SAINT PETERSBURG —It is two steps away from the Hermitage Museum, a few steps more from the Kazan Cathedral, at the corner of Nevsky Prospect, Saint Petersburg's principal avenue. This is, in other words, a prestigious address.
The spacious premises exude comfort and money and are seemingly designed for welcoming businessmen rather than students from a pro-Vladimir Putin political organization.
In the first room, where exposed beams and row of chairs are perfectly aligned, the statesman is omnipresent. Images of his bare chest, his horse riding and his battle dress are on large framed posters. Even his thoughts are here.
“It is not that Russia is between the East and the West,” one quote goes. “The East and the West find themselves at the right and left of Russia.”
There is also praise about the Russian president posted around the room: “I think that this man succeeds in everything he does. — Der Spiegel.” In the back of the room hangs a painting of Putin, in a style reminiscent of Stalin’s or Lenin’s era.
“Russia has become a strong power able to dictate its own laws, thanks to Putin,” says Alexander Khazbiev, 20. “Our plan, built with youth and education, aims to accompany the movement.”
Pro-Putin rally — Photo: Jiang Kehong/Xinhua/ZUMA
At the next door, a small team discusses the best way to support Putin's government policies, writing the major lines on a white board. The network, created a year ago, is based on some essential principles: against gay marriage, in support of Putin, and promoting idea that the four principal religions should be Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism. They also aim to protect the Russian language.
For this reason, their actions so far have focused primarily on the events in Ukraine. The first one consisted of installing stands to show passersby “how civilized countries use old tires — for flower pots or sports equipment — instead of burning them like in Maidan.”
They also wrote en masse to Ukrainian politicians to denounce their “genocidal” policy. Another gesture was to reinterpret the Russian alphabet with a little twist: A as anti-Maidan, P as Putin and so on. It was offered to a school afterward. In a corner of the room, there is a pile of stickers in the shape of license plates stamped “RU.” The letters “KRIMEA” have replaced the traditional numbers. “We have distributed them in the street,” says Alexander. “People loved it!”
A humiliated army
Each of the 11 offices across the country develops its own campaigns. The organization, “sponsored by businessmen,” claims about 100 members per region and “multiple supporters.”
Alexander is glad to have found “like-minded people.” He joined the movement mostly out of family revenge. The boy remembers seeing his parents, both of whom worked for the military, humiliated in the 1990s. “Television was broadcasting films mocking the army, and salaries were unpaid,” he says. “I have this awful memory of my dad forced to buy a bouillon cube to feed the whole family. Thanks to Putin, he is again part of a prestigious military, and we can start being proud of our country. Look at all the medals we rounded up to the Olympics, how we got Crimea back.”
He insists the movement isn't just nostalgia for an old empire: “Putin has already answered this question, and I will use his words,” Alexander says. “Those who are nostalgic of the Soviet empire have no reason, and those who are not have no heart. It is glorious, but it’s in the past. The construction of a new country is now underway.”
In the last room, about 10 young people are drinking tea on bar stools or watching a movie about the summer of 1944. Girls and boys, with trendy outfits and smartphones, talk among themselves. Distracted from their teenage torpor, some agree to tell us about their beliefs — under the tight supervision of Alexander, who swears he doesn't play any role in this organization of “horizontal hierarchy.”
Tatiana has been part of the organization for a few months with her 15-year-old brother. Without prompting, the economics and management student expressed her approval and gratitude for Putin's government policy of banning smoking almost everywhere: in city playgrounds, at the Olympics and in Crimea.
Anton, a Siberian electronics student, has a shaved head and big shoulders and blushes a bit when he hears Putin’s name. In the courtyard is 18-year-old Deborah, a brunette smoking a cigarette. She dreams of being a singer and is thankful for Russian authorities sponsoring Russian ballets and operas.
But the girl is asked to come back inside to participate in the meeting about the “youth forum” taking place this August in Crimea. Only the students with the best grades will be able to participate. Tatiana already knows she will be part of the group.