Black Forms, Autonomous Cells
Dmitry Bobrov on the post-Soviet evolution of Russian nationalism
By Dmitry Bobrov
Translated by Peter Nimitz
Since the fall of the internationalist Soviet Union, the revival of Russian nationalism has been discussed abroad with a mixture of fascination, fear, and ignorance. This makes it difficult for an English speaker to discern the aims, influence, and views of Russian nationalists. Below is an English translation of a two part series by Russian nationalist, terrorist, organizer, and writer Dmitry Bobrov on the evolution of the Russian nationalist movement from 1980s to the mid-2010s. It is this translator’s hope that knowledge and understanding banish ignorance and promote peace between the United States and the Russian Federation.
The Vendée website listed a number of topics of which they were accepting submissions for articles. I noticed the last item - “Criticism of ineffective strategies and tactics of the nationalists of the past wave”.
Criticism of the past is essential, but it is also important to note and analyze past successes as well. In addition to failures, there were effective actions that attracted tens of thousands of people to nationalist ideas and organizations, as well as a number of local successes and interesting projects. I wrote this article to discuss them.
Young people are always tempted to declare prior Russian nationalist movements ineffective, arguing that since they failed, there is no need to discuss their histories & methods. Limiting their study to only successful nationalist movements, they solely imitate the tactics and organization of the German National Socialists. They ignore the unique historical contingencies that led to the success of 1933, as well as the many failures that occurred both before and after.
Therefore, I wrote this article about the effectiveness of specific actions at a particular point in time, the post-Soviet period. The effectiveness of an action is measured in its positive effects on an organization. An effective action attracts new support, wins fame, gains wealth, and eventually drives an organization into the mainstream. I will review a number of nationalist organizations, although one should bear in mind that most successes and failures are contingent on historically contingent circumstances.
This article should begin with the society “Memory” (Pamyat), which arose in Soviet times & survived into the 2000s. It was a Russian Orthodox monarchist organization, marked by an orientation toward pre-revolutionary Russia and extreme conservatism. “Memory” had no memorable actions, but nevertheless included a large number of people who would later comprise the nationalist movement, including the future leaders of the main nationalist movements of the next twenty years - RNU (Russian National Unity) and MAII (Movement Against Illegal Immigration). One member was the well-known philosopher Alexander Dugin, later one of the founders of the NBP (National Bolshevik Party) & the leading ideologist of United Russia and a professor at Moscow State University.
In the ideological vacuum of the late Soviet Union, the existence of an organization with views that are completely different from the official ones was a great advantage. In those conditions, "Memory" was successful in large part by positioning itself as the representative of ethnic Russians.
Russian National Unity (RNU), founded by former member of the "Memory" Alexander Barkashov, was the first major organization of Russian nationalists in post-Soviet Russia. In the second half of the 1990s, RNU branches existed in almost all Russian cities & many small towns. At its peak, the membership of RNU was estimated at 300,000 spread amongst 1,000 branches. RNU positioned itself as a national socialist movement organized as a paramilitary structure. A stylized swastika was used as a symbol, and Roman salute as a greeting. They used a slogan inspired by a fascist party of Russian exiles in China from the 1940s: "Glory to Russia", a slogan now normalized to the point that it is used by Putin.
There was little strategy or action, as the main activity of RNU was to put up leaflets and drill. Nonetheless, there are two key points related to RNU that need to be voiced. First, Barkashov formulated the foundations of the ideology of Russian nationalism. He wrote a number of articles published in 1994 as a book entitled "The ABCs of Russian Nationalism." Despite some issues with his book, the ABCs included the key ideas of Russian nationalism: Russian State, Russian Nation, National Ideology, Russian National Interests, National Ideal and etc. The book contains a geopolitical, historical, and ethnopolitical analysis of the situation in Russia. The national movement that existed at that time was examined in critical detail, new forms of Russian self-organization were proposed, questions were raised about the building of a Russian national state, the return to Russia to her historical place in the world, the formation of a comprehensible and attractive ideology that would appeal to the broad masses of the people, etc. Barkashov was able to lay the foundation for modern Russian nationalism, which no one had previously done. Most of the members of his organization, even those who left, still remained Russian nationalists and continued to work in other organizations.
