Irrespective of geography and historical period, the key objective set forth by almost every authoritarian regime boiled down to winning
Irrespective of geography and historical period, the key objective set forth by almost every authoritarian regime boiled down to winning the hearts and minds of the part of society deemed most fragile and susceptible to propaganda: the young. The Soviet Union was no exception. Now, in the light of deepening confrontation with the West, economic difficulties and growing internal contradictions skilfully hidden under a deluge of upbeat propaganda, Russia’s regime desperately needs public support, especially among those whose time to cast a vote will come in 2024 and beyond.
What is Yunarmia, and How Far Might It Go?
Officially launched on 29 July 2016, the so-called “Yunarmia” (Young Army) military patriotic movement is perhaps the most successful Moscow-coined project aimed at fostering “patriotic youth”. The brainchild of the Russian Ministry of Defence (MOD), and Minister of Defence Sergey Shoygu in particular, the idea has gained full support from President Vladimir Putin, which is a testimony to the strategic importance of the project.1 Speaking at one of the first meetings, Shoygu pointedly labelled himself “a member of this organization”, praising its members’ zeal and determination.2 The size and the geographical scope of the initiative are truly impressive. Regional branches of the movement have been established in all 85 subjects of the Russian Federation, and Yunarmia’s current membership has surpassed 200,000 young people—an almost tenfold increase since 2016.3
Moreover, the “product” is likely to become a tool of Russian “soft power” abroad: Armenia, Tajikistan and Abkhazia have already signed up to the initiative, while two Balkan countries (Serbia and Slovenia) are said to be on the “waiting list”.4 The resources invested in the project and its scope and popularity signify a new reality: aside from already well-known instruments, the “Russian World” is likely soon to have a new powerful support mechanism.
Ingredients of Success
Notwithstanding the explicit support of the MOD and the Kremlin, it would be difficult to link the success of the movement to these factors alone. Instead, a number of reasons should be considered.
First, avoiding Soviet narrow-mindedness. In addition to other elements, this has been secured by the inclusion of carefully chosen celebrities from various spheres of public life. Prominent military figures such as the head of the State Duma Defence Committee, Vladimir Shamanov (a “hero” of both Chechen wars and staunchly anti-Western), stand shoulder-to-shoulder with prominent sportsmen (such as Alexander Legkov, the 2014 Winter Olympics cross-country skiing champion and now head of the Moscow Oblast Yunarmia), cosmonauts (Sergey Krikalev), leading TV presenters and sports commentators (Dmitry Guberniev), and even actors and popular comedians (Mikhail Galustyan). In 2018 a prominent Russian filmmaker and representative of Russian conservative thought, Nikita Mikhalkov, became the movement’s official “mentor”. This unique combination of far from trivial personalities representing various walks of public life establishes a genuinely impressive image, making young Russians proud and willing to be part of the project.
Secondly, Russian propaganda successes and defeats of opponents. The anti-Western hysteria that appeared time and time again in the Russian mass media before 2013 was replaced by a well-balanced and carefully calculated strategy.5 The Ukraine crisis witnessed the transformation of Russian propaganda into a sophisticated, multilayered and de-ideologised phenomenon equally suitable for both domestic and external use. Containing some seeds of truth, it is now capable of creating “alternative reality”—a quality that only a handful of countries can boast. Aside from its own strength, post-2014 developments in Ukraine and other post-Soviet states (and, of course, the tragic example of the Middle East) have only convinced a larger part of the Russian audience that the West is the main source of danger and instability. It is thus clear that Yunarmia (frequently called an “antidote against colour revolutions”) is likely to enjoy the full support of ordinary Russians. In this respect, it is worth presenting one assessment of Yunarmia that blatantly sets out its tasks and objectives:
If the government pursues a “couldn’t-care-less” approach in terms of fostering its young citizens, the job will be taken over by someone else. The LGBT community, religious fanatics, radical nationalists and various sects … The capabilities of aggressive minorities have been seen in countries that have experienced “democratic revolutions”.6
To ordinary Russians who obtain the lion’s share of their information from their TV screens, this argument alone would be sufficient. On the other hand, observing the run-up to the 2018 presidential elections and looking at the “circus” organised by Russian “opposition forces”, one would struggle (but fail) to find at least one good reason why this (and many other) Kremlin-promoted initiatives should be viewed in a negative light.
Third, declared noble goals. The official aims of the organisation are nothing but admirable: the promotion of interest in Russian history and geography; acquaintance with various ethnic groups living in Russia, learning their national traditions and cultural traits; getting to know Russian national heroes, outstanding military commanders and internationally recognised scientists; and supporting the elderly and war veterans. Similarly, partnership with Russia-wide organisations such as the Young Guard of United Russia (160,000 members) is intended to divert the young from deviant behaviour, which was particularly painful to see in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s. Moreover, unlike other previously created movements (for instance, the notorious Nashi), the new group has not been involved in any shameful nationalist and/or xenophobic campaigns.
