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."
Su-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 afigure 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.
As testimony to these suspicions that there are more links to the Kremlin than the group would like to admit, Nashi spokeswoman Anastasia Suslova refused to answer questions about who would cover the costs of this special air display and further denied that the aircraft had been placed at the organization's disposal.
"We did not order them but reached an agreement with the Defense Ministry," she said by telephone from the Nashi encampment. She then suggested that this event was actually to the benefit of the VVS rather than Nashi in that the show would help promote the armed forces among young people--particularly the Nashi Russian Top Gun wanna-bes. "It is important that our young people can see this. It is really a spectacular show."
Surkov has been accused of creating Nashi not as a movement for young people, but as a group of shock troops--brownshirts without the shirts and the arm bands--that can be called upon to break up anti-Putin demonstrations. Some critics of Kremlin policy have even referred to the Nashi movement as the "Putin Jugend," a pejorative reference to the Hitler Jugend movement of the Third Reich. Others call them "nashisty," which rhymes with the Russian word for fascist, "fashisty."
Whatever the links and financial umbilical to the Kremlin, Russia's main political leaders made it a point to visit the Nashi camp--all of whom received wide coverage on Russia's state-controlled TV networks.
Russian President Putin used the coverage of the Nashi jamboree as a platform to lambast the United Kingdom for its demand to extradite former KGB office Andrei Lugovoi. Lugovoi has been charged with the radiation poisoning death in London of another former KGB office, Aleksander Litvinenko, who was living in exile and had been granted UK citizenship. Putin's government has argued that the Russian constitution prevents extradition of its citizens, which has brought calls from London for the document to be amended.
"They are making proposals to change our Constitution, which are insulting for our nation and our people," Putin said in remarks that were broadcast from his countryside residence at Zavidovo on Channel One ORT, the largest and most widely-watched of the Russian TV networks. "It's their brains, not our Constitution, which need to be changed. What they are offering to us is a clear remnant of colonial thinking."
Presidential hopefuls Sergei Ivanov and Dmitry Medvedev visited the camp two days earlier. Both men are first deputy prime ministers and are in a race with one another to see which will be Putin's hand-picked successor. Both arrived casually dressed in blue jeans and came with the message that Nashi members should have as many children of their own as possible. Having their own children to care for them would relieve the ever-growing demands that Russia's pension system puts on the state budget, they explained.
"When you are young, it's high time to think about old age by creating a full-fledged family that could take care of the aged," said Medvedev. "A pension is not a substitute for love and good relations inside the family." Ivanov then suggested that "if you raise regular children, they will help you when you grow old so you won't need a pension." In Russia the idea is "no elderly left behind"--that is as long as it comes out of the pockets of private families and not the government.
It is hard to imagine a U.S. presidential candidate committing the political suicide of advocating higher birth rates in order to find a means to help bail out Social Security, but very little about Russian presidential politics resembles the real world of democracy. What's more, no one in the Nashi organization suggested that the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on the Su-27 air show might have been better spent aiding some of the poor and elderly--many of whom cannot even afford to spend the pennies that most regular medications cost in Russia.
But, the function of Nashi is not to question policy proposals that make no sense. It is to provide unquestioning loyalty to the Kremlin and to harass--with brute force if necessary--the "evil" forces that threaten Russia. And what are those evils? Just ask Sergei Markov, a political analyst with friendly ties to the Kremlin.
"The threat of lawless revolutions such as those in Georgia and Ukraine hangs over Russia," he said. "People have to be on the side of good, not evil." Ukraine and Georgia are "evil" regimes, then--and a government that murders its critics, political opponents, and investigative journalists, while tolerating the worst possible brutalities within the lower ranks of its military service, is "good."
Perhaps the people that call Nashi the "Putin Jugend" have a point.