Plucked from obscurity in the Russian provinces, Masha Drokova was a rising star of the pro-Kremlin youth movement Nashi. Yet she was also friends with Oleg Kashin, an independent and critical journalist who was later nearly killed by assailants allegedly connected to her movement. Drokova’s evolving moral dilemma is captured in a remarkable new documentary, Putin’s Kiss, which opens in the UK on Sunday.

In a vast web of Putinist social organisations, Nashi – the ‘anti-fascist democratic youth movement’ – has become a notorious symbol of modern Russia. Strong resistance to media attention has only heightened the political intrigue, but chinks of light are now appearing from beneath this cloak of darkness. In February, a hack attack on the email accounts of senior activists allegedly showed the group had paid popular tabloid newspapers to run positive stories, among other dubious dealings.

Another recent attempt to get inside Nashi is Putin’s Kiss, a documentary by Danish director Lise Birk Pedersen that won the world cinematography award at this year’s Sundance festival. Her team was cut off by some of the movement’s organisers after initially being granted access, but the film does not suffer. Its central character, Masha Drokova, is a high-flying party starlet who opens up her life in impressively candid fashion.

As Drokova’s journey progresses, it becomes a complex tale of inner conflict: She struggles to balance lofty career ambitions, fierce patriotism and an unlikely friendship with leading liberal journalist Oleg Kashin, arch nemesis of Nashi leaders.

Pedersen, who traversed the country scouting potential subjects for her production, says she wanted to depict contemporary Russia through the eyes of the new generation. ‘With Masha’s ambitions to make it big in life, she’s very much like the icon picture of a young person in Russia right now’, the director explains. ‘The combination of Masha and Nashi was just very interesting for me’.

Nashi was founded in 2005 as a tide of trepidation swept through Putin’s government. The Orange Revolution in Ukraine had propelled a pro-Western leader, Victor Yushchenko, into power – at the expense of Moscow’s preferred candidate, Victor Yanukovych – following widespread protests over electoral fraud. This came after similar movements catalysed regime change in Serbia (2000) and Georgia (2003-04).

With Putin’s second presidential term entering its last years, Nashi and its controversial leader Vasily Yakemenko were given the task of creating an organisation to engage large groups of young people in pro-regime activities. Nashi helped ensure Dmitry Medvedev would enjoy a soft transition by matching opposition protests blow by blow.

Once the Putin-Medvedev ‘tandemocracy’ was established, Nashi’s challenge became to stay relevant in a stable post-election environment. Its basic message was that devout patriotism combined with a disciplined lifestyle could bring progress and prosperity to faithful members. This attraction is captured in the opening scenes of Putin’s Kiss: At a summer camp, scores of smiling teenagers revel to patriotic techno anthems, enveloped by a giant Russian flag, after hearing Yakemenko proclaim they will become ‘different people’ over the course of a ‘vigorous educational program’ lasting eight days.

Drokova is in many ways the archetypal Nashi success story: A provincial girl from Tambov, 300 miles southeast of Moscow, moves to the capital, and – in Pedersen’s words – is effectively ‘raised’ by the youth movement to achieve great things. She enjoys a close personal relationship with Yakemenko, and is rewarded for her loyalty with a car, an apartment, a TV show and a place at a prestigious university.

The director got first-hand insight into Nashi’s recruitment strategy as she travelled around Russia with its representatives. One particular scene – which didn’t make the final cut – lives vividly in her memory. ‘You have a guy, he’s 25, and looks kinda funky with glasses and a big black coat, who goes out to Nizhny Novgorod’, Pedersen recalls. ‘He tells young people about joining Nashi. He says, ‘I can’t promise you the world, but famous people are there, you can make a great career.’ And this other guy is saying it could cause millions of dead bodies in Russia if they don’t join.

‘You have all these young faces just sitting and listening to this cool guy from Moscow, who gives them dirty talk about the opposition – Limonov is gay, Nemtsov is a traitor, Kasparov holds double citizenship, and stuff like that. That scene represents the appeal of Nashi, and the idea that you have someone who is almost a missionary, going on the train, carrying a small briefcase, selling his beliefs’.

‘I might even have joined myself, if the movement had been around at that time’, says Oleg Kashin, the co-protagonist and narrator of Putin’s Kiss. ‘You’re young, you love the motherland, you want to help somehow – and these people provide that opportunity, saying they will teach you and you’ll go to Moscow. If you’re 20 years old, you can lose your mind because you’re a boy who arrives from a village, and they give you what seems like millions of dollars to throw tomatoes at opposition politicians’.

Nashi’s radical wing has been connected to a number of such controversial actions – such as conducting cyber attacks on Estonian authorities, harassing a British ambassador and defecating on a car belonging to opposition leader Ilya Yashin (as shown in Putin’s Kiss).

‘The Nashi relationship to Putin is literally like a religion – he is some kind of god for them’, says Kashin. In the film, Drokova’s devotion to the iconic leader is summarised by a clip in which she tells an interviewer he is the kind of man she would choose as a life partner – ‘strong, charismatic, clever, and, most importantly, responsible’. Putin’s picture adorns the desktop of Drokova’s computer. The infamous kiss is only a fleeting moment, but, as the narrative evolves, her faith begins to waver as she falls in with Kashin’s group of liberal writers.

‘Just hanging out with Oleg and all these liberal guys was seen as treacherous’, says Pedersen. In November 2010, Kashin was beaten to within an inch of his life outside his Moscow apartment – and he believes the attack was ordered by Yakemenko as a reprisal for critical reporting. When Drokova took part in a protest demanding that Kashin’s assailants be brought to justice, Pedersen could sense a transformation beginning to materialise. ‘Even now, when she talks about it, you can see she’s not really finished with this conflict – it was very difficult for her to share it. Maybe this was because she didn’t even want to realise she was in such a conflict’.

Drokova eventually decided to quit Nashi. Nikita Borovikov, the movement’s current leader, downplays the departure: ‘People always leave youth organisations – some earlier, some later’, he wrote in an email. ‘As far as I know, we can’t say these so-called liberal journalists are such good friends of Masha as what’s shown in the film. She simply needed to communicate with them due to her journalistic work’.

Borovikov denounced the documentary as a ‘boring piece of propaganda’, stating that it presented ‘distorted images’ of both Russia and Nashi, and an ‘idealistic view of the opposition’. He emphasised the continuing mission of counteracting protest gatherings after Putin won his third presidential term in disputed elections: ‘We plan to celebrate the victory, and if someone tries to create disorder and take this victory away from us, we will defend it on the streets’.

After a relatively quiet showing in the December parliamentary elections, Nashi members were out in full force for presidential elections on 4 March. Thousands of activists were brought into Moscow from the regions, and allegations swirled about ‘carousel voting’ – bussing large numbers of people around polling stations to cast multiple ballots. Nashi convened large victory rallies in central Moscow, including a now infamous event at which their hero welled up with tears.

‘A huge crowd gathered – and Putin cried!’ Kashin recalls. ‘Yes, because he was so sure these people love him. Personally I think Putin is literally losing his mind. When a man is in power for 12 years, I think he believes in the illusion he created’.

Masha Drokova’s personal tale of conflict and confusion, infused with a fervent streak of nationalism, in a sense embodies Russia’s wider struggle between despotism and democracy. Putin’s Kiss could not have arrived at a more pertinent time, and Pedersen says she wants Russians to see the film. Her distributor in the country remains cautious, but a pirate version on YouTube has already garnered over 24,000 views.

Pedersen herself feels a perplexing moral quandary about the organisation she spent more than three years documenting. ‘I know Masha had the time of her life in many ways’, she says. ‘The big problem is that the movement was made for one main reason, to fight any opposition to power. If you could just take the politics out and give it to all young Russians, I think it would be just great because they’re doing a lot of good things as well.

‘They’re giving people a chance in life, but these great opportunities should not be exchanged for being politically loyal to a certain party – and that’s the whole deal’.

Published @ openDemocracy, 3/23/12 – click here for original.