"I was never political until I was 18. But in 2004, I was in Ukraine on a tourist trip with my friends, and I saw happy people who were protesting," says Mr. Elizarov, referring to the Orange Revolution, which brought hundreds of thousands into the streets to protest fraudulent elections. "They were all together, and I thought that they were capable of changing something in their country."
Indeed, Ukraine's new pro-Russia president was forced to hold fresh elections, which his West-leaning opponent won. Such revolutions buffeted other post-Soviet states – Georgia in 2003 and Kyrgyzstan in 2005.
Keen to avoid such upheavals, political forces close to Mr. Putin quickly backed two pro-Kremlin youth groups: Nashi and the Young Guard. Today, both claim roughly 100,000 members each, who engage in social programs as well as political events. But their approaches are decidedly different.
Nashi's federal headquarters lurks beneath dim streetlights in northwest Moscow. Its windows are barred, its door unmarked. Inside, youths with nose piercings and tousled hair mingle in hallways plastered with vibrant magazine photos of Nashi activists. Here, they plan their "actions" – anything from picketing stores that sell tobacco to underage teens to massive pre-election demonstrations to encourage citizens to vote – for Putin's party, of course.
"My grandfather was a state official, my father was a state official; I want to be useful for my state," says Maria Drokova. An 18-year-old commissar, she speaks excellent English and credits Putin with stopping the war in Chechnya, raising salaries, and paying off Russia's Soviet-era debt.
The Young Guard, meanwhile, is sheltered within the massive headquarters of Putin's United Russia party. At a recent strategy meeting, Kirill Shchitov (see story, left), who manages public relations, sat in the middle of a large modern office at the head of a wooden table, surrounded by stylish colleagues who listened attentively. His party recently introduced a 20 percent youth quota and has a candidate running for municipal office in every one of Moscow's 125 districts on March 2.
"We are meant to prepare our young people to become young, professional politicians," says Ivan Demidov, a former TV producer recruited in 2005 to turn the Young Guard into a political movement.
Ms. Drokova describes Nashi's ideology as "freedom and justice"; Mr. Demidov says United Russia is "for all things good against all things bad," adding that the unifying theme is support for Putin's policies. The Young Guard focuses on getting people in office, while Nashi emphasizes upward mobility, holding out government and business posts as carrots for promising members.
Not everyone is impressed with the groups. "Nashi is organized by people whose only religion is success and mimicry," argues Andrei Zolotov, editor of the state-funded Russia Profile magazine. "There has to be a kind of moral foundation in a real youth movement."
Others harp on the government's support of Nashi, the most well-known of Russia's numerous youth groups, which counts state-run energy giant Gazprom among its donors.
But Demidov rebuffs such criticism. "In the '90s, the only public institutions were bandits – they taught [young people], selected them, gave them jobs. Of course, young people paid for all that with their lives.... It's good that the state is at least doing something."