Last night, Business Insider was invited to a screening of ‘Putin’s Kiss’, a new film from Danish director Lise Birk Pedersen, that deals with the impact of Nashi, the notorious pro-Kremlin youth movement in Russia.
The film, which took home the World Cinema Cinematography Award at this year’s Sundance, tells the story of Masha Drokova, a 19-year-old member of the movement formed in 2007 as a democratic, anti-fascist group (the name means “Ours”).
Drokova, like many in Russia, joined the group when she was just 16, attracted by the feeling of family and career opportunities the group allows.
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Within a short space of time, Drokova moved to Moscow, and earns enough from Nashi and a side-job as a reporter to afford her own apartment and car — she’s a rising star within the Nashi organisation. She organizes events for Nashi during the day, and covers them as a journalist and talk show host in the evening — a somewhat strange journalistic practice in many countries, but in Russia, apparently not.
Drokova’s life became more complicated when she began to become friends with liberal journalists she met through her reporting.
One night, liberal blogger and journalist Oleg Kashin (who plays a prominent role in the movie) was walking to his apartment when he was attacked by two men. Kashin was beaten with steel rods, so badly his skull was fractured in two places. He barely survived (in the movie, the blogger tells Drokova with a smile about how one of his eyes won’t stop watering after the beating, and asking her to touch his severed pinky finger).
A Nashi-link is suspected, and Nashi founder Vasiliy Yakemenko even mocked Kashin’s injuries and posted a picture of Lenin’s tomb under the word “Kashin” (the case is still unsolved at the time of writing).
Shortly after the beating Drokova left Nashi.
The story shows both sides of Nashi, which generally refuses to cooperate with Western press. The group was founded by Kremlin-forces in 2005, reportedly in a bid to prevent an Orange or Rose revolution like those in the Ukraine or Georgia. By 2007, the group was holding events with 200,000 attendees, and its charismatic founder Yakemenko was recruited to work for the government’s Federal Youth Agency (though, as Putin’s Kiss shows, he still appeared to be leading the group).
Some of these attendees were like Drokova — idealistic young men and women hoping to get a leg up in business or politics. With substantial funding from the Kremlin (and groups such as Mercedes Benz) the group was able to provide a good life, and a number of anti-corruption initiatives clearly had a positive effect.
However, there’s another side to the group, designed to stifle the opposition. In one scene both a Nashi leader (Anton Smirnov) and an opposition activist (Ilya Yashin) admit that the group would find out where opposition leaders were meeting and arrive before them.
WATCH an exclusive scene from Putin’s Kiss:
The movie shows one parade where Nashi members march holding the signs of activist leaders, chanting that they do not deserve to exist in Russia. The signs are then thrown on the floor and stamped on. In another scene, two young men defecate on Yashin’s car. That’s how you sum up Nashi, the activist says, “Shitting on cars.”
Nashi’s rhetoric excludes the possibility for discussion in modern Russian politics. But it’s not just the rhetoric that has people worried. The Financial Times reports that Yakemenko openly said in 2005 (while he was working on a precursor to the Nashi group, Walking Together) that members of Russia’s notorious skinhead groups should be recruited by pro-government forces.
Football hooligans have also been reportedly been recruited — paid to attend events and provide a physical presence politically dangerous for Nashi itself.
The film covers the time period up to 2009. Since then the situation in Russia has changed. Nashi groups have held counter-rallies against the growing opposition movement, but struggle to compete with the numbers. A recent leak provided by Anonymous showed that the group was paying people for online support and hacking, further discrediting the group.
The group’s mysterious ideological PR leader, Vladislav Surkov, appears to have been demoted from the Kremlin to the White House for his failure to prevent protests, while recent reports suggest that Yakemenko is out of favour and Nashi may be disbanded.
What arrives in its place though, is another matter — and whether the generation it influenced will accept open political discourse, a further one still. As for Masha Drokova, she now works in financial PR. Director Pedersen says she is “50/50” on the film — she may no longer be a member of Nashi, but her sympathy for the group continues.
Putin’s Kiss opens February 17 at Cinema Village in New York. For more details and showings in other cities see here >
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