This, in my opinion, is one of the reasons for the success of RNU in the 1990s. They had a relatively coherent ideological system that explained current and historical events as well as the mechanisms of political processes in a way that could motivate people to take action.
The rise of the RNU was partly contingent on the Russian constitutional crisis in October 1993. Before participating in the conflict between the president and the Supreme Soviet, RNU was a small and little-known group. Everything changed in October 1993. A group of approximately one hundred RNU members joined the defenders of the Supreme Soviet. Although RNU members were only a small fraction of the defenders, mainstream media portrayed the defenders as ranks of black clad youth waving swastikas. This was to justify the suppression of the protesters, as well as to discredit their views amongst the general population. The media assumed that upon seeing black shirted RNU members, the public would rally against fascism and around the president. They were wrong, and the membership of RNU exploded after the media attentions.
This phenomenon can be explained by the field of social psychology. In times of cataclysms, revolutions and great historical changes, people become more open to new viewpoints and ideologies. The old systems of values and ideals lose their dominant position and thus allow for the rapid development of new political movements and religious groups arise. This explains why many Russians, including a large number of former soldiers, sailors, security service personnel, etc, who were all under the heavy influence of Soviet anti-fascist propaganda from childhood, became participants of an organization that bore symbols and external attributes similar to those of the Third Reich.
In addition, one should take into account the degree of distrust in the mainstream media and government. Recently, after Putin's pension reform, sociologists have recorded a sharp drop in Putin's ratings. That is, the predatory actions taken by the regime against the general population decrease public trust in government. In the 1990s, Russians experienced the negative results of state policy far worse than the current change in the retirement age. It is enough to recall the depreciation of bank deposits, the “Pavlovsky” monetary reform, the loss of cash savings, the collapse of businesses, and the high unemployment that had suddenly engulfed a country where such a concept had once been unthinkable. The rampant ethnic criminal gangs who engaged in lawlessness with impunity and gained great wealth contrasted with the impoverishment of the Russian people. In those conditions, confidence in mainstream media had declined to the point that TV broadcasts were seen as deliberate lies. By showing the RNU as “terrible fascists”, the mainstream media did not succeed in defaming them. Their campaign against the movement only improved its reputation.
One should study the successes of the RNU in dealing with and responding to the mainstream media's anti-RNU narrative. As there was by then a great deal of interest in their movement, RNU created a special issue of their newspaper "Russian Order" with basic information about their organization and views. As there was no internet at the time, they distributed millions of copies of this newspaper free of charge. Thus, a large number of people who had learned about RNU from television reports were able to find out more directly from the organization. This caused its explosive growth.
Regardless on one's views on the 1993 constitutional crisis, it is necessary to highlight the position of the RNU. Some nationalists today dislike RNU's support for the Supreme Soviet, viewing the Supreme Soviet as Communist, although no more than 8% of its members were members of the Communist Party. There were various other factions, including the nationalist faction "Russia" (leader Sergey Baburin) in the Supreme Soviet and participating in its defense during the crisis. For the rise and growth of RNU, participation in the crisis turned out to be decisive, despite participating on the side of the losers. Although the Supreme Soviet was defeated, the RNU showed their determination to act and their willingness to sacrifice (several RNU associates died defending the Supreme Soviet), creating a cult similar to the putsch cult of 1923 amongst the German National Socialists. They ceased to be viewed as merely one small group of talkers amongst countless others, but as men ready for an armed struggle in national interests. They justified their participation in that it was a “field of honor", and only spoke against the enemy, not Yeltsin or the Supreme Soviet. They viewed the enemy as those who since 1917 had tormented and humiliated the Russian people.
This is the similarity to the events of 2014, when nationalists were divided in their attitudes towards the events in eastern Ukraine. Those who stood by and did nothing, whether out of sympathy for Ukraine or hatred for Putin have gained no friends, relevance, or resources. Those who took an active part in the conflict received an influx of participants, resources, and renown.
In the 1990s, RNU received a great deal of human and material resources, but failed to use it effectively due to the lack of a realistic and effective political strategy. RNU completely squandered their resources and opportunities over the next decade, leaving the stage with so many other nationalist groups.
