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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Children's Movement Fails to Draw Kids

MTA Mishki activist wearing a poncho with a bear holding up the message "Hibernation is being canceled!" on Thursday.
Drawn up in dense rows 50 wide and 10 deep, members of Mishki, or Bear Cubs, a pro-presidential, children's and early-teen movement, stood on Bolotnaya Ploshchad early Thursday afternoon waiting for their rally to begin.

The lively group carried large, white flags sporting a fuzzy, brown teddy bear and the movement's name in multicolored, balloon-shaped letters -- very appealing for the children and youth.

Then one of the kids lit up a cigarette.

Yulia Zimova, the head of Mishki, said the organization was created to encourage children aged 8 to 15 to be more active in society.

Only two months old, Mishki is just the latest in a broad array of pro-Kremlin youth groups. It joined 30,000 youngsters at a Nashi rally on Vasilyevsky Spusk, near the Kremlin, in the morning to celebrate the victory of President Vladimir Putin and United Russia, whose candidate list he led in Sunday's State Duma elections, before holding its own rally later in the day. The rally was Nashi's third since Sunday.

If Nashi can be likened to the Komsomol, the Soviet-era organization of high school and university students, then Mishki is a throwback to the Pioneers, the children's group of the same period that survives today -- except many of the "children" were old enough to shave.

Their essential purpose, just like Nashi, is to support Putin.

"I love the Mishki! I love Russia! I love Putin! Together, we will win!" children's voices boomed from speakers set up on Vasilyevsky Spusk, near Red Square, during the morning Nashi rally.

But not a child was to be seen among the crowd.

The square was occupied instead by teenagers from Nashi and a number of the organization's spin-offs.

The groups came from cities all over Russia.

"It's important to have stability," said Mikhail Prudnikov, 20, a Nashi member from Tambov. "I agree with the Constitution and we must not break it. But we must find a politically active role for Putin, maybe as prime minister."

Putin is prohibited by the Constitution from remaining in office past the end of his second consecutive term, in May.

"I'm a Bear Cub because the most important cub in the country is the president," said a young woman with dyed-blond hair wearing tight-fitting jeans, a stud through her left eyebrow and a black-and-gold fedora. She refused to give her name, saying only that she was 18 years old and from Nizhny Novgorod.

Confusingly, as the morning rally of Nashi organizations came to an end, a mother led her child, dressed in a Nashi coat, across the square. Asked whether the little girl was a Mishki member, the young mother laughed and said, "No, she's Nashi!"

During the Mishki portion of the rally, the new group's members spelled out a giant letter to Putin on the ground, asking him to head the organization, Zimova said, adding that the president would be given a tape showing the letter.

In a surreal twist, besides childish flags suited for a kindergarten, many of the Mishki teenaged girls held teddy bears, which they said were their own. Mishka is also the Russian word for teddy bear.

Holding up a clean, pink stuffed bear, one of the 18-year-old girls said, "I've had Lavrik for a year."