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The Putin Jugend

The Kremlin's teenage shock troops.

12:00 AM, Jul 31, 2007 • By REUBEN F. JOHNSON
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MOST OF US REMEMBER the joke from the famous Robin Williams film Good Morning, Vietnam.

"Here's Airman Adrian Cronauer with a little riddle for you. What's the difference between the army and the cub scouts? Ahhhnnn. Cub scouts don't have heavy artillery."

Nashi1.jpgSu-27s fly in formation above the Nashi campgrounds.

The latest incarnation of the scouts in Russia does not have its own artillery--not yet, anyway--but they did have several Russian Air Force (VVS) jets at their disposal this past week. A flight of six Sukhoi Su-27 fighters--part of the VVS's demonstration team--performed Tuesday for thousands of members of the youth group Nashi. The occasion was the group's annual summer outdoor camp at Lake Seliger, a site some 350 kilometers from Moscow.

The Nashi summer camp has now been turned into campaign stop and political pulpit for major figures in the Russian government--hence the willingness of the powers-that-be in the Kremlin to spend the hundreds of thousands of dollars it cost to put on the Su-27 aerial display for the event.

The six aircraft had to fly a full three hours to reach the site of the Nashi camp, put on a one-hour show and then return to their base at Lipetsk. VVS officials would not provide any cost figures for the show they put on, but one of Russia's most well-known test pilots, Magomed Tolboyev, told Obshaya Gazeta in Moscow that it would cost at least $216,000. This is based on a figure of $12,000 per flight hour to operate the Su-27, which consumes 5 to 6 tons of aviation fuel per hour. Aviation fuel costs about 20,000 roubles ($790) per ton, and this does not include the additional expense of airport landing and takeoff fees and air traffic control charges.

Nashi has been equated by some Russian political spokesmen with this country's Boy Scouts, but the history of the organization suggests that it is every bit the captive youth brigade of the regime in power, just as youth movements were vehicles for political indoctrination during the Soviet period.

Russia is one of the few nations where the scouting movement has never been allowed to establish a branch, having been banished in the early 1900s. During the Soviet era, the equivalent of the Boy and Girl Scouts was the Komsomol. Komsomol was the acronym for the Vsesoyuzny Leninskiy Kommunisticheskiy Soyuz Molodyozhi or VLKSM, which was known in the west as the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League, or "YCL" for short.

The YCL was a propaganda organ of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and was the boot camp on the path to success for those wanting to climb to the top of the political pyramid in the old USSR. Those wanting to become members of the Party had to generally spend a good portion of their youth in the Komsomol--spending hours performing official, unpaid "patriotic activities," such as putting up banners and posters before major holidays, in order to demonstrate their worthiness to become card-carrying Communist party officials.

Since the fall of the USSR and the end of the need for the pervasive indoctrination that goes along with a communist-style dictatorship, the Komsomol has faded into obscurity. It has, however, been somewhat replaced by the Nashi.

Nashi takes its name from the full title of the organisation, Molodezhnoye Dvizheniye, which translates as Youth Movement "Ours!" It was officially created in reaction to the spontaneous and widespread youth movement that took root in Ukraine during the 2004-2006 Orange Revolution, and which brought a pro-western president, Viktor Yushchenko, to power in Kiev at the expense of the candidate backed by Putin, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich.

KGB officers like Vladimir Putin, even when they become presidents, are about controlling events and making sure that political currents do not spin off and develop a momentum of their own. Unpredictability is bad, and solid, reliable support by the public is good. Nashi was created in order to make sure that there would be no repeat of the Ukrainian experience in Russia, and if there was any large-scale youth movement in Russia, that it would be slavishly pro-Putin.

Nashi is more than steadfast in its support of President Putin, but at the same time the group denies that it receives any Kremlin funding. However its finances are opaque at best, and the organization was originally put together by Vladislav Surkov, the deputy head of the presidential administration, and a man with more slush funds at his disposal than a U.S. labor union boss.