such as Father Christmas, the Snow Maiden or elves) took to the streets of Moscow to celebrate the sixty-fifth anniversary of the successful Soviet defiance of the Nazis' advance towards the city. A contemporaneous rally was held by journalists to commemorate their 200 colleagues who had died violently in Russia since 1991. Only 400 people attended this event, which was monitored by a heavy police presence.

In April and May 2007, Nashi members began to hold daily protests in front of the Estonian embassy in Moscow following the removal of the statue of a Red Army soldier from the centre of Tallinn. Nashi's website describes the relocation of the "bronze soldier" as evidence of state-sanctioned fascism in Estonia. This was accompanied - though there is no evidence that Nashi itself was responsible - by harassment of Estonian diplomats, and an orchestrated, sustained "cyber-attack" on Estonian government and official websites.

A counter-promotion

The political context of Nashi's growth is the burgeoning criticism in Russia about its experience in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and what it perceived as its humiliation and loss of status globally. Steven Pifer of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington says: "Moscow's combative stance is widely seen as a reaction to the humiliation many Russians felt in the 1990s, when the country was emerging from the Soviet collapse...Russia was also subject to frequent Western lectures about how best to rebuild its society and government. There is this lingering perception that in the 1990s the West somehow took advantage of Russia."

Indeed there is a growing backlash against democracy promotion and civil-society strengthening as it was introduced by western donors and NGOs in the 1990s (see Thomas Carothers, "The Backlash against Democracy Promotion", Foreign Affairs, March-April 2006), and Jude Howell et al., "The Backlash against Civil Society in the Wake of the Long War on Terror", LSE /CCS, Civil Society Working Paper 26 [2006]). Vladimir Putin, while derided for his autocratic policies in the west, enjoys widespread public support in Russia. His popularity is based on the perception that he has restored Russia's pride and place in the world and that he is challenging the hegemony of western powers including the United States and Britain. In a scathing critique of democracy-promotion, Putin made the following remarks at the G8 summit in St Petersburg:

"If you look at newspapers of 100 years ago, you see how, at the time, colonialist states justified their policies in Africa or in Asia. They talked of their civilising role, of the white man's mission. If you change the word 'civilising' to 'democratisation', you find the same logic, you can read the same things in the press today."

The Russian political analyst Pyotr Romanov says that one of the implicit items on the summit's agenda was the issue of independence and sovereignty in relations between democratic countries. He writes: "In a unipolar world dominated by the United States and its desire to be ‘generous' to humankind by forcing the North American worldview on it, this issue was bound to surface at bilateral talks within the G8 and during joint discussions" (see Pyotr Romanov, "G8 and Sovereign Democracy" Ria Novosti 17 July 2006). Such criticisms of western democracy-promotion are becoming more widespread in Russia and other former Soviet countries (including Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan). Nashi, which draws on Soviet and post-Soviet era models of organising, is both beneficiary and vehicle of these neo-cold-war ideologies.