On Putin’s Kiss: Interview with Russia Expert Jonathan Harris

by Eoin Koepfinger    /  May 11, 2012  / 2 Comments

Prof. Jonathan Harris

Prof. Jonathan Harris in his office at the University of Pittsburgh

Jonathan Harris is a professor of political science at the University of Pittsburgh, specializing in the politics of the Russian Federation and the former USSR. He is a core faculty member of the Center for Russian and East European Studies at the University Center for International Studies, as well as an editor for the University of Pittsburgh Press Russian and East European Studies Series.

On March 29 Prof. Harris was invited to speak at a Q&A session following a screening of Putin’s Kiss (2012) at the Carnegie Mellon University International Film Festival 2012: Faces of Others.

Putin’s Kiss is a Danish-produced documentary directed by Lise Berk Pedersen about the Youth Democratic Anti-Fascist Movement “Nashi” (“Ours!”), a pro-Kremlin youth movement in Russia. The film tells the story of Masha Drokova, a former high-ranking member of the movement, and her friendship with members of the Vladimir Putin’s opposition, including journalist Oleg Kashin.

In November 2010, Kashin was severely beaten by unknown assailants, sparking national outrage. Kashin believes that Nashi’s founder and head of the Federal Youth Agency, Vasily Yakemenko, is the “most probable mastermind of the attack on me.”

Prof. Harris sat down with Sampsonia Way before the screening of Putin’s Kiss to answer questions about the film, the Nashi movement, the limits of freedom of speech in Russia, and the future of political opposition and dissent in the country.

Nashi claims to be a democratic anti-fascist group. However, the movement portrayed in the movie seems to promote hegemony and nationalism. Can you provide some historical background on the group’s political stances?

What disturbs those who study the political system, is that the group really seems based on Soviet practice. Under the USSR, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union established a youth auxiliary called the Young Communist League, or the Komsomol. Essentially this was a training ground for people who had ambitions to join the Party. It had a social component, but also a political component. Quite frankly, it was fun to be in the Komsomol because they had all sorts of social events, but it was also designed to train younger cadres for the Party. As far as I understand Nashi, it
has the same function: To support the president’s policies no matter what.

Putin has developed a cult of personality…

And this youth movement is designed to support that cult?

Yes. Nashi has been used as a group of demonstrators against things that the president doesn’t like. They played a role at various times in calling for censorship of artistic productions – particularly paintings – that they call obscene or subversive. They’ve also been used as a counterweight to demonstrations held by youth groups associated with the opposition parties. And they have these summer retreats which are essentially designed to train people to move into the ruling party, United Russia, though they don’t say it in so many words.

Is this movement against fascism and “oligarchic capitalism,” as they claim?

Ostensibly it’s anti-fascist because they claim that it was designed to mobilize people against racist skinheads and fascist organizations of youth. But what Nashi has really become is a spearhead of the anti-liberal movement. I don’t think of it as a democratic movement. The regime itself claims it is against oligarchic capitalism, but I haven’t seen any Nashi demonstrations against oligarchic capitalism!

Vasily Yakemenko, the head of Nashi, had been the head of a previous youth organization which had a much softer profile. Nashi’s ideological position has gotten much tougher as an outgrowth of the Putin regime’s reaction against the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. Putin, as a former KGB officer, seemed to come to the conclusion that the United States and Western European governments are really committed to subverting Ukraine as the first step to subverting the Russian Federation.

Why do so many young Russians idolize Putin?

Quite frankly, it’s difficult for us who live outside the country to understand how one would idolize Putin. He’s a very tough, cynical person. But at the same time, he’s a very clever political leader. He represents himself as the indispensable man. He doesn’t represent himself as the leader of United Russia; he represents himself as, “I’m the guy who restored stability and coherence to the system.” Which has a certain amount of validity, but it isn’t that simple. I mean, he was lucky that the price of oil has shot up and produced tremendous revenue for the country, which provides greater welfare than was previously available.

What role will Nashi play in the coming year?

It’s very difficult to say what its function will be because you’ve also got this emergence of a vociferous and well-educated democratic opposition which clearly includes large numbers of fairly young people. It’s not clear how the young people in Russia will divide between Nashi and these demonstrations, which have occurred on a regular basis all through this past fall and winter.

Putin’s Kiss alludes to a more militant surveillance wing of Nashi. Why are they motivated to monitor and intimidate opponents?

The movement is designed to cultivate loyalty. And it’s not completely clear who the people who engage in this sort of political surveillance actually are, whether they are an extension of the regular security forces, or whether it’s something totally internal to this organization. But like the Komsomol, the emphasis is on developing political loyalty, and people who demonstrate a lack of political loyalty nowadays are subject to a certain amount of pressure.

Watch the trailer for Putin’s Kiss:

I have read about the radical art collective, Voina, and the all-female punk band Pussy Riot, both of whom have had members arrested for direct actions and demonstrations. Are groups like these a reaction to the conservatism of groups like Nashi?

