Meet the hipster wing of Putin’s propaganda machine.
- By Alec LuhnAlec Luhn is a Moscow-based journalist who has written for the Guardian, Politico, Slate, The Nation, the Independent, Vice News, and other publications.
MOSCOW — Located in a redevelopment project in downtown Moscow, where one square meter of office space can cost up to $750 per year, Set’s headquarters resemble the office of an internet publication, or a tech startup. Well-dressed twenty-somethings work at large computers or lounge on beanbag chairs, checking their iPhones. A basketball hoop stands in one corner, with the upside-down face of Alexei Navalny, who was Russia’s leading opposition politician until he was confined to house arrest in February, pasted on the backboard.
The surroundings are decidedly 21st-century. But the group’s manifesto reads like that of a political movement from the last century, or even a religious sect.
"The path laid by the father is not one of argument with him, but rather argument with the open world laying before us, an argument in which we are together with the father, at one with him," it says. "We don’t fight with the power of the father, we share it, we learn the power, we master the power, together with the father we direct its energy toward our present and future."
By "father," the group means Vladimir Putin.
This is Set, or Network, in English: an organization that’s something of a cross between the Komsomol — the Soviet organization that once groomed youth to join the Communist Party — a street art collective for patriotic hipsters, and a personality cult.
Set is the newest pro-Kremlin youth group attempting to win over well-educated young Russians to the cause of "Putin’s Russia" — and keep them from sympathizing with liberal values and Western-style democracy. But unlike the groups that came before it, Set isn’t interested in rough-and-tumble street politics: banging drums at massive rallies or drowning out the opposition at protests. Instead, it wants to recruit creative youth, and develop their talents to promote Russian values worldwide, through a patriotic "new culture of business, entrepreneurship, ideology and art," said Artur Omarov, one of Set’s founders. "We hope that for the rest of their lives they are going to create these businesses, enterprises, concepts and works of art with a genuine sympathy for how our country is set up," Omarov said.
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In honor of Putin’s 62nd birthday on Oct. 7, Set artists painted a huge mural on the side of an apartment building in Kaliningrad, the Russian exclave that sits on the Baltic Sea between Poland and Lithuania. The mural showed one of the "polite people" — a now-popular term Set claims it coined for the unmarked Russian soldiers who quietly took over Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in March — handing over a cat to a boy in front of an iconic war monument in the Crimean city of Sevastopol. In the center of the mural was the giant first letter of a Russian word written at the bottom: Sila, or "Strength."
The mural was part one of one of Set’s biggest projects to date. Over the course of the week before, Set had spray-painted murals in six more Russian cities, each with another word: "Remembrance," "Arctic," "Sovereignty," "History," "Security" and "Olympics" — a sort of Banksy-style street art project in the name of Russian patriotism. Taken together, the first letters of the words spell out SPASIBO, or "thanks," to the man Set calls the "main architect of these victories."
"Russians after Putin are different," said the group’s 30-year-old press office head, Makar Vikhliantsev. "We took Crimea, held the Olympics and started winning hockey championships … Before, we were losing all the time."
Set emerged from the ashes of the notorious group Nashi, the best-known out of several rowdy pro-Kremlin youth movements that came to prominence in the 2000s. Reportedly founded by Kremlin-connected political operatives to counter the threat of a popular revolution like the ones in the post-Soviet countries of Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine in 2003-2005, Nashi organized mass pro-Putin rallies, banged drums to drown out the chants at opposition protests, created smear campaigns against opposition leaders, and harassed foreign ambassadors in the name of fighting "fascism." It also ran an annual youth camp called Seliger, where, besides playing sports and listening to patriotic lectures, some of the young people would fight Russia’s demographic crisis by consummating their new marriages in a row of heart-shaped tents.
But as authorities increasingly opted for different tactics to combat the street opposition protests of 2011-2012 — staging rallies that drew pensioners and state workers instead of angry youth, and making high-profile arrests — Nashi eventually lost its raison d’être. The group disbanded in 2012; at the time, Nashi’s leader reportedly announced that Omarov, the former leader of the Nashi-affiliated group Stal, would form a new youth movement. Omarov and Vikhliantsev, also a former Nashi member, developed Set’s ideology and founded the group in November 2013.
Set is designed to appeal to what the group’s members constantly refer to as the "Putin generation" — the teens and 20-somethings who don’t clearly remember another leader before Putin took power in 2000. It’s a generation that, unlike their forebears didn’t come of age in the 1990s, when Russians lost much of their wealth under the economic "shock therapy" transition to a market economy and the 1998 financial collapse. Instead, they grew up with social networks and smart phones in an expanding economy.
Set understands that the Putin generation "doesn’t know about politics," and "just wants to dress nicely and draw graffiti," said Grigory Tumanov, who has covered pro-Kremlin youth movements for the newspaper Kommersant. "Here, they’ve made it fashionable to work with the government."
