Vladimir Putin's biggest fan club: Media-savvy youth group Set is churning out propaganda and clothing to promote Russia's leader

The fast-growing youth group for the Russian leader's most eager fans peddles edgy T-shirts and cool posters. And there's not a trace of irony in sight, reports Anna Nemtsova

Anna Nemtsova
Wednesday 03 December 2014 22:30

Anastasia Zakharova's desk is a chaotic mess. Several images of Vladimir Putin are scattered across the surface, along with a few pictures of Russian Olympic women champions and old copies of the Soviet Union's Pravda newspaper. This week, the 18-year-old designer is working on a new collection of T-shirts called "For".

The meaning is "quite transparent", she says, in a country where 84 per cent of the population is for Putin. On one of the newly designed T-shirts, half of the president's face is visible. The words below read: "Iron Putin."

Zakharova is an enthusiastic and active member of one of the fastest-growing organisations in Russia: a youth movement of Putin's adoring admirers named Set, which in Russian means both "Network" and "Fishing Net". The movement's Moscow office recruits creative young people to produce stirring patriotic products with a hint of style about them. To enroll, members simply need to provide a positive answer to the key question: "Are you for Putin?"

In the early years of Putin's rule, artists felt comfortable satirising him. No longer. And his most eager fans can see nothing to joke about in the president's demeanour or personality. Like Zakharova, they are earnest and serious.

Born in Kaliningrad, a remote Russian city bordering Poland and Germany, Zakharova grew up without a father and without seeing her mother too often. The only true family she had was her grandmother, a devoted Stalinist who for the last 15 years of Putin's rule – most of Anastasia's life – had repeated the same words: "Putin is Russia's saviour." So naturally, Zakharova, like so many of her generation, does not know a cooler superhero than Iron Putin.

Many of Network's members, who are mostly aged from 17 to 27, have been brought up by single mothers, missing out on a powerful male role model in their lives. "To us, Putin is our father," Network's 30-year-old leader, Makar Vikhliantsev, tells me.

There have been other youth movements in the Putin years, but they turned into thuggish neo-fascist organisations that Putin cronies knew did the president's reputation no good.

Since the summer, Network has recruited 1,000 activist members from 11 regions along Russia's borders with China and Europe, in Russia's Far East and in Siberian cities.

The movement's headquarters is in one of the trendiest parts of Moscow, in expensive-looking offices in a former red-brick factory turned into a contemporary arts centre. When I visited, a group of activists was throwing ideas around about developing a new range of toys for the children's market. "Have you seen squashy toys that you push on to change their shape? Let's make one of Obama," one of the girls suggested.

Plastered on the walls of Network's offices are giant images of Putin: the president at the Olympics, Putin smiling at a dog, a shirtless Putin looking sporty and swimming with dolphins. Art experts are not exactly impressed.

Putin's fans can see nothing to joke about in the president's demeanour or personality

Sergei Bobovnikov, a St Petersburg-based art expert and collector of Soviet propaganda art, agrees. "Without self-irony, a good sense of humour or a sexy element, nobody is going to love their posters," he says.

For Network's young members, the ultimate honour is to meet the beloved leader. A chance to talk with Putin, or to be photographed listening to the president's words of wisdom, would be an immediate lift to their social standing.

As Network's leader, Vikhliantsev has met Putin, but he admits that the meeting was not an unalloyed success. He suggested a mass demonstration of support in which young people would dye their hair red to echo the reddish hair of Putin, their hero.

The president did not approve. "He said that for as long as he is the president, we should not go ahead with red-haired actions," Vikhliantsev says. "I missed the target there."

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