Type “Nashi” into any search engine and you will come across videos of uniformly clad youth chanting in unison, evoking bygone images of Komsomol or Hitler’s Youth. Indeed, Nashi, a pro-regime, state-supported youth organization, has often been likened to these organizations by the media and scholars alike. Yet, is this simplistic comparison an accurate one? Are state-led youth organizations in Russia merely puppets of the regime, lacking their own will or motivation? In the following pages I trace the origins and purposes behind the organization of pro-regime youth groups in Russia, arguing that while these movements undoubtedly perform many of the same functions as youth groups of the past, they do have some measure of autonomy and agency separate from the regime, if not completely independent of it.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, many Russians hoped for a rebirth of civil society and political participation. While there was a subsequent proliferation of non-governmental and public organizations, civil society in Russia has remained fragmented and divided. It is commonplace to characterize civil society in Russia as perilously weak “owing to the post-Soviet legacy of political cynicism, continuing state ambivalence about the role of society in politics, and a lack of domestic resources to support activism” (Henry 2010: 3).
However, weakness of civil society in Russia cannot be equated to a lack of participatory movements. Indeed, Putin spent much of his second term as president filling the political and civil space with “ersatz social movements” in support of the regime (Robertson 2010). These organizations were formed in response to protests by pensioners and pro-democracy groups and represented an innovative approach to managing dissent in Russia’s hybrid regime. Hybrid regimes, according to Robertson, lack the popular legitimacy of democratic regimes and the extensive societal control of authoritarian regimes; in order to compensate for these weaknesses rulers manipulate and marginalize opposition through a series of diverse mechanisms from control of the media to the development of pro-regime organizations (2010). The pro-regime organizations par excellence in Russia is Nashi, a mass youth movement created by the regime in response to the youth-led electoral revolutions in Serbia, Ukraine, and Georgia in the early 2000s.
Nashi and other state-supported participatory organizations are typically viewed as having no will of their own separate from the regime. Indeed, Nashi was formed with the explicit purpose of limiting the opposition and legitimizing the state; without state support, Nashi may very well be unable to continue its activities. Yet, no state has the power to completely control the rules of the game. A more thorough analysis of the role of state-supported participatory organizations in hybrid regimes must take into account the political and social context as well as the agency of organization leaders and members.