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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Stalinists Buddy Up To Unity's Bear Cubs

If you didn't know better, you might think that a well-spoken, energetic young politician who claims tens of thousands of followers and pledges support for Vladimir Putin would be the perfect poster child for the youth wing of the acting president's fledgling political movement.

But for the leaders of Young Unity, 26-year-old former State Duma Deputy Darya Mitina is a public-relations nightmare.

A self-proclaimed Stalinist, Mitina was a member of the Communist faction in the 1995-1999 Duma. But after her bid for a second term failed in December, Mitina announced she was building Unity's youth organization.

"I don't see any contradiction," she said on NTV television after the election, adding that all Russia's Stalinists are fans of the tough-talking Putin.

While Mitina is not officially a leader - or even a member - of Young Unity yet, many of her colleagues from the Komsomol, the Communist youth organization, have already taken up the cause of the "bear cubs" - as they are known thanks to Unity's Russian acronym, Medved, or Bear.

Russia's few anti-government media have gleefully reported this phenomenon; Young Unity's leaders are scrambling to deflect stories implying they are budding Stalinists.

"Darya Mitina is a good woman and a good activist, but she doesn't have any influence here," chairman Oleg Belyayev said in an interview this week.

But in the next room, Komsomol secretary Vladimir Novikov was busy in his new role as deputy chairman of Young Unity. "Many of my comrades whom I know from Communist youth organizations ... have come to Unity," he said.

Belyayev and his co-chairman, Anatoly Nikiforov, said they don't see a contradiction there.

"Those people that have come to work for us, these are people who worked in the organizational structures [of the Komsomol]," Nikiforov said. "These are people who can really work."

In the Soviet Union, membership in the Komsomol - which stands for "Communist Union of Youth" - was virtually obligatory; without it, young people would have a difficult time attending university or finding a job.

Today, the Russian Komsomol claims 34,000 members. While it considers itself the main heir to the Soviet Komsomol, it has tense relations with the Communist Party.

When Unity's leader, Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu, announced the creation of a youth wing, he drew a parallel to the Communist organization, calling it the "Bear's Komsomol." Privately owned NTV television commented that the announcement was evidence that Unity was on its way to becoming a true "party of power" - not unlike the one that ruled over Russia for 74 years.

But Belyayev, who has years of experience as a "youth policy" bureaucrat, stressed that "this isn't the Komsomol. There won't be any dues. We won't chase anyone with sticks."

Instead, he envisions an organization that would provide young people with support - ranging from legal assistance to discounts at clubs and movie theaters.

Charity drives to benefit soldiers in Chechnya and anti-drug campaigns are also in the works.

Belyayev said branches of Young Unity have been formed in almost 60 of Russia's 89 regions.

"We're already ahead of 'grown-up' Unity. They're only just forming," he said.

"Unity is a movement that will be in the vanguard," added Nikiforov, whose rapid manner of speaking somewhat resembles Putin's.

As for Mitina, Nikiforov said she and Komsomol leader Igor Malyarov have indeed asked to join the leadership of Young Unity.

"Well, we're still thinking it over," Nikiforov, a businessman, said. "Even though we have very good, friendly relations with them, as far as ideology goes, we have serious differences."

But so far, it remains unclear whether Unity in fact has an ideology, beyond support for Putin. Belyayev seemed to have a hard time articulating what it might be but eventually settled on "patriotism, love for our homeland."

"To walk on the land and not think that Chechen soil is not our soil," he added.

For Mitina, the absence of a coherent political philosophy in Unity makes it a convenient blank slate.

"Unity, which is being created for Putin - and nobody hides that - has an absence of ideological foundations. It is a party of deed," she said in a telephone interview, adding that the party's strategic alliance with the Communists in the Duma means "they are distancing themselves from the right."

She said she was negotiating with top Unity and Kremlin officials about a possible role for her and that she had already received offers.

Novikov, who at 26 has the demeanor and drab dark suit of a Communist functionary, said he has crossed over to Unity because he is frustrated with today's Communist Party, which he contends ignores young people and styles itself as a "party of pensioners."

"I have worked quite a long time in the Communist movement and, alas, I don't see serious prospects for the Russian Communist Party," he said. "For the first time our society has consolidated around the official head of state, and one of his priorities is youth."

But for now he retains his position in the Komsomol and acknowledges that he is still a communist - though, he adds, "it depends what you mean by communist."

In the end, the Young Unity-Komsomol connection may say less about Putin's party, which remains ideologically vague, than about activists like Mitina, who have long espoused a radical leftist world view.

Indeed, their support of Unity has met with harsh criticism in the guest book of the Komsomol's web site, where people claiming to be members have voiced their complaints.

"I understand it this way: Having failed in the parliamentary elections, Malyarov's followers went to get money and Duma ID badges [which are given out to assistants] from the party of power before the rest of their activists run away," writes one observer. "Idiots: You'll get 30 silver coins but lose what remains of your communist reputation."