Putin Youth: The Young Russians Who See the President as a Father

A customer inspects a t-shirt printed with an image depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin at GUM department store in Moscow, Russia, June 11, 2014. Maxim Shipenkov/EPA

Anastasia Zakharova's desk is in some kind of organised chaos. Several images of Vladimir Putin are scattered across the surface, along with a few pictures of Russian Olympic women champions, and old copies of the Soviet Pravda newspaper. This week, the 18-year-old fashion designer is working on a new collection of T-shirts called 'For'. The meaning is "quite transparent", she says – in a country, where 84% of the population supports Putin. On one of the newly designed T-shirts, half of the ­president's face is visible. The words below read simply: "Iron Putin".

Zakharova is an enthusiastic and active member of one of the fastest growing organisations in ­Russia: a youth movement of Putin's adoring admirers named 'Set' which in Russian means both 'network' and 'fishing net'. The movement's Moscow office recruits creative young people to produce stirring patriotic products –with a hint of style about them. To enroll, members don't need connections or money. They simply need to provide a positive answer to the question: "Are you for Putin?"

The Russian leader is under increasing international pressure over Russia's role in Ukraine, but at home – despite the tumbling value of the ruble and the impact of sanctions on the economy – he has rarely been more popular.

In the early years of Putin's rule, artists felt comfortable satirising him. No longer. And his most eager fans can see nothing to joke about in the president's demeanour or personality. Like Zakharova, they are earnest and serious. A girl from Kaliningrad, a remote Russian city bordering Poland and Lithuania, she grew up without a father, without seeing her mother very often. The only true family Zakharova had was her grandma, a devoted Stalinist, who for the last 15 years of Putin's rule – most of Anastasia's life – had repeated the same words: "Putin is Russia's saviour." So naturally Zakharova, as so many of her generation, does not know a cooler superhero than Iron Putin.

Many of Network's members, who are mostly aged from 17 to 27, have been brought up by ­single mothers, missing out on a powerful male role model in their lives. "To us Putin is our father," Network's leader Makar Vikhliantsev, 30, tells Newsweek. The movement's headquarters is in expensive looking offices, a former red-brick factory turned into a contemporary arts centre, in a trendy part of Moscow.

Every afternoon, Network's activists gather after work or university classes to brainstorm politics, propaganda, street art and social media to burnish Putin's image in the eyes of Russia's young as the president of cool. There have been other youth movements in the Putin years – the best known was Nashi, which translates as 'Ours', but they turned into thuggish neo-fascist organisations that Putin's cronies knew did the president's reputation no good at home or abroad.

Network is trying to be something different, altogether more modern and sophisticated. It has close ties to the Kremlin – though it is hard to identify precisely what the connections within connections are. Since the summer, Network has recruited 1,000 activist members from 11 regions along Russia's borders with China and Europe, in Russia's Far East and in Siberian cities. Network's first products were giant propaganda posters of 'Polite People' anonymous militants in elegant masks – a stylish image, though the underlying message was that these were the people who were peacefully occupying Crimea. "We'll not make the same old mistakes or be once again condemned as Hitler Youth," says Vikhliantsev. "Our new movement Network targets talent, our job now is to create new trends."

When I visited, a group of activists were throwing ideas around about developing a new range of toys for the children's market. "Have you seen squashy toys, that you push on to change their shape? Let's make one of Obama," one of the girls suggested. (Putin's critics in Washington seem to be a major preoccupation for these devoted fans of Putin.)

Since last April the activists have staged several "educational" events. In the midst of Ukraine crisis, the movement sent thousands of school children in Crimea an ABC table of social ­values. The letter 'O' stood for 'otec' or father, and had a picture of the chief patriarch of the ­Russian Orthodox Church. Next to it, the letter 'P' depicted Putin.

At a different event in the city of Kaliningrad, young visitors who came to see Network's ­presentation were paid 400 rubles (around £6) for turning up and listening to a lecture about the historically hostile Anglo-Saxon attitude to ­Russia, about surviving the attacks and about how Putin made the nation feel proud once again. Even if participants left after a few minutes of the lecture, they still received the pay.

Plastered on the walls of Network's offices, there are giant images of Putin: The president at the Olympics; Putin petting a tiger or a leopard; a shirtless Putin looking sporty and swimming with dolphins. In one painted poster, Putin is portrayed like a young boy in Navy uniform. The caption reads, "To you, for coming back to home harbour." Another Network supporter, the author Dinar Yarmukhamnetov, explains: "That's how I depicted him in Crimea, as the little sailor."

Art experts are not exactly impressed. Moscow-based photography curator Anna Shpakova says it's too much like the kind of work produced by the Soviet-era Young Communist organisation, know as the Komsomol.

Sergei Bobovnikov, an art expert and collector of Soviet propaganda art based in ­St Petersburg-based, agrees. "Without self-irony, a good sense of humour or a sexy element, nobody is going to love their posters," he says.

"Let them say Putin has the most beautiful red hair in his armpit, and immediately there would be huge interest."

For Network's young members, the ultimate honour is to meet the beloved leader. A chance to talk with Putin, or to be photographed listening to the president's words of wisdom, would be an immediate lift to their social standing.

As leader of Network, Vikhliantsev has met Putin – but he admits the meeting was not an unalloyed success. The young man suggested a mass demonstration of support in which young people would dye their hair red out of admiration for the reddish hair of their hero, Putin.

The president did not approve. "He said that for as long as he is the president, we should not go ahead with red-haired actions," Vikhliantsev says. "I missed the target there."

A century ago, young creative Russians would gather in and around Moscow basements or ­publishing agencies to develop Agit-Plakat – the colourful, printed propaganda drawings that would mock the bourgeousie and show support for the early Soviet regime. These artists were allowed a measure of freedom and were allowed to use irony – something that is not permitted under the current regime. The most famous artworks were futurist posters that were inspired by the famous Soviet poet, Vladimir Mayakosky. "The censors in Lenin's time and even early ­Stalin allowed self irony," Bobovnikov says, displaying a poster dated 1928 of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet secret police, depicted as a red fish with moustache swimming in open water past three bourgeois fish.

Network's artists wouldn't dare to consider jokes about the current president, the organisation's leader admitted. Its latest offering is a pencil sketch, unfinished as yet, but soon to be published. It depicts the US presidents from Mount Rushmore, Obama included, throwing a tomahawk in the colours of the US flag.

Why do young Russians think of America so much, while, according to polls in the US, very few Americans care much about what happens in Russia. The question confused most of the people at Network until finally one young man said with strong emotion: "Of course we cannot stop thinking of Americans, when the war is already on our border with Ukraine.

Correction: This article originally stated that Kaliningrad bordered Poland and Germany. It in fact borders Poland and Lithuania.