In my opinion, the failures and mistakes of the Russian nationalist movement after the collapse of the USSR were caused primarily by the lack of political experience & culture in the post-Soviet space. Only gradually did the nationalists accumulate experience that allowed for the appearance of more effective projects.
An example of a large nationalist organization that has developed a competent organization with effective actions is the Movement Against Illegal Immigration (MAII). MAII formed in 2002, and was recognized as an extremist organization and banned in the Russian Federation in 2011.
MAII was one of the first groups to focus on specific violations of Russian rights, and used high-profile crimes to increase their own recognition. Their publicizing of and participation in current affairs to win public sympathy was a great success.
MAII had two features. Firstly, the organization was equally nationalistic (in fact) and civil (in form). The civic Russian identity types and nationalists were united around the important issue of illegal immigration. Through discussion and action around this issue, nationalists were able to expand their audience beyond the right wing fringes.
For example, MAII took action when an ethnic conflict broke out in the Karelian city of Kondopoga after the murder of two local residents by Chechens in 2002. A group of MAII representatives headed by Alexander Potkin (Belov) immediately went there and organized a running news feed from Knodopoga. The government immediately opened up a hate speech investigation again Potkin.
The MAII’s participation in the legal defense of Alexandra Ivannikova was also of great important. Ivannikova was tried in court from 2003-2005 for killing a Caucasian driver who tried to rape her. MAII's Alexander Belov publicly handed her a large cash prize "for courage". In addition, MAII organized public meetings in support of Ivannikova. As a result, Ivannikova was acquitted and all charges were dropped from her.
Russian nationalism, as the ideology of protecting Russians, began to be realized through the MAII and their actions. While the RNU professed nationalism that set theoretical goals but failed to do much in practice beyond fliering, the MAII were able to affect social change on a specific issue. Their collection and dissemination of information on ethnic crime, national gatherings, & participation in both civic society and the democratic process were tangible successes.
Looking at the entire post-Soviet Russian nationalist movement, the most effective actions succeeded when they addressed the real problems of people, instead of touching abstract political issues. Groups of nationalists operating as civil society groups, such as associations to protect specific rights and interests of citizens, quickly gained social ties and received increased media attention. This is especially true of gatherings organized by nationalists in connection with the high-profile crimes of immigrants, as well as protests at mosque construction sites.
It is difficult to talk about the effectiveness of nationalist activities due to government repression after the collapse of the USSR. Repression was at first rare and not particularly harsh, but as the decade progressed the it almost defeated the nationalist movement. I am referring only to repression for political speech and social activities, not persecution for violence and terrorism.
In the 1990s, a number of nationalists were arrested and prosecuted for hate speech. Many nationalist ideologues, leaders, publishers, authors, and journalists appeared were put on trial. Most of them received minor criminal sentences. For example, in 1992 in Saint Petersburg, the leader of the neo-pagan "Union of Wends" Viktor Bezverhy was arrested for publishing Hitler's "My Struggle", but the charges were eventually dropped. Ex-deputy of the Leningrad City Council, member of the Interior Ministry, and Bosnian war veteran Yury Belyaev was acquitted on charges of "inciting ethnic hatred" in 1996. In 1997 and 1998, retired colonel Yevgeny Shekatihin, the publisher of nationalist newspaper "Our Fatherland" was twice acquitted on charges of inciting racial, national, and religious hatred.
Until 1996, the Criminal Code's article 74 prescribed up to three years in prison or a fine for “deliberate actions aimed at inciting national, racial or religious hatred or hatred”. The modern edition of the Criminal Code has article 282 prescribes from two to five years in prison for "hate speech". (Currently, Putin has submitted a draft amendment to the Duma which will revised article 282. Currently, the amendment has not been implemented).
Additionally, in the 1990s the system for suppressing "hate speech" had not been perfected, and the authorities found it difficult to successfully prosecute cases. In those days, most "hate speech" cases were prosecuted at the demands of professional “liberals” and “human rights defenders”. The famous Saint Petersburg "democrat", African studies professor Nikolay Girenko served as the city prosecutor’s expert on "hate speech" and helped fabricate cases against Russian nationalists until he was assassinated in 2004 by members of the Schultz-88 group.
