Young Militants Give New Muscle to Kremlin

The attacks came in crushing waves. Hours after Estonia removed a statue of a World War II-era Soviet soldier from Tallinn on April 27, a virtual blitzkrieg struck the tiny Baltic nation's computer systems. Massive onslaughts of spam brought down the Web sites of government agencies, banks and news services and paralyzed large parts of Estonia's cyber-reliant economy. NATO sent emergency Internet security assistance to defend the embattled member state. The Kremlin denied any role in the assault, whose source had yet to be positively identified as the electronic bombardment finally subsided last week.

Even so, the Russians have not tried to hide their rage against Estonia. On the contrary, the Kremlin has rolled out its newest weapon in the drive to reclaim Russia's bygone regional dominance: a shadowy youth movement known as Nashi (Russian for "ours"). Highly disciplined and lavishly bankrolled by the Kremlin, the militant young nationalists have developed a formidable organization to oppose alleged enemies at home and abroad and to glorify Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union. When the Estonians removed the statue from their capital's main square, a Nashi-led mob shut down the highway out of Russia into Estonia. In Moscow, Nashi protesters stormed a press conference by the Estonian ambassador, retreating only after her bodyguards sprayed them with pepper gas.

But the United States, not Estonia, is Nashi's particular bugbear. "It is time to put an end to America's being the strongest and most influential empire," says Nikolai Panchenko, a ranking member of the group. He's echoing the views of the Russian leadership, whose stance toward the United States is more belligerent now than at any time since the cold war. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice flew to Moscow last week, seeking to tamp down the hostility before Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin sit down together at a G8 summit next month in Germany. Nevertheless, in two days of talks Rice won no concessions from the Russians beyond an agreement to cool the anti-U.S. rhetoric—such as Putin's grim reference in a speech earlier this month to certain countries' making "claims of exceptionality" and becoming "a new threat, as during the time of the Third Reich."

Nazism is a recurring topic in Russia at the moment. The young militants call the Estonians fascists, and Russian dissidents (an endangered species) compare Nashi—and kindred groups such as Walking Together and the Young Guards—to the Hitler Youth of the '30s and '40s. New recruits to Nashi are given basic military training and can graduate to the black-uniformed street patrols of the Nashi Police or the fledgling Nashi Army, which earlier this month held military exercises 25 miles south of Moscow in Podolsk, marching, running obstacle courses, field-stripping firearms and practicing marksmanship. Two weeks ago, in the city of Sosnovy Bor, on the Estonian border, Nashi volunteers visited local schools to show a film titled "Lessons in Courage." It opens with footage of a vast Nashi meeting of young people wearing identical white T shirts marked with a big red star. Next came shots of Putin juxtaposed with photos of a noble-looking wolf, followed by images of rats. "Putin is a lonely wolf surrounded by rats," Panchenko told the schoolkids. "Russia has become too corrupt. It is time to change things, time for stronger leaders—like us."

Yet one of Nashi's principal aims is to prevent change. The group, which now claims 15,000 ranking members and 100,000 supporters, was launched by the Kremlin in response to the pro-democracy Orange Revolution that toppled a pro-Moscow regime in Ukraine in 2004. "The idea was to create an ideology based on a total devotion to the president and his course," says Sergei Markov, one of the Russian youth movement's architects. The Young Guards recently held a training exercise in which members defended a local TV station against a mob of "riot-ers" wearing orange bandannas. In April Nashi deployed thousands of volunteers across Moscow to hand out brochures and 10,000 specially made SIM cards for mobile phones. Recipients were told they would get special text messages in case of a Ukraine-style uprising. "Now people have a chance to receive precise instructions what to do to save their motherland if there is a pro-Western revolution," says Nashi activist Tatyana Matiash, 22. Meanwhile, they can bully neighboring countries for daring to defy the Kremlin's will.