About 20 minutes into Putin's Kiss, a Danish documentary screening Saturday and next Thursday at the European Union Film Festival, filmmaker Lise Birk Pedersen drops in on a restaurant gathering of young Putin supporters that suddenly erupts in a beer-hall chant. "Ne-ver! Lie or betray! And don't be a swine!" shouts one dude in horn-rimmed glasses and a knit hat, pounding on a table and leaping to his feet to face the camera. The other kids form ranks behind him, shouting: "Don't be a Judas like opposition leader Nemtsov! Remember that you live in Russia! It's the best country, and dickheads are not tolerated here!" Welcome to the world of Nashi, a progovernment youth group founded in 2005 to counter left-wing opposition to the Putin regime, and woe to you should you be judged a dickhead.
Pedersen frames her film as a profile of Masha Drokova, who was only 16 when she joined Nashi in 2005 but whose smarts and enthusiasm catapulted her to the top echelon of the organization. A tireless Nashi activist who once collected a kiss from Vladimir himself on TV, Drokova was awarded a medal of honor from the president in 2007, attended a top university, and even had her own TV show, a real credential in a nation where the airwaves are strictly policed by the ruling party. But her growing friendships with liberal journalists—particularly the muckraking Oleg Kashin, who appeared as a guest on her show—pulled her from the far right toward the center and alienated her from Nashi's charismatic founder, Vasily Yakemenko. This isn't quite the human drama Pedersen might wish, but it's compelling enough, and more important, it gives us a look at conservative Russian politics at their most ruthless and vindictive.
Yakemenko, a handsome and forceful young man, came to prominence with the pro-Putin youth group Walking Together, and when that organization was engulfed in a pornography scandal he reconstituted his following as Nashi. A TV commercial in the documentary proclaims the group to be "democratic, anti-fascist," though in a press release Yakemenko once enumerated the group's enemies as the "anti-Fatherland union of oligarchs, anti-Semites, Nazis, and liberals." At the annual Nashi congress, with Drokova listening from the audience, Yakemenko makes it all much simpler: "There is no authority for the movement except for the policy of Putin and Medvedev stated in our manifesto." He asks the attendees if they're ready to commit to Nashi as a way of life, which will require them "to tell a villain that he's a villain . . . to be ready to be cursed by those who don't want changes." Those who are ready, he says, should write down his phone number, a moment Pedersen marks with a close-up of a pretty attendee craning to see him.
As one might gather from that shot, not to mention the movie's title, Pedersen is well attuned to the romantic element in Drokova's political zeal. Early in the film she describes Putin as "the role model for the person I'd like to spend my life with," and her close relationship with Yakemenko, her mentor and boss, has the glow of a schoolgirl crush. At the annual Nashi summer camp she meets his helicopter with clipboard in hand, but he seems irritated by her micromanagement and eventually barks at her. Gossiping with her sister, Drokova relates how she went to Yakemenko's tent to straighten something out, found him alseep with his wife, and got another tongue-lashing. Later, sounding for all the world like a woman trapped in a bad engagement, she complains to a girlfriend about her dependency on Yakemenko as a political patron. "I want to make my own decisions," she says. "My future shouldn't depend on him. On his attitudes and moods."
Drokova may be too much a work in progress to command attention in so charged a political atmosphere (on one TV appearance she advocates burning books by dissident writer Eduard Limonov, then backs down after the host gives her a lecture on book burning). But as her story progresses, Pedersen also presents many fascinating and chilling glimpses of Nashi, a legion of young political shock troops who worship Putin and demonize his opponents with the most incendiary rhetoric. "Shame on Russia's enemies!' proclaims a banner in the annual Russian March, which draws some 30,000 young people from Moscow and its suburbs. Marchers carry placards with the names and photos of journalists, human rights activists, and other opponents of the Kremlin, labeled "Russia's Disgrace." Another poster reads "There are no bad nations, only bad people." Trained in paramilitary tactics at camp, Nashi members monitor the political opposition and turn out in force to quash protests by occupying strategic street corners in Moscow.
It gets worse. Pederson has no smoking gun that connects Nashi to dirty tricks or violence, but there are plenty of both swirling around Moscow. Right-wing harrassment of political opponents ranges from the admittedly funny (a press conference by chess master Garry Kasparov is interrupted by little toy helicopters shaped like dildos) to the disgusting (opposition leaders finding fresh turds on the hoods of their cars). A key event in Putin's Kiss is the savage November 2010 attack on Kashin, which was captured on silent surveillance video and flashes on-screen twice in the movie, to bloodcurdling effect. Kashin suffered a broken jaw and multiple skull fractures, and the attack prompted an eight-day sign-carrying campaign around Moscow. Drokova showed up on the third day to be photographed with a sign reading, "I demand that those responsible are brought to justice." The crime is still unsolved, but as Kashin puts it in the movie, "I have no doubt that the attack on me has a Nashi trace."
By the end of the movie Drokova has seriously pulled away from Nashi: though she spoke at the Russian March in 2009, she declines to attend in 2010 and ultimately leaves the organization. "There was no specific reason or event that made me leave Nashi," she tells Pedersen, though she later admits to Kashin that the attack on him was a factor. According to Drokova, Yakemenko tried to dissuade her from leaving Nashi but allowed her to go and urged his underlings not to snipe at her or exact retribution. "It's a big personal victory for Masha," notes Kashin. "Apart from her, I do not know of anybody from this movement who was able to escape from the sect without personal loss." According to her Twitter feed, Drokova now does public relations for Runa Capital, a high-tech venture capital firm.
Yakemenko officially left Nashi in 2008 when Putin named him director of the newly created Federal Agency for Youth Affairs; the appointment only redoubled charges that Nashi itself is funded and controlled by the Kremlin. Now that Putin has been elected to another six-year term as president, with the promise that he'll seek six more years in 2018, Nashi would seem to have a long, bright future ahead of it. But the only hopeful moment in Putin's Kiss arrives when Kashin and Drokova meet for dinner and one final conversation with Pedersen. Drokova still believes Putin was "sent to Russia by God," in the words of writer Vladislav Surkov, while Kashin will acknowledge Putin only as "an angel of the Apocalypse." Their views may never coincide, but their mutual respect is unmistakable, a welcome respite from a political world where dildos take to the skies.