In addition to concrete steps aimed at upgrading Russian military capabilities, Moscow has launched a vigorous campaign promoting the cult of the military within Russian society, particular focusing on younger generation of Russians. On September 1, the government launched the so-called “Yunarmia” military-patriotic movement, to be composed of Russian schoolchildren. Two months later, it is said to have already assembled around 27,000 members (Mil.ru, accessed November 9). The movement was initiated by the Ministry of Defence (it is frequently nicknamed “the army of Sergei Shoygu,” the present minister of defense) and enjoys the full support of Russian President Vladimir Putin. It currently consists of 5,000 branches all across Russia, on the basis of the Central Sport Club of the Army (CSKA) and the Volunteer Society for Cooperation with the Army, Aviation, and Fleet (DOSAAF). In the majority of regions, the local Yunarmia branches are headed by veterans of the Afghan or Chechen wars.
The main agenda of the movement is concerned with nurturing the young generation in accordance with Russian national traditions that reject such “foreign” elements as LGBT rights, religious fanaticism, radical nationalism, various sects, and “aggressive minorities” that allegedly seek to overthrow “legitimate governments.” Moreover, it is construed as an “inoculation against Fascism” (Russkaya Pravda, April 10). Also, there is an explicit reference to some “contemporary stage of Russian patriotism” that is based on restoring all “spiritual staples” (a notion introduced by Putin in 2012) and a readiness of ordinary people to serve the motherland (Tretya Mirovaya Voyna, accessed November 9).
Russian Minister of Defence Shoygu has also been very explicit as to the goal of the Yunarmia movement: the popularization of military ideology and the fostering of a special bond between young Russians and the army. “Paratroopers and racketeers, infantrymen and tank crew are determined to invite each and every member of ‘Yunarmia’ into their circle,” he noted earlier this year. On the other hand, Alexander Kanshin, the head of the National Association of Reserve Officers, has claimed that even in a short-term prospect, the youth movement is likely to accept “hundreds of thousands” of new members. Indeed, Yunarmia was conceived as a militarized wing of the “Russian movement of schoolchildren,” and thus it potentially has truly immense human resources at its disposal. Moreover, even though membership is officially “voluntary,” there are serious doubts in this regard—particularly considering Russo-Soviet historical tradition. Some observers have already compared the new organization to its historical predecessor of the mid-1980s, which played the role of a military supplement to the Soviet Pioneers youth organization. The alleged similarity is not only based on the visible ideological commonalities between the two, but is also underscored by the uniforms its members are given (Kp.ru, May 25).
One should not, however, conflate Yunarmia with such artificially created pro-Kremlin projects of the early 2000s as “Nashi”: the former is, by no means, just another “patriotic” initiative created by Russian political technologists. Rather, Yunarmia is a growing movement closely linked with the Russian Armed Forces. And considering the militaristic ideology now seen growing in the country, it the new “youth army” should be understood as an organic “part of the Russian state” (Openrussia.org, August 12).
Notably, Kaliningrad oblast—the Russian “island in Europe,” which is currently also being subjected to profound Soviet-style militarization (see EDM, November 7)—seems to have been chosen by Moscow to showcase Yunarmia’s launch. The ceremony of acceptance of the first Yunarmia members in the oblast was carried out with unprecedented pomp: not only was it attended by prominent Russian sportsmen, it also allowed the new members to undertake a short sea voyage on the naval corvette Steregushchiy (Tvzvezda.ru, July 9).
The “militarization of public conscious” in Kaliningrad has more recently taken yet another turn. On October 26, the holding company AO “Voentorg” had an opening ceremony for the first store in the exclave oblast that will sell consumer goods branded “Russian Army” (“Armija Rossii”). All in all there are only six stores of this kind across Russia; the one located in Moscow is physically situated right in front of the United States Embassy. The launch event for the Kaliningrad store was overseen by the commander of the Baltic Sea Fleet, Vice Admiral Alexander Nosatov (Newkaliningrad.ru, October 26).
Aside from products aimed at adults—the so-called “Polite People” brand, styled in the Soviet tradition of goods dating from the early 1940s—the shop offers a special line for children branded “Polite Bears.” The children’s line also adheres to the currently extremely popular “military style” (Minoborony Rossii, October 25). Undoubtedly, the last aspect should be viewed as an extremely dangerous and far-reaching trend that underscores the growing link between the youngest members of Russian society and the cult of militarism. Quite recently, the Russian blogosphere was appalled by the release of a children’s bed designed to look like the notorious “Buk” missile system, which was used to down the MH17 Boeing passenger jet over eastern Ukraine, in July 2014 (Mk.ru, October 1).
Admittedly, it would be quite inaccurate to claim that today’s Yunarmia and its Soviet-era predecessor are entirely analogous. In fact, today’s “youth army” appears to be a much more ominous phenomenon for Russian society. Given the extent of xenophobia and the cult of the military in Russian society today, the emergence of a mass popular youth movement like Yunarmia reflects a much darker time of the last century when young people became tools of totalitarian regimes in Europe. It will be up to Russians to make sure Yunarmia does not retread these footsteps of the past.