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Network, Son Of Nashi: New Youth Group Seeks To Woo Russia's Middle Class

Network claims to be behind a number of Kremlin-friendly initiatives, including a "polite alphabet" featuring pro-Russian words.
Network claims to be behind a number of Kremlin-friendly initiatives, including a "polite alphabet" featuring pro-Russian words.

MOSCOW – They're fanatical about Vladimir Putin. They've painted murals in Russian cities and created patriotic textbooks for kids. And one local newspaper even called them Jehovah's Witnesses-style believers dedicated to spreading Putin's word.

Meet Network, the latest pro-Kremlin youth group to hit the political scene.

The group is a spiritual heir to Nashi, the prototypical and now defunct pro-Putin youth outfit that was founded in 2005 in the aftermath of Ukraine's Orange Revolution as part of a Kremlin effort to inoculate Russia against a similar uprising.

But unlike Nashi, which was formed to appeal to working-class provincial youth, Network, or "Set" in Russian, is aiming to attract the urban middle class.

The group appears to be part of a Kremlin campaign to co-opt the educated young professionals who rose up against Putin in late 2011-12, the so-called "Bolotnaya generation," a reference to the Moscow square that was the scene of massive anti-Kremlin demonstrations.

The group's leaders say those young professionals will become Russia's new elite -- and the authorities need to appeal to them by offering an "alternative agenda" and a direct line to the Kremlin.

"There is a different category of people who have achieved everything on their own and who therefore are independent of the structures of power," "Novaya gazeta" quoted Oleg Sokolov, head of Network's St. Petersburg branch, as saying.

"They are the people who come out on Bolotnaya," Sokolov added. "Each time there are fewer and fewer of them. Network offers them an alternative agenda so that draft projects make it onto Putin's desk."

Traditional Values

One unidentified member of the group is quoted by "The New Times" as saying that Nashi and Young Guard, the ruling United Russia party's youth wing, have grown old and that the authorities and society need new spiritual leaders -- a "young Putin intelligentsia."

Network launched its official website in April, although it claims to have been in existence since 2011. It propagates a pro-Kremlin line that stresses traditional Orthodox Christian values. According to the website, for example, the group opposes same-sex marriage. They also favor "protecting" the Russian language from foreign words and influences.

The group, which will hold its inaugural congress in Crimea in August, has set up chapters in 11 cities and has signed up more than 1,000 members, the daily "Moskovsky komsomolets" reported.

Network claims to have collected 500 kilograms of medical supplies for residents of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in Ukraine, where government troops are battling pro-Moscow separatists.

They have also painted a series of patriotic Crimea-themed street murals and held pro-Kremlin art exhibitions and fashion shows. One street mural in central Moscow depicts an ice-hockey player wearing full combat camouflage skating over Crimea against the backdrop of the Russian tricolor.

The caption reads, "We returned what was ours."

Nashi Ties

In May, the group created a learning aid to help children master the Russian alphabet, with a large dose of pro-Kremlin indoctrination thrown in: "A" is for Anti-Maidan, "B" is for Berkut, and "P" is for Putin.

Network has sought to distinguish itself as more sophisticated and adult than Nashi, which was known for harassing opposition figures and staging noisy demonstrations outside foreign embassies.

But some of Network's most prominent members are themselves veterans of the earlier group -- including Artur Omarov, a veteran of Nashi's militant "Stal" wing, which became infamous in 2011 for displaying effigies of human rights activists, including then-82-year-old Lyudmila Alekseyeva, impaled on spikes.

Analysts are skeptical that Network will differ much from its predecessor. "I think this is simply the latest reincarnation of Nashi," says Marina Litvinovich, a political analyst and activist.

She's hesitant to say whether she thinks the project will prove effective. "It's hard to know because we don't know how much money they have, how much they'll steal and how much they'll spend effectively," she says.