That said, however, one must keep in mind that the road to hell is paved with good intentions—a maxim that has on many occasions proved its relevance in the course of Russian/Soviet history.
Learning to Kill with Joy and Determination
Conceived by the MOD, Yunarmia is inseparable from the Central Army Sports Club (CSKA) and the Volunteer Society for Cooperation with the Army, Aviation and Navy (DOSAAF). In many ways, this explains its most distinctive qualities and key tasks. In the majority of regions, either local branches are headed or their activities are coordinated by veterans of the Afghan or Chechen wars (many of whom retired from active duty with visible behavioural disorders, left virtually untreated thanks to the general weakness of Russian military psychology). Judging from various comments, these people are impatient to start teaching youngsters the nuts and bolts of military science, sharing with them their own experience.
The curriculum of the Yunarmetsi also includes acquiring various skills that could be useful in time of war, such as small-arms shooting practice, first aid, and tracking and orienteering. It has also been revealed that members of the movement will be actively engaged in “liquidation of the consequences of extraordinary situations”, which immediately brings back tragic memories from the pre-1991 period.
On the other hand, given the new pivot in Russian military-strategic thinking (greater mobilisation potential and development of “territorial defence units”7), Yunarmia might as well be gradually integrated into this framework. From another perspective, Russian involvement in the Syrian civil war has drawn attention to the concept of “asymmetric response” in military-strategic confrontation with the West, in which electronic warfare is seen as a key pillar.8 It is thus curious to note that Yunarmia is seemingly becoming part of a broader “grass-roots” headhunting strategy launched by the MOD.9 One example might be the Yunarmia Schools, whose broad curriculum of courses is specifically concerned with building skills and acquiring qualifications in the IT domain, a project that could yield a rich harvest in the future.10
This image of universal support and conformity does not, however, reflect the whole picture. At this juncture, it is interesting to look at developments in the city of Ufa. Despite the minimum age for joining Yunarmia being 11 years and membership being said to be entirely voluntary, some alarming signals have been spotted. Local sources have claimed that prospective members of Yunarmia are promised higher school grades (as an incentive to join the movement) and that six- and seven-year-olds are widely offered membership, which is opposed by many parents.11 Apparently, when propaganda and self-determination cannot deliver the desired result, the good old Soviet principle of dobrovolno-prinuditelnyj (voluntary-mandatory) will be employed to help.
Old wine in the new bottles
In terms of youth mobilisation, Yunarmia is not to be confused with Pioneria, the Komsomol or any less-refined experiment of the early Putin presidency. This is a qualitatively new attempt to merge “patriotism” and firm discipline and cultivate the idea of the supremacy of military force among young Russians. According to Shoygu, their upbringing will be vested in the hands of “paratroopers, infantrymen and tankmen, who are determined to accept every member of Yunarmia into ‘their circle’”. This statement sounds ominous indeed. Another routine element is related to the employment of historical memory as a means to spark anti-Western sentiment in the guise of patriotism. In 2016, Kubinka (a town in Moscow Oblast) hosted a themed show within the new “Patriot” military theme park that included a simulation of the takeover of the Reichstag by Soviet troops. After the performance, Shoygu addressed members of the Yunarmia and made it perfectly clear that members of the movement would soon be able to test their skills on “every type of military arms and munitions we have, except for missiles”.12
Reflecting on Yunarmia as a phenomenon, international observers tend to compare it with phenomena such as the Hitlerjugend (Germany), the Khmer Rouge (Cambodia), the Opera Nazionale Balilla (Italy), and the youth wing of the Iron Guard (Romania). For now, these comparisons appear somewhat incorrect and misleading. Nevertheless, certain chapters of Russian history must be kept in mind. The key pillar of Russian national identity—respect for brute force and militarism—has in many instances had dramatic effects on the Russian people and surrounding nations. The horrors of the Civil War and “war communism” (1917–21), collectivisation and dekulakisation (1928–40), and abominable repression and dismemberment(s) of sovereign countries; these crimes (treated in contemporary Russia as “necessary”) were committed with utmost, warlike brutality by masses mobilised in accordance with the principles of war.
What is known for sure is that, with the Yunarmia project, the Russian authorities seem to have managed to find the necessary “tune” to win the hearts and minds of young Russians. Given its current direction of development, with the “militarisation of mass consciousness” as one of its essential elements, this strategy is likely to be expanded. The project’s outcome remains unknown, but Russia’s past does not give any hope for a happy ending.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.