MOSCOW, Feb. 15 – In the bacchanal that is today’s Russia, where post-Soviet values are nurtured by market forces, where popular culture is laced with crime and pornography and where drugs and alcohol ravage a nation’s health, a youth group called Walking Together offers itself as a path to social and moral – and some say political – rectitude.
The group’s leaders organize summer camps with the Russian Orthodox Church and trips to historic cities. Members visit orphans and war veterans. Last year, they promoted participation in Russia’s census. Recently, they sent 20 young volunteers to teach social studies in Chechnya’s schools.
They also organize rallies against Communists, whom they despise, and for President Vladimir V. Putin, whom they adulate. They have filed an obscenity suit against one prominent writer, Vladimir Sorokin, and held raucous protests against others. Earlier this year they staged a vigil outside the Church of Scientology in St. Petersburg, demanding that the authorities shut it down as an unlawful sect, while ominously warning passers-by not to be enticed inside.
“The philosophy is quite simple,” said Vasily G. Yakemenko, founder of the group. “Since the Soviet Union fell apart, the system of views – the ideology, the upbringing – ceased to exist, and it was not replaced by anything.
“It became clear,” he added, “that some force should appear, and it should be young people who can say what’s good and what’s bad.”
What is good and what is bad, however, is a matter of debate in Russia today. For that reason, Walking Together has become the subject of both debate and publicity that pollsters and the group’s critics say far exceed the influence the group actually wields.
Since its inception three years ago, Walking Together has propelled itself into the struggle over Russia’s identity – what is called here the “national idea” – extolling patriotism and traditional values with a well-financed and politically astute campaign of social activities and populist “actions.”
“They are trying to be the so-called normal people against all that is wrong in Russia today,” said Yuri A. Levada, director of the Russian Center for Public Opinion Research. “So far, it is harmless. They are not Hitler Youth, or even the Communist Youth, but it seems they would like to be.”
The group – whose name in Russian, Idushchiye Vmeste (pronounced ee-DOO-shchee-ye v’MES-te) can also be translated as Going or Moving Together, – has grown to include 80,000 members in 60 cities and towns across Russia, its leaders say. Members range in age from as young as 12 to as old as 30.
The group has a quasi-military structure, organized into groups of five called pyatyorki. Ten pyatyorki constitute a detachment. Twenty detachments make up a corps. Moscow has 10 corps, each led by a coordinator who answers to Mr. Yakemenko.
Those who join are expected to attend six concerts or plays a year, visit four historic cities, check out six books from the library and volunteer at least once a month at orphanages or senior citizen homes – all to inculcate a sense of Russian history and culture, Mr. Yakemenko says.
Members say they consider Walking Together a social group as much as anything else – albeit one with religious undertones and a sort of self-help theology.
“It helps us in our everyday lives,” said Aleksei S. Metryushkin, a 20-year-old commander of a detachment. “How to control ourselves, how to lead, how to feel more self-assured.”
Members also adhere to a strict moral code set out in 10 commandments. They forswear drugs, alcohol and foul language. They pledge to respect their elders and to be a patriot and citizen of Russia. The sixth commandment prohibits “nationalist and chauvinist ideology.”
Mr. Yakemenko, 31, is charismatic and energetic. An engineer by training, he founded the organization to fill what he called a moral and cultural vacuum – one once filled by groups like the Young Pioneers or the Komsomol, the Soviet Communist youth organization.
He speaks often of the need for “spiritual education” and rails against those he perceives as enemies of a strong, modern Russia: Communists, Boris N. Yelstin, gays and, most of all, modern writers and artists who, he says, revile high Russian culture.
“The values we offer,” he said, “are patriotism and healthy families, consisting of a mother and a father, not two fathers; cultural values, Tchaikovsky and Chekhov; and of course, our history, of which people know practically nothing.”
If his group has a unifying philosophy, however, it is its unstinting loyalty to Mr. Putin and his policies.
Walking Together burst into public view in May 2001 with a boisterous rally of 10,000 young people, who gathered in Red Square to celebrate Mr. Putin’s first anniversary as president. They chanted “Russia” and “Putin” and wore T-shirts adorned with his image and the inscription “vsyo putyom,” a pun on the president’s name that more or less means “everything is on track.”
The youth group’s lavish promotion of Mr. Putin – and its high contacts within his administration – have given birth to a widely held suspicion that the group is simply a creature of the Kremlin, created to advance Mr. Putin’s policies.
Mr. Yakemenko denies that, saying the group receives neither support nor money from the Kremlin, though he worked for three months in 2000 for Sergei A. Abramov, Mr. Putin’s deputy director of domestic policy. Mr. Yakemenko continues to meet with Mr. Abramov, as well as with Vladislav Y. Surkov, a senior political adviser.
Walking Together does receive money from local governments, including that of Moscow’s mayor, Yuri M. Luzhkov, as well as from corporations, which sponsor trips and other activities, Mr. Yakemenko said.
While its members maintain the group is not a political organization, many of their activities are overtly political.
On Friday, they staged a demonstration against the Communist Party, unfurling an enormous banner opposite the lower house of Parliament, mocking the party’s leaders and Boris A. Berezovsky, the self-exiled businessman who is one of Mr. Putin’s most vehement critics.
There are indications, however, that Mr. Putin’s aides would like to distance themselves from some of the group’s tactics. When it filed obscenity charges against Mr. Sorokin last year – after demonstrations in which members destroyed copies of his books or exchanged them for the group’s specially published edition of classical writers – the minister of culture, Mikhail Y. Shvydkoi, criticized the group, as did Mr. Surkov.
In St. Petersburg, officials also rebuffed the protests against the Church of Scientology, prompting the group’s members to plant a five-ton stone in front of the city governor’s mansion last week.
“It’s not a matter of liking them or not,” said Aleksandr N. Afanasyev, a spokesman for the city, referring to the Scientologists. “The first question is whether an organization is legally registered or not and if it operates within the framework of the law.”
“In what’s going on,” he said of Walking Together’s tactics, “I see some slip back to Soviet times.”
Victor Erofeyev, another writer who has been a target of Walking Together’s protests, was dismissive of the group’s real influence. He warned, however, that their campaign posed a threat with its demand for strict adherence to prescribed values – something reminiscent, he said, of Soviet times.
“Russia has lost its identity, and the search for this phantom is the most fashionable event in the country today,” Mr. Erofeyev said. “Everybody wants to find out what it means to be Russian, and these conservative patriotic groups exploit it.”