The government didn't merely use criminal cases for "hate speech" to suppress nationalists. In 1994, Boris Mironov, chairman of the Russian Federation Press Committee, was fired for his nationalistic remarks. In 1996, the leader of the National Republican Party of Russia Nikolai Lysenko was arrested when his own office was bombed (the charges were later dropped). In 1999, the Savior electoral bloc led by Alexander Barkashov was removed from the Duma elections. In 2003, the party registration of the National Sovereign Party of Russia was canceled. The leader of the People’s National Party, Alexander Suharevsky, barely survived a bombing of his office the same year. Suharevsky had previously spent six months in prison for a "hate speech" conviction, although he was later amnestied.
Nonetheless, there was a big window of opportunity for nationalist activities in that time. Those opportunities gradually narrowed down until the massive repressions of the 2010s, when the authorities crushed the nationalist movement through the fabrication of hundreds of criminal cases and bans of entire organization. Even individuals and groups with no criminal history that showed signs of nationalist views were persecuted in the 2010s.
Nationalist successes often provoked a response from the regime, and any successes were usually nullified due to subsequent repressions. RNU was able to register an electoral bloc with the participation of current Duma deputies with a deposit of 10 million rubles, but Justice Minister Chaika removed RNU from the elections for political reasons. Despite the successful registration, RNU was unable to participate in the democratic process as nationalists desired.
Due to escalating political repression, the attitude of the government towards nationalists has become increasingly important. Most nationalists now agree on the need to soften rhetoric and establish cooperation with the government for the survival of the movement.
Nonetheless, even groups explicitly in support of the government were destroyed by it, notably "Russian Image". Attempts to convince the government that nationalists were on their side have universally failed.
Most of the major nationalist organizations until the 2010s were not openly in opposition to the government. In the second half of the 1990s, RNU supported Yeltsin. The Movement Against Illegal Immigration (MAII) declared itself to be against illegal immigration, but not against the government. The declarations of loyalty from nationalists did not help them avoid government repression. Russian nationalism prioritizes the interests of Russians, an ideology inherently in opposition to the current authorities. None of the authorities are interested in the emergence of powerful political rivals.
When nationalist organizations were banned, the “opposition” as embodied by liberal leaders not only approved these bans, but also demanded further repression of nationalists. For example, Leonid Gozman strongly supported the ban of the Movement Against Illegal Immigration in 2011.
As I wrote in the first part of the article, the successes or failures of nationalists depends largely on external conditions. The Russian national movement in the post-Soviet period must be considered in the context of the general situation that developed in 1991-2018.
These 27 years can be divided into three developmental stages.
The first stage of the movement’s development (the RNU period, Yeltsin’s presidency and the first years of Putin’s first term, 1991-2002; all before the passing of the law “On Countering Extremist Activities”), had great freedom of action, but there was a critical lack of political experience, tactics, and strategy. The movement was new, created an ideology, and tried to form organizations. After the collapse of the USSR and the failures of the democrats, the ideological and political vacuum was favorable for the development of nationalist organizations and ideas for quite some time. However, nationalists failed to use the window of opportunity and gain a foothold in society.
In the second stage (Putin’s first and second presidential terms, and Medvedev’s term, 2002-2012), Russia's situation stabilized, the economy improved from a sharp increase in the price of oil and gas, and political discontent decreased significantly. Nevertheless, by this period, nationalists had learned how to create highly effective organizations (MAII, Russian Image), could mobilize supporters for mass street actions (Russian March) and conduct events that would resonate with the public and media. Political repression was significant, but not fatal.
The third stage (Putin’s last two terms - 2012-2018) is marked by the open political repression of Russian nationalists. Various provocations, physical platforming, restriction of rights and freedoms, bans of organizations, and mass fabrication of criminal cases characterize this stage. The movement was completely defeated. Despite majority public support in addition to nationalist support, Putin faced powerful protests related to the falsification of election results in the early 2010s. The government made every effort to calm the public and conducted an imaginary liberalization of the political process. With a sense of an imminent change of power, nationalists created several political parties (NDP, Nationalist Party, and New Force). The expected political change did not occur, and the government moved to suppress dissent. Use of propaganda, loyalist groups, toughening of "anti-extremist" legislation, and the shift of legal liability to leaders of uncoordinated public actions were all used against nationalists. Even in those conditions nationalists continued to show significant activity, which only began to disappear in 2015, when most organizations were already banned and leaders had been arrested.
