Young patriots rise up to protect Putin
Young women are ordered to hand over their thong underwear and replace it with more modest garments as they enter the military-style Nashi summer camp on the shores of picturesque Lake Seliger, 350km northwest of Moscow. It is for their own good, they're told, since thongs can 'cause sterility' and undermine propriety.
Welcome to the brave new world of Nashi, which means 'Ours' in Russian, the Putinista youth movement established by the Kremlin two years ago to ward off the threat of a Ukrainian-style orange revolution in Russia. With massive infusions of cash from undisclosed sources - probably Kremlin-friendly businesses - the self-proclaimed 'anti-fascist' group has since swelled to 200,000 members, including many would-be future politicians.
About 10,000 hardcore activists attended the third annual summer retreat on Lake Seliger recently, where they camped out military fashion, awoke early to calisthenics (for women) and gruelling 5km runs (for men), and spent their days absorbing patriotic lectures. Alcohol was banned and failing to show up for a class meant instant dismissal.
'I decided to join Nashi because I couldn't remain indifferent to what was happening in the country,' says Alexander Golovko, a 22-year-old student from the central Russian industrial city of Lipetsk. 'It was either sit around drinking beer and complaining or do something.'
Mr Golovko and his fiancee, Katya Kozlova, were among more than 30 couples aiming to get married in special ceremonies during the camp, in order to 'set a good example' for other Russian young people.
Though the participants, mostly aged between 14 and 25, looked and sounded much like regular youths, this was clearly no ordinary summer camp. Among those who met selected Nashi campers was President Vladimir Putin, who used the occasion to rail against Britain's demand that Russia turn over Andrei Lugovoi, the chief suspect in last year's radiation murder of ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko.
'They are proposing that we violate our constitution' which protects all Russian citizens from extradition, Mr Putin said. 'That is insulting for our great nation and our people ... it's their brains, not our constitution, that needs to be changed on this matter.'
The two politicians considered most likely to succeed Mr Putin when he steps down next May, first deputy prime ministers Dmitri Medvedev and Sergei Ivanov, also trekked out to the Nashi encampment.
Together they shared a bonfire with the youngsters, urged them to have 'many children' to combat Russia's demographic crisis and explained that the suspense over who would be Mr Putin's heir would be cleared up 'shortly'.
The event climaxed last week with a special display by the Russian air force's elite 'Falcons' aerobatic team, arranged just for Nashi at a reported cost of at least US$200,000.
'The fact that Nashi is having so much attention lavished upon it reflects a belief in the Kremlin that they can be very useful in the coming period,' as Russia approaches December parliamentary elections and the difficult transition to a new president next year, says Masha Lipman, an expert with the Carnegie Centre in Moscow.
'This is a force that has been, and can be, used to support a variety of Kremlin projects and to counter any genuine youth activism that might crop up.'
Nashi was founded in 2005 after a wave of youthful street revolutions toppled pro-Moscow governments in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. It was handed the task of backing Mr Putin if any similar crisis were to erupt in Russia. The group's manifesto reads: 'Putin was the first to state Russia's claims to world leadership in the 21st century. However, the impulse engendered by Putin encounters rabid resistance from opponents at home and abroad. In this situation, the Nashi movement will support Putin.'
More specifically, top Kremlin adviser Gleb Pavlovsky told a Nashi meeting last year that 'you must be prepared to break up fascist demonstrations and prevent with force any attempt to overthrow the constitution'.
Though it bills itself as an 'anti-fascist movement', Nashi has so far been deployed mainly against the Kremlin's liberal and leftist opponents in the Other Russia coalition led by chess champion Garry Kasparov. That group has staged a series of street rallies demanding free elections to choose Mr Putin's replacement. Three times in the past year Other Russia has tried to stage opposition meetings in downtown Moscow, but found itself hemmed in and blocked from marching by phalanxes of riot police.
In each case, nearby counter-rallies by Nashi and another Kremlin-sponsored youth group, the Young Guard, have been assisted by police and accorded lavish coverage by state media.
At the Lake Seliger camp, Other Russia's three main leaders were depicted as prostitutes on a large billboard display. The faces of Kasparov, novelist Eduard Limonov, who heads the banned National Bolshevik Party, and former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who recently left Other Russia, were pasted on to photos of scantily clad women under a banner reading 'The Red Light Street'.
'These people are the enemies of Russia; they are trying to sell us to the highest bidder,' says Igor, a Nashi camper who declined to give his last name. 'We'll do whatever it takes to stop them.'
After British ambassador Anthony Brenton attended a conference of Other Russia last year, he was followed and harassed by Nashi activists, who banged their fists on his car and heckled him at public meetings. A May press conference in Moscow by Estonian envoy Marina Kaljurand, called to explain the former Soviet Baltic state's decision to relocate a Soviet-era war memorial, was disrupted by Nashi members.
The Kremlin 'needed an instrument of rapidly mobilised psychological influence and so a youth movement was created', says Alexei Mukhin, director of the independent Centre for Political Information in Moscow. 'Nashi is a well-structured, militarised organisation whose purpose is to counter the orange threat. Imagine an information bomb, that's what Nashi is.'