By Richard Arnold¹.
In 2006, Russia contained around 50,000 racist skinheads- over half the world’s total- and had the highest number of violent hate crimes in Europe. 2006 also saw the first gathering of prominent racist voices from around the world, including David Duke from the United States, at a conference designated to discuss “the white world’s future.” At an official level, too, the Russian government has been making overtures to racist and right-wing forces in other countries: allegedly assisting the election of Donald Trump in the United States, the victory of the Leave campaign in the Brexit referendum of 2016, the Front Nationale in France, and Alternative fur Deutschland in Germany. All throughout the world, Vladimir Putin has become the darling of so-called “Alt-right” movements. Yet the Soviet Union had been a bastion of anti-racism and internationalism, claiming its moral superiority to “decadent” regimes in the West in part due to the absence of social ills like racism. Given Putin’s upbringing in the Soviet Union- not to mention his apparent devotion from a young age to the intelligence services- such a transformation in a relatively short space of time is remarkable. How can we explain this situation? From being the Soviet beacon of anti-colonialism, how did Russia emerge as the hope of racist forces?
This essay argues that while indeed there were historical and demographic legacies creating a popular structure in which a shift of social opinion to the right was possible, ultimately the agency of the Russian government initiated the decisive turn. While the Soviet Union was never quite able to live up to its ideals of multi-racial internationalism, the new Russia of the post-Soviet era has become the hope of racists around the globe. In particular in the post-Soviet context, right wing ideas have become popular at both the systemic level (‘from above’) and the extra-systemic (‘from below’). While these two levels overlap and influence each other at times, they remain useful analytical tools for explaining the recent trajectory of Russian politics.
Historical and demographic legacies
A number of historical and demographic legacies set the stage for Russia’s embrace of far-righgt ideology. First, the Russian Empire had its own history of discrimination based ostensibly on religion but which has mutated into racist anti-Semitism by the time of the Bolshevik revolution. The “black hundreds” organization had launched numerous pogroms throughout cities in the Russian Empire, having been egged on in part by the Tsarist secret police force, the Cheka. Especially pertinent in this regard was the 1897 publication of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a fictional account (and early example of “fake news”) of a meeting of Jewish elders in Switzerland where they supposedly plotted to bring about a global cataclysm to advance their own interests. The regime was trying to deflect public sentiment away from the Russian monarchy and onto a soft target. Nor were the Russians alone in believing in the Protocols, Adolf Hitler, Henry Ford, and even Winston Churchill being Western devotees also.
Second, unlike its European counterparts, the Russian Empire had never held an overseas empire and so never had to confront racial difference. The absence of a racial other helps explain why Stalin sought to bolster his regime using anti-Semitism, such as through the anti-internationalist campaign after the end of World War Two. He was even purportedly planning a second Holocaust using the excuse of the so-called “Doctor’s Plot” right before his very timely death. One of the reasons the Jews could be used in this fashion was due to the peculiar demography of the Soviet Union’s Jewish population, which was spread out throughout the country in a manner very few other ethnic groups were.
Third, although the Soviet Union was a multi-ethnic country, it was more a tapestry than a melting-pot (of the American model) where the central government gave minority ethnic groups supposedly ancestral lands to live upon. Regional governments of these “indigenous” lands institutionalized and promoted the culture of “their” ethnic groups, reifying ethnic difference and raising it to a new salience in almost exactly the same way Benedict Anderson (1988) writes about European empires in south-east Asia. At the same time, a system of strict residency permits (propiska) and the strict control of populations by the Soviet authorities ensured that entire regions survived into modernity as more or less monoethnic. In 1989, for instance, Moscow had the dubious distinction of being one of the only capital cities in the world less diverse than the country of which it was the capital, being 87% ethnic Russian.
It is against this background that one should understand the emergence of the Pamiat’ (memory) movement in the 1980s, a movement originally designed to commemorate soldiers and those fallen in war but which also had the involvement of explicit anti-Semites. The infamous intellectual and aspirant philosopher Aleksandr Dugin, for instance, had his first taste of politics when he entered the governing body of Pamiat’ in 1988. Dugin has become one of the most prominent quasi-intellectual influences on the Kremlin today, although scholars agree that this influence is generally overstated. The co-leader of the first post-Soviet neo-Nazi mass movement, Russkiye Nats’ionalnoi Edinstvo (Russian National Unity- RNE), Alexander Barkashov also cut his political teeth in the Pamiat’ movement. Thus, at the numerous legacies created conditions where extremely right-wing ideas would be received.
The Soviet government had also been responsible for installing racism from above, this time in the form of Vladimir Zhirinovskii’s badly-named Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. Zhirinovskii himself is known as being the court jester of Russian politics, and regularly espouses such ideas as introducing an apartheid regime with the Caucasus and sterilizing people from that region to stop them reproducing. Zhirinovskii got his start in political life when the Soviet government launched his party as an attempt to discredit the democratization process then underway in the Soviet Union. Similarly, the embrace of extreme nationalist ideas by the successor party to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, has been well documented by scholars. Communist party leader Zyuganov regularly uses anti-Semitic tropes in his speeches, for instance. The next section looks more specifically at post-Soviet influences.
