Cathy Young is worried about “a generation that is being taught to see national greatness in a bully state that inspires fear abroad and tramples the individual at home.” Surprisingly, she isn’t talking about the College Republicans, and the “bully state” she mentions is not the U.S. government. She refers instead to Russian youths who belong to a group called Nashi, and the state is the Russian Federation (which has not, strangely enough for a bully state that spreads fear abroad, invaded even one other country in the last 15 years). From her description, this group sounds as if it has many of the vices that would be associated with any group of nationalists. It isn’t clear why it merits this much attention. Think about it: Putin theoretically has at his disposal the entire military, intelligence and internal security apparatus of the Russian government, so how on earth could a band of occasionally thuggish nationalist youths be of greater concern to someone who opposes Putin?
If you want to get exercised about the treatment of Estonia (whose own government’s removal of a Soviet war memorial started the whole fracas), you might focus on the massive cyber-war waged against E-stonia rather than the bussed-in protesters who threw rocks at an embassy. But there’s no anti-Nazi cachet in that. Drawing attention to Russian cyber-warfare would emphasise that these are not just some dusty bunch of old commie-Nazis, but represent something different. Writing an article about “Putin’s young brownshirts” is much catchier, because it allows the audience to avoid thinking.
Presumably Ms. Young is no more of a fan of our own President-worshipping, “national greatness” chauvinist, rights-trampling and Constitution-shredding types in this country, but when I read things like this I am tempted to ask: “Why does this matter?” Or, more to the point, I am compelled to reply: “Why do you suppose a generation who grew up in chaos would rally around an authoritarian populist who shakes his fist defiantly at foreigners and seeks to restore national prestige? Could it be that incredibly bad U.S. Russia policy, the follies of Russian liberals and the rampant criminality of the ’90s taught a generation that the liberalism being offered them was designed to ruin and humiliate their country?” It’s a bit like the growing revolt of my generation against the GOP because of its failures and corruption, but multiplied by a factor of ten.
No doubt many of the young nationalists Ms. Young mentions here are making standard nationalist errors: you can see the reflexive attachment to the state, the confusion of government and country, the conflation of patriotic love and nationalist hatred, and the overcompensation for an awareness of vulnerability with bluster and tough talk. Above all, the source of this nationalist zeal is a sense of rage caused by past humiliations and the focus of that rage on those who are believed to have been responsible for that humiliation. It occurs to me that if the popularity of authoritarian nationalism in another country disturbs you, you would want to be someone who very actively denounces all of your own state’s policies that contribute to the fear, anger and resentment that fuel that nationalism. Perhaps that will be Ms. Young’s next column. For some reason, I won’t be holding my breath.