During a radio broadcast in 1939, Winston Churchill once famously said: "I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." This statement seems to be as true today as it was then. What I find particularly puzzling about Russia is not so much its appalling leadership, but the popularity it enjoys. But that's not the only oddity, as Reuters recently reported:
Russia's youths admire Soviet dictator Josef Stalin -- who presided over the deaths of millions of people -- and want to kick immigrants out of Russia, according to a poll released on Wednesday. The poll, carried out by the Yuri Levada Centre, was presented by two U.S. academics who called it "The Putin Generation: the political views of Russia's youth".If this wasn't disturbing enough, Edward Lucas, the central and east European correspondent of the Economist and author of a forthcoming book entitled The New Cold War and How to Win It, has a rather hair-raising essay in the Daily Mail, describing another expression of Putin's increasingly sinister authoritarian bent:
When asked if Stalin was a wise leader, half of the 1,802 respondents, aged from 16 to 19, agreed he was. "Fifty-four percent agreed that Stalin did more good than bad," said Theodore Gerber, a sociologist from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "Forty-six percent disagreed with the statement that Stalin was a cruel tyrant."
Stalin, who took over from Vladimir Lenin, built a system of terror and repression in which tens millions of people died or were killed. He died in 1953.
"What we find troubling is that there is a substantial proportion of young people in Russia today who hold positive or ambivalent views on Stalin and his legacy," Gerber said.
Obediently, couples move to a special section of dormitory tents arranged in a heart-shape and called the Love Oasis, where they can start procreating for the motherland. With its relentlessly upbeat tone, bizarre ideas and tight control, it sounds like a weird indoctrination session for a phoney religious cult.Do read the whole thing. Although I tend to agree that currently the greatest threat to the West, and civilisation in general, is Islamofascism - and I am comfortable with calling the struggle against it World War IV - we must not lose sight of the fact that other, more localised problems also arise, and unfortunately Russia seems to increasingly represent one of them. I will be interested to see what strategies Edward Lucas proposes to counter this threat, when his book is published.
But this organisation - known as "Nashi", meaning "Ours" - is youth movement run by Vladimir Putin's Kremlin that has become a central part of Russian political life.
Nashi's annual camp, 200 miles outside Moscow, is attended by 10,000 uniformed youngsters and involves two weeks of lectures and physical fitness. Attendance is monitored via compulsory electronic badges and anyone who misses three events is expelled. So are drinkers; alcohol is banned. But sex is encouraged, and condoms are nowhere on sale. Bizarrely, young women are encouraged to hand in thongs and other skimpy underwear - supposedly a cause of sterility - and given more wholesome and substantial undergarments.
Twenty-five couples marry at the start of the camp's first week and ten more at the start of the second. These mass weddings, the ultimate expression of devotion to the motherland, are legal and conducted by a civil official. Attempting to raise Russia's dismally low birthrate even by eccentric-seeming means might be understandable. Certainly, the country's demographic outlook is dire. The hard-drinking, hardsmoking and disease-ridden population is set to plunge by a million a year in the next decade.
But the real aim of the youth camp - and the 100,000-strong movement behind it - is not to improve Russia's demographic profile, but to attack democracy. Under Mr Putin, Russia is sliding into fascism, with state control of the economy, media, politics and society becoming increasingly heavy-handed. And Nashi, along with other similar youth movements, such as 'Young Guard', and 'Young Russia', is in the forefront of the charge.
At the start, it was all too easy to mock. I attended an early event run by its predecessor, 'Walking together', in the heart of Moscow in 2000. A motley collection of youngsters were collecting 'unpatriotic' works of fiction for destruction. It was sinister in theory, recalling the Nazis' book-burning in the 1930s, but it was laughable in practice. There was no sign of ordinary members of the public handing in books (the copies piled on the pavement had been brought by the organisers). Once the television cameras had left, the event organisers admitted that they were not really volunteers, but being paid by "sponsors". The idea that Russia's anarchic, apathetic youth would ever be attracted into a disciplined mass movement in support of their president - what critics called a "Putinjugend", recalling the "Hitlerjugend" (German for "Hitler Youth") - seemed fanciful.
How wrong we were. Life for young people in Russia without connections is a mixture of inadequate and corrupt education, and a choice of boring dead-end jobs. Like the Hitler Youth and the Soviet Union's Young Pioneers, Nashi and its allied movements offer not just excitement, friendship and a sense of purpose - but a leg up in life, too.
Nashi's senior officials - known, in an eerie echo of the Soviet era, as "Commissars" - get free places at top universities. Thereafter, they can expect good jobs in politics or business - which in Russia nowadays, under the Kremlin's crony capitalism, are increasingly the same thing.
Nashi and similar outfits are the Kremlin's first line of defence against its greatest fear: real democracy. Like the sheep chanting "Four legs good, two legs bad" in George Orwell's Animal Farm, they can intimidate through noise and numbers. Nashi supporters drown out protests by Russia's feeble and divided democratic opposition and use violence to drive them off the streets. The group's leaders insist that the only connection to officialdom is loyalty to the president. If so, they seem remarkably well-informed.
In July 2006, the British ambassador, Sir Anthony Brenton, infuriated the Kremlin by attending an opposition meeting. For months afterwards, he was noisily harassed by groups of Nashi supporters demanding that he "apologise". With uncanny accuracy, the hooligans knew his movements in advance - a sign of official tip-offs.
Even when Nashi flagrantly breaks the law, the authorities do not intervene. After Estonia enraged Russia by moving a Soviet era war memorial in April, Nashi led the blockade of Estonia's Moscow embassy. It daubed the building with graffiti, blasted it with Stalinera military music, ripped down the Estonian flag and attacked a visiting ambassador's car. The Moscow police, who normally stamp ruthlessly on public protest, stood by.