From a kiss to disillusion

By Harry van Versendaal

“We won in an open and honest battle,” a teary-eyed Vladimir Putin told a crowd of Muscovites in front of the Kremlin after garnering 64 percent of the vote in Russia’s presidential election on March 5. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of members of the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi were bused into the capital from around the country to attend the victory rally.

But not Masha Drokova.

The reasons are explained in “Putin’s Kiss,” a gripping documentary by Danish director Lise Birk Pedersen screened at this year’s documentary festival in Thessaloniki (TDF) which is hosting a tribute to filmmakers from the Nordic nation.

Born in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall crumbled into souvenirs, Masha was catapulted to national fame after planting a kiss on Putin’s cheek during a televised publicity stunt. The photo-op propelled this pretty and articulate teenager to the top echelons of Putin’s Nashi youth brigade, which was formed in 2005 following pro-democracy revolutions in neighboring Ukraine and Georgia to take on enemies of Putinism.

Pedersen’s 84-minute feature charts Masha’s precipitous rise inside the Nashi structure — complete with an apartment, a brand-new car, a place at a respected Moscow university and a TV talk show — and eventual disenchantment with the movement.

Interestingly, this is not what the Danish director had originally set out to do. Pedersen’s intention, rather, was to deliver a modern take on contemporary Russia by looking at the first generation to come of age following the collapse of the USSR. While shooting in the former communist country, she ran into Masha, a 18-year-old girl who loved Putin and everything about his “new Russia” image of stability and prosperity. She was already a Nashi member.

“When I encountered Masha and Nashi I was very intrigued by both: Masha [intrigued me] as an almost iconic picture of the youth, a generation that wants to move ahead and make success for itself as well as the country. And Nashi by being on the one hand modern, in the way it reaches out to the new generation, and at the same time reminiscent of Soviet times with its close ties to the ruling power,” Pedersen told Kathimerini English Edition in an interview.

Gaining access to the organization proved a rather easy task. As Nashi spokesperson, Masha did not hesitate to invite Pedersen to the group’s meetings, summer camps and protest rallies. “My approach to Nashi was not critical, but I was interested in finding out what Nashi was all about,” Pedersen said.

“I think this opened some doors to a certain extent. But I was never allowed to get into the inner circle, where the real decisions were made,” she said.

Some of these “decisions” concerned alleged attacks on members of the opposition.

When Oleg Kashin, an independent journalist whom Masha befriends despite their ideological differences, is brutally attacked in a politically motivated beating, she becomes disillusioned with the movement.

Despite the group’s dubious record, Pedersen says she never felt threatened. “I didn’t feel I was in any danger and I know that Masha didn’t feel that she was in danger either. But of course I often thought about this issue while making the film — particularly after what happened to Oleg,” she said.

Private e-mails allegedly hacked by a group calling itself the Russian arm of Anonymous recently showed Nashi running a network of online trolls and bloggers paid to praise the Putin system and slander opposition activists and media.

Thousands of Nashi activists were reportedly bused into Moscow from the provinces to take on opposition protesters — mostly from Russia’s wealthier, more vocal middle class — who took to the streets en masse after widespread allegations of fraud during parliamentary elections in December.

As far as she knows, Pedersen says, Masha did not take part in any of the opposition demos, which she reckons are a symptom of Putin overstretching his power. “When he went out and said, ‘Now the comedy is over, I will come back again,’ I think that the young generation felt that he was making a fool out of them. The young generation have been raised in freedom and they want more. When Putin announced his return, the young generation saw it as a step backwards for them and for Russia.”

Analysts have said that having won a comfortable election victory, Putin will now be tempted to strengthen his hand against the opposition. Demonstrators have vowed to keep going despite Putin’s victory, but Pedersen has mixed feelings about the prospects of the movement.

“I think if we don’t see any democratic reforms in Russian society, the protests will continue,” she said. “But on the other hand, the protesters will probably also find it hard to keep with the large turnouts after the elections.”

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