At a night rehearsal for Russia’s annual May 9 World War II Victory Day parade in Red Square, troops practice goose-stepping while tanks, missile launchers, and other armored vehicles roll past a select audience toward St. Basil’s Cathedral.
Russia will show off its latest hardware, new missile defense systems for Russia’s Baltic Fleet and Arctic troops, as well as debut President Vladimir Putin’s “Youth Army,” or Yunarmiya.
Putin ordered the creation of the military’s "patriotic" youth organization in 2015. From just 100 members a year ago, the so-called Yunarmiya Patriotic Movement has grown to more than 30,000, aged between 11 and 18. Analysts say Yunarmiya is the Kremlin's latest effort to encourage support from Russia's next generation.
“The truth is that Yunarmiya (Youth Army) is a sort of preventive work. Preventive work against involvement of young people of Russia into the protest movement,” says Carnegie Moscow Center’s Andrei Kolesnikov.
Its debut comes just weeks after nationwide anti-corruption protests that had a large turnout of Russian youth. The unauthorized protests on March 26 surprised many with their defiance, scale, and quantity of students.
Opposition leader Alexei Navalny called for the demonstrations after his anti-corruption group released an investigation online alleging Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev was hiding enormous wealth. Medvedev gave no initial response to the allegations, but later dismissed them as fantasy.
Despite minimal coverage in the dominant state media, tens of thousands took part and hundreds were detained in Moscow, including 20-year-old political science major David-Viktor Ratkin.
“It was rather easy to get the information if you are a user of social networks,” says Ratkin standing outside the gates of the Peoples' Friendship University. “The older generation are not internet users and get most of their information from television that doesn't give protests any coverage.”
Luring the young away from protest movements
The Kremlin has backed numerous efforts to encourage support and loyalty among Russian youth.
“These organizations, I mean Nashi, Young Guard, United Russia’s (branch for young people of the ruling party), now play a less significant role,” says Kolesnikov. “New political manipulators just detect new methods of working with young people because these [old] forms do not quite work.”
Pro-Kremlin groups have been reaching out online to Russian youth with anti-Western propaganda.
But Putin's Youth Army raises concerns that authorities are looking to militarize a generation of nationalists.
“One should certainly be on the alert about that,” says Kolesnikov. “There are nationalist organizations of young people not under the auspices of the Kremlin. But it seems to me the Kremlin, so far, is losing in this field of the direct struggle between the pro-Kremlin youth and anti-Kremlin one.”
Students posted videos in late March of them challenging teachers who warn pupils not to join opposition protests or complain about corruption.
But while some of Russia’s urban youth are stirring, they remain a minority.
“Young people are quite strongly indoctrinated with Putinism,” says Kolesnikov. “Many young people are quite willing to support Putin in the sense that they have lived only a certain amount of years and do not remember anyone but Putin.”
Putin has been in power nearly 17 years and is widely expected to run for president again in 2018 with few real challengers. Navalny announced his campaign for president in late 2016, but a Russian court ruling last week upholding an embezzlement conviction could stop him from standing for election. Navalny wants to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights.
“I am glad that people stopped being indifferent about their country's future and started to protest,” says student protester Ratkin. “But my forecast is not optimistic because the majority of the population are couch potatoes, not doing anything, and supporting the course of the present authorities.”
Russian authorities apparently do not want to take any chances.
The Kremlin’s message with these annual shows of military strength is clear, Russia is prepared to defend itself and its interests. But, introducing its so-called Youth Army at this year’s parade underscores a growing concern for the Kremlin - the need to cultivate support among a younger generation of Russians.
Ricardo Marquina Montanana contributed to this report.