These are people who are very much in a tradition of trying to have a totally free culture, and to allow all sorts of cultural activity. The problem with some of these groups is that the regime can claim that they’re pornographic. The Russian Orthodox Church sometimes becomes very upset by what it sees as extreme cultural activity, so that a sort of coalition forms between the Church and the leadership. Also many Russian citizens are culturally conservative. Not everybody—there are lots of people who don’t mind things that verge on what people might call pornography— but there are other Russians who are trained in a conventional way who say, “Isn’t that disgusting?”

Lets talk about the heavy-handed response to anti-government protests in Russia…

It’s like the old Civil Rights Movement in this country: The larger the demonstration, the less repressive the regime becomes. The problem is that some of the demonstrations that have occurred in the last couple of years have been much smaller, but very critical of the regime. The regime has responded by arresting their leaders, but not for a long period of time. If these demonstrations continue to have the momentum they have had in the past year, then I think the overt police repression will be lessened.

The blogosphere is huge in Russia and there’s a tremendous amount of communication over the internet. But can we say there is freedom of press in Russia?

The regime has not yet tried to really block internet communication. And while the state dominates the television stations, there still are independent newspapers. However, the cynics who observe Russia say that these newspapers are simply kept alive, or not repressed overtly, as a method of trying to convince the West that the country still has a free press that isn’t totally controlled by the state.

I’m not that cynical. I think that there are limits to the extent the regime feels it can press down on people’s opinions. When you read the translations of some newspapers, or you read any of the stuff coming through the blogs, it’s a very active, vociferous, and increasingly critical opposition.

For a long time there were opposition comments but they never attacked Putin personally. It was sort of a lese-majesty—the idea that you can do everything except call for the king to be ousted—but now the criticism of Putin is totally overt. Part of it is because Putin made some very insulting comments about the people who were engaged in the demonstrations. And they retaliated by coming back stronger.

What about the journalists and broadcasters that have been attacked?

The problem is that there have been these killings, primarily linked with reporting on the wars in Chechnya and local corruption. But it really is impossible to determine whether the murders of these journalists are ordered by the regime because the country, while it claims to have a central government, is sufficiently decentralized in many ways. So you don’t know; the person behind it might be a local businessman or politician who’s being sharply criticized by a local journalist.

This has been given a huge amount of publicity, and I don’t want to in any way underestimate the horrors of having journalists killed, but we’re not talking about hundreds of people here. I mean, we’re talking about some very courageous people who continue to protest against the regime’s policies, but we’ve got to be very careful. This is not an “epidemic.” This is not a Stalinist regime. It’s very hard to put our finger on who’s responsible for these sort of things.

Prof. Jonathan Harris

Prof. Jonathan Harris Q&A in McConomy Auditorium at CMU

But there is a lot of impunity for these crimes. Nobody gets prosecuted for them.

Yes, I think this is the real problem. There are political analysts who argue that the corruption and the linkage between government and business is no worse in the Russian Federation than in Mexico or India. But this is very hard to investigate. There are some people who argue that the Western media and its rage-like attacks on the Russian government exaggerates the extent to which this corruption exists.

I think one of the big problems is that at the local level the judicial system is not always protecting people, and it acts to protect the bad guys in the system.

The attacks on journalists and activists are well-documented, but are there any other types of speech, such as novels, films, art, or music that receive pressure?

Russian cultural life is really very open and very active. You’ve got all sorts of fiction and all sorts of artistic productions. I think that the critical point is that there have been efforts to limit the activities of non-governmental organizations, particularly those that have any link with foreign sponsors. And this has been going on for the last five years because some of the non-governmental organizations are democracy-producing or democracy-supporting.

The turning point for Putin, when he was President, seems to have been the Orange Revolution of 2004. He came to the conclusion that what was going on was that the West, and particularly the United States, was trying to subvert the system by supporting these democratic movements. As a result, non-governmental organizations that were financed in part from abroad were subjected to much more vigorous registration, financial controls, and things of that sort. A couple of them were knocked out completely, but mostly those were the ones that were connected with exposing what was going on in Chechnya. But this brought a certain amount of self-censorship and the organizations that were more active pulled their horns in a little bit.

What is your perspective on the future of freedom to dissent in Russia?

It’s an open question. It all depends on what the relationship between the regime and the opposition is like in the coming years. The possibilities of repression are there. I was speaking to a colleague about this and he thinks that the possibilities of oppression are higher than I do. But we simply don’t know. It’s not completely clear how sensitive the Russian government is to outside criticism of these sorts of things.

The big problem is that now the president has six years in office. The parliament that was elected at the end of last year has a five year term. Those are long terms and it is not clear if political opposition will be able to sustain itself for that long of a period. People get tired out. There are only so many demonstrations you can go to. The pressure of your job becomes very, very clear. And this is where the great open question is: The extent to which the regime is going to engage in some sort of selective repression.

About the Author

Eoin Koepfinger graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 2011 with a B.A. in film studies and fiction writing. In 2010, he was first place winner of the University of Pittsburgh's Film Studies Undergraduate Writing Award for the essay "The War Game: Human Tragedy and Institutional Criticism." While an undergraduate, he also contributed fiction, non-fiction, and poetry to the student-run magazine The Original, hosted a weekly radio show at WPTS-FM, and presided as vice president of a film screening group.

View all articles by Eoin Koepfinger

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