While Set has clearly continued in the pro-Putin vein of its predecessor, Vikhliantsev said it has focused on recruiting "quality over quantity." Set has a more urbane and educated member base than groups like Nashi did, he said, and the era when these youth took to the streets has ended. Instead, Set has organized patriotic fashion shows, lectures with influential political and cultural figures, and a film festival with contest categories that included "Family," "Homeland" and "Putin." It also was one of the sponsors of a patriotic youth camp this summer in the newly annexed Crimea, and claims to be the first organization to collect humanitarian aid for residents of pro-Russian separatist republics in eastern Ukraine.
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In the past few months, Set said it has recruited 1,100 members across its branches in Vladivostok, Volgograd, Yekaterinburg, Irkutsk, Kaliningrad, Novosibirsk, Rostov-on-Don, St. Petersburg, Sevastopol and Yaroslav. (The combined numbers of the various youth groups of the 2000s reportedly reached more than 100,000). The recruitment process has involved camping retreats during which new recruits plan out a year-long patriotic creative project, Vikhliantsev said. Most members are brought on board after attending Set-sponsored discussion groups that participants usually receive about $10 in cash to attend.
Like Nashi, Set’s ties to the Kremlin remain murky. Vikhliantsev admitted his group has connections with the presidential administration but declined to go into details. Rather than being a state organization, he said, it receives its funding from businesses with close ties to the government; he declined to name anyone in particular. He also admitted Oleg Morozov, the head of internal politics for the presidential administration, had met with activists from the group.
Set’s founders hope their cultural operatives will challenge the soft power that the United States exercises through the media. While Vikhliantsev said he will keep using his iPhone until "Russia makes something better," his group’s goal is to combat the influence of the "Anglo-Saxon civilization" that has flooded Russia with McDonald’s restaurants and Hollywood movies after the Cold War.
"A different world came and said, ‘live this way.’ We don’t refuse, but we want to present an alternative," Vikhliantsev said. "The alternative is our culture, it’s our values, language, religion, and also political sphere," he added, referring to Putin’s brand of governance, with its de facto one-party rule and state capitalism-style economy.
To this end, Set is planning an "Images of Russia" fashion design contest to create a Russian alternative to the ubiquitous "I [heart] New York" shirt. It also wants to hold an art installation/political action this month called "13 Instruments for Taking Over the World," which will include a zero-dollar bill, a Wall Street roulette wheel, and a baseball bat labeled "U.S. Army."
The group also plans to develop 10 high-profile Russia celebrities — what Set calls "brand name faces" — within the next 10 years, although just how it plans to do this isn’t clear and its odds of success seem dubious: So far, the only international project it can boast of is a film festival it held in Serbia, which has historically had close relations with Russia. In particular, Vikhliantsev said he wants to create a Russian answer to Madonna, who caused embarrassing headlines when she spoke out for LGBT rights at a concert in St. Petersburg shortly after Russia passed a law against gay propaganda in 2013. Notably, the entirety of the "moral principle" section of Set’s manifesto is that it is against same-sex marriage.
Besides its own contests and projects, Set organizers said they help their members realize their own patriotic creative ambitions by providing funding and connecting them with influential people. Some of the Set members interviewed seemed to see the organization as a career opportunity, like Roman Putanov, a 25-year-old with long, unkempt hair who enjoys surfing and skateboarding. He said Set helped him contract with a woodworking company to make miniature windmills and other Russian folk art-themed landscape architecture items, which he has begun selling in St. Petersburg.
Alexander Khazbiyev, a member of the St. Petersburg member of Set, said the group had enabled him to organize a street exhibit there featuring a bench press and other everyday items made out of Russian-flag-colored car tires. He was inspired, he said, by the images of tires burning at the Kiev protests that toppled president Viktor Yanukovich this winter. "I wanted to show St. Petersburg how tires are used in a civilized country," he said — that is, not to build protest barricades. According to Khazbiyev, the country is going through a historic era "when new Russians will be formed."
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Analysts aren’t yet sure what political function the project serves. Dmitry Oreshkin, a political analyst sympathetic to the opposition, argued that the goal of Set is similar to youth organizations stretching back to the Soviet Union: to "attract and grow political leaders and bright personalities who then will support this model of government." The independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta quoted an unnamed source inside the presidential administration who said Set had been created to "do something with the remnants of Nashi." But just what to do with them the Kremlin "doesn’t understand right now"; since the opposition has been mostly dispersed, there’s no need to bring youth out onto the streets, the source said.
Kommersant reporter Tumanov noted that Set is "a very young movement" and could still develop a more influential role.
Until then, however the activists will work toward a brighter future, drawing inspiration from their "father" and waiting for a time when he calls upon them. For now, the manifesto says, he only requires their love and respect: Set’s members will not be "ungrateful and naïve," it reads. Rather, "we will become adults and direct our love and gratefulness to our father for the fact that we have dignity."