Transmission of Information
Every political movement generates a tremendous amount of content, consisting of related ideologies, social/economic criticism, a vision of a better future, and calls for change and struggle. The means of delivery of that content to the general public are of great importance.
In the 16th & 17th centuries in Russia, anonymous handwritten leaflets were distributed in campaigns against the authorities and specific public figures. In the 19th century, new political movements used widely used printed proclamations, leaflets, pamphlets, periodicals, and ideological works to spread their message. In the 2oth century, the new media of radio and television appeared. Naturally, these were used for political purposes as well. After the collapse of the USSR, the Russian national movement, now free to act, faced the task of transmitting its message. It is necessary to convince the Russian people of the importance of nationalism.
At the first stage, nationalists mainly used old methods of promoting their views: leaflets, books and newspapers. In the 1990s, nationalist newspapers were openly sold and were even be distributed through the official distribution networks (the former Printing Union). In the beginning of the 1990s, I was able to purchase nationalist newspapers in the periodicals section of an ordinary bookstore on Ligovsky Prospekt in Saint Petersburg. While they were widely distributed, nationalist propaganda of that time was poorly formatted and ineffective. Compared to the mainstream media with its greater financial and technical capabilities, nationalist leaflets rarely boasted decent print quality, layout, and content. Most nationalist newspapers of the time were regional publications. The all-Russian newspaper RNU's "Russian Order" was distributed in other former Soviet republics, but published irregularly. Even the newspapers of larger groups such as NDPR corresponded at best to the standards of political agitation a century ago. Small publications were often the project of just one person.
The success of any modern political party or organization depends heavily on media channels. These media channels stay in constant communication with supporters to obtain their views, relay news of the movement and its successes, make statements and evaluate events, and share opinions. The absence of funding for nationalist media has long been an issue and hurt propagation of nationalist views and recruitment.
The first relatively successful nationalist media outlet was the People's National Party newspaper "I’m Russian" founded by former Mosfilm director Alexander Ivanov-Suharevsky in 1997. The newspaper was distinguished by the frequency of issues (about 150 issues published by 2004), a wide distribution network (I saw how it were openly sold in different cities of the country, including at the Moscow metro stations), and increased relevance to current events. However, the PNP's publication could not even compete with other opposition media, to say nothing of the mainstream media.
“I'm Russian” was actively published at least until 2004, when the PNP's headquarters and publishing house was bombed.
The emergence of the Internet has opened up new possibilities for the movement. Various nationalist websites have appeared, and groups promoting Russian nationalism are on social media platforms.
One of the most successful Internet projects of the 2010s was the "Rightist News" website, which still exists. It has a large nationalist readership, mostly radicals.
The website posts up to a dozen news articles every day about various events in the movement, ethnic crimes, and government persecution.
Despite the high readership of the "Rightist News" and the large volume of comments from readers, its anonymous creators could not extract tangible benefits for the movement. The obscene comments and infighting on the website were alienating to the general public. Only later was it learned that government troll factories may have been behind some of the comments, perhaps to undermine the movement.
All attempts by readers of "Rightist News" to organize into political groups have ended in failure.
"Satellite and Pogrom"
Another website is Yegor Prosvirnin’s "Satellite and Pogrom" project. It started as a blog in LiveJournal, then became a group on the VKontakte social network and, finally became a fully fledged website. The website is now unfortunately shut down due to pressure from the government and international plutocrats.
"Satellite and Pogrom" success was due to use of social networks/internet, high quality graphic design, and high brow content created by the most gifted of Russian nationalists. The resulting readership brought the project to sound commercial footing and self-sufficiency. For the first time, nationalist online media was able to sell access to their content and pay authors. For the six years that "Satellite and Pogrom" was on the internet, nationalists had a voice. It also raised the intellectual bar of movement and eliminated the stereotype of nationalists being stupid and ill-educated.
To be continued.
(note from translator: Bobrov never followed up on this series)