“Sex for the Motherland” and Assessing the Causes of Russian Foreign Policy

by Chris Borgen

Edward Lucas, the Central and Eastern Europe correspondent for the Economist has an article in London’s Daily Mail (Hat tip: Geographic Travels) that sounds like it should be in the “Truth is stranger than fiction” file. It starts off with a discussion of how Russia is responding to its birth-rate that is well below the rate of renewal. Lucas begins:

Remember the mammoths, say the clean-cut organisers at the youth camp’s mass wedding. “They became extinct because they did not have enough sex. That must not happen to Russia”.

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…

…[T]his 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…

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.

While this can be disturbing enough in and of itself Lucas sees Nashi and its camp as an indicator of a broader trend in Russia that is even more worrisome. Consider the following excerpts:

…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)…

… Life for young people in Russia without connections is a mixture of inadequate and corrupt education, and a choice of boring dead-end jobs…

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…

Nashi supporters drown out protests by Russia’s feeble and divided democratic opposition and use violence to drive them off the streets…

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…

Yet, by comparison with other outfits, Nashi looks relatively civilised. Its racism and prejudice is implied, but not trumpeted. Other pro-Kremlin youth groups are hounding gays and foreigners off the streets of Moscow. Mestnye [The Locals] recently distributed leaflets urging Muscovites to boycott non-Russian cab drivers.

These showed a young blonde Russian refusing a ride from a swarthy, beetle-browed taxi driver, under the slogan: “We’re not going the same way.”

Such unofficial xenophobia matches the official stance. On April 1, a decree explicitly backed by Mr Putin banned foreigners from trading in Russia’s retail markets…

Slogans such as “Russia for the Russians” now attract the support of half of the population….

The Kremlin sees no role for a democratic opposition, denouncing its leaders as stooges and traitors. Sadly, most Russians agree: a recent poll showed that a majority believed that opposition parties should not be allowed to take power…

Terrifyingly, the revived Soviet view of history is now widely held in Russia. A poll this week of Russian teenagers showed that a majority believe that Stalin did more good things than bad.

If Lucas’s vignettes are an accurate portrayal of a broader trend in Russia, then the situation is quite serious. While I am not convinced that a “new Cold War” of similar magnitude to the “old Cold War” is inevitable, I do think we are in a period of renewed competition with Russia over geopolitical power in the former Soviet republics. While Russia’s foreign policy in Eastern Europe and Central Asia exhibits a yearning for the Soviet power of yore, Nashi, and other similar efforts at controlling the domestic political agenda, are examples of the domestic ramifications of Putin’s revanchist tendencies.

But, while this may describe what is happening, the real question is why are we in a time of renewed conflict? Some believe that the keys are Russia’s historical fear of invasion and obsession with external security. In this case the actions of Nashi and other groups are primarily (in the view of the Russian government) towards the end of shoring up domestic power and reducing foreign influence.

Conversely, other Russia-watchers argue that the renewed “Cold War talk” isn’t due to Russia’s desire for renewed hegemony, but rather Putin’s attempt to distract the public from the dire domestic situation and, if possible, lay the blame on someone else. By this theory it is not geopolitics that are driving foreign (and domestic) policies, but rather domestic political concerns that drive Russia’s external behavior.

Of course, these are archetypes and, there is probably an element of each driving Russian policy. The combination of revanchism, xenophobia, and economic turbulence can be a volatile admixture. But this is not Europe in the 1930’s or in the 1950’s and I do not think ongoing conflict with Russia is a foregone conclusion. However, the relationship among the U.S., the EU, and Russia is entering a time of turbulence and there is no simple course to chart. But it is a course that we must find and perhaps, the first step is to begin with our common interests and on specific areas of cooperation and then go on from there.


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