The Post-Soviet Era
The post-Soviet era has seen a similar array of both extra-systemic forces “from below” and systemic forces “from above” combine to shift Russia’s politics to the right. While sociological and political developments have created greater interest among ordinary people for right-wing views, the organizational scene for such popular groups has been fragmented. Arguably, such fragmentation is by design, as a tactic used by the government to ensure no genuine opposition arises. At the same time, however, the administration flirts with the ideas of divisive and radical right-wing intellectuals.
First, among the many changes wrought by the fall of the Soviet Union was the removal of controls on popular migration and the creation of a visa-free zone of travel with former members states of the Soviet Union. One result of this, predictable from capitalist economies in the West, is that migrants have moved both internally (from the ethnically distinct Caucasus region) and externally (from the countries of Central Asia) to Russian cities, including Moscow. This increase in migration occurred and the same time as- and was exacerbated by- the Chechen conflict in the North Caucasus which saw large populations of refugees flee. Belikov (2011) estimates that up to 1.5 million men were deployed in the Chechen conflict, men who could return home to tell stories of vigilance in waiting for ethnically distinct terrorists to strike. As the Chechen separatists increasingly embraced radical Islam and terrorism within Russia as a tactic, so a poisonous social scene proved fertile ground for extreme far-right groups.
Second, the 1990s saw the emergence of several far-right groups with popular support. The most unified far-right group of the post-Soviet era, RNE, advocated for a “red-brown fascism” and used the Roman (fascist) salute to greet each other. At the peak of their power in the early 1990s, RNE could call upon between 50,000 and 200,000 Russians. RNE members were involved in the defense of the parliamentary building during the constitutional crisis of 1993, when Russian President Boris Yeltsin sent the army to force through economic reforms. The movement, which is now largely defunct, witnessed the high point of unity among these groups and many leaders of contemporary small groups cut their teeth in the RNE. It was also on the mid-to-late 1990s that numerous Western skinhead gangs established franchises in Russia, which they saw as fertile ground upon which to sow the seeds of hate. The infamous British skinhead gang Combat 18 [1-A, 8-H. or “Adolf Hitler”) set up a group in Russia, for instance.
Third, around the year 2000 indigenous Russian gangs began to adopt the style and mannerisms of the international skinhead scene, such as Dmitry Demushkin’s Slayvanskii Soiuz (Slavic Union). Demushkin’s gang promotes a “mystical national socialism” and was the most populous skinhead gang in 2006. Demuskhin himself was a former member of RNE who was expelled for allegedly working with the security forces and whose extreme racism was odious even to members of the RNE. Demushkin has boasted of having drinks with members of the President’s office leading to suspicions that he is fact a plant of the Kremlin, part of Vladislav Surkov’s “managed democracy” which he assists by creating a constant image of disorder on the streets of Russian cities. With such a scary bogeyman, the regime looked better by comparison.
Fourth, another more moderate and mainstream far right organization appeared in 2002, the Dvizhenie Protiv Nelegalnoi Immigratsii (DPNI- Movement Against Illegal Immigration), led by brothers Alexander and Vladimir Potkin who are both former members of RNE. By presenting itself as fighting illegal immigration, the DPNI followed the moderating moves of some Western far-right parties and became more acceptable to mainstream Russian society. Alexander Potkin has changed his family name to the Russian word for White, ‘Belov’, and Vladimir Potkin (‘Basmanov’) took part in the RNE defense of the supreme soviet building aged just thirteen. The DPNI enjoyed some popularity and scored some notable successes in promoting race riots in the cities of Kondopoga (Karelia region) in 2006 and the Moscow suburb of Biryulevo in 2013. Similar to Demushkin, there has been some speculation that Belov-Potkin was working with the authorities to radicalize the population.
When, however, in 2012 following massive protests against Putin, Belov-Potkin and Demuskhin took part in the Coordinating Council, the regime became concerned at the prospect of genuine opposition. Suddenly, a leader emerged in the form of Alexei Navalny who could unite the liberal and (admittedly, much smaller) nationalist wings of the Russian protest movement. Unity in the far-right nationalist wing has never really been a serious prospect, however, and since 2014 the extra-systemic Russian far right has disintegrated, largely over the conflict in Ukraine and the prospect of bringing the “white” revolution on the Maidan in Ukraine back to Moscow.
So too has the regime played an important role in causing the disintegration of the Russian far right, through a mixture of repression and co-optation. In terms of repression, the Russian government has recently enhanced its efforts to combat hate crime and neo-Nazi groups in the country with the reform of the regional ‘E’-centers which combat extremism. The state has also increased its policing of proto-Nazi propaganda, including on the internet. Potkin-Belov himself, once thought like Demushkin to be a plant of the regime, has been sitting in detention in Moscow for nearly a year (at the time of writing). Yet the commitment of the state to continue its repression of the violent nