The iPhone-toting hipsters hanging out in their trendy downtown Moscow office are just the high-profile part of the Kremlin's new youth strategy.
Founded in November 2013, the youth group Set—which means "Network" in Russian—has organized patriotic fashion shows and film festivals, created an alphabet for schoolchildren that highlights the regime's accomplishments, and painted murals in seven cities on October 7 to mark Russian President Vladimir Putin's 62nd birthday.
It has focused on attracting urbane and educated young adults—the exact demographic that made up the backbone of the antigovernment street protests that roiled the Kremlin in late 2011 and early 2012.
Grigory Tumanov, a journalist covering Kremlin youth policy for the daily Kommersant, recently told Foreign Policy that Russia's twentysomethings don't "know about politics" and "just want to dress nicely and draw graffiti."
"Here, they've made it fashionable to work with the government," he said.
But the rise of Set is just one side of the story. The other aspect of the Kremlin's youth strategy is stealthier—and much more consequential.
Over the past 18 months, Putin has been quietly bringing a new cadre of officials to Moscow, reshaping the rank-and-file bureaucracy in his own image.
"The most interesting and exciting process unfolding today is in the lower and middle levels of the power vertical," historian and Kremlin-watcher Vladimir Pastukhov wrote in a recent article in Polit.ru. "There is a massive and rapid rejuvenation of personnel."
According to Pastukhov, this fledgling new nomenklatura is between 25 and 35 years old, hails mostly from the regions, and comes from relatively poor backgrounds. Their recruitment, he adds, has been connected "either directly or indirectly" to the security services.
"Not that they are all chekists," he wrote, using the term for early Soviet-era secret police. "But the security services had a hand in their recruitment."
They were recruited and selected based on their loyalty to the regime and for being "psychologically closer to Putin" than their predecessors. They are also "people without deep roots" who are "ready for anything" that facilitates their advancement.
"So far, their political consciousness is a tabula rasa on which you can draw anything," Pastukhov wrote. "In these brains, you can download any ideological software. The main thing is that it does not interfere with a successful career."
Veteran Kremlin-watcher Paul Goble, who flagged the Pastukhov article on his Window on Eurasia blog, wrote that the "new generation of officials ... are more like the Soviet-era nomenklatura than like the people they are replacing."
The shift, Goble wrote, "one largely taking place without fanfare, will have far-reaching consequences for how Russia is ruled well into the future, even if few at the present time are talking about it."
The dual-pronged youth strategy seeks to address two problems that have been plaguing the regime since Putin returned to the Kremlin in 2012: an urban-hipster creative class that was in revolt and an underclass in the provinces among whom discontent could easily spread.
The Kremlin gave the former shiny new toys to play with and the latter the possibility of upward mobility.
Without overplaying the analogy, this stealthy, managed generational shift in the nomenklatura is somewhat reminiscent of Josef Stalin's vaunted "Class of 1938," the cadre of officials who were also brought to Moscow from the provinces in the wake of the purges—and ruled the Soviet Union from the death of Stalin to the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev.
But the analogy may be apt to a degree if Putin faces a revolt among the technocratic wing of the elite, which is becoming increasingly jittery about the economic impact of Russia's confrontation with—and increased isolation from—the West.
If the current elite balks at Russia's moves toward greater autarky, Putin may have "no choice but to wage an authoritarian and populist revolution from above," veteran journalist Ivan Sukhov wrote recently in The Moscow Times.
In such a case, he added, "following Stalin's example looks increasingly attractive if Putin wants to stay in the game."
And in the event of such an elite purge, Putin's "Class of 2014," now filling the lower and middle ranks of the bureaucracy, will be poised to fill the void—just as Stalin's "Class of 1938" did more than seven decades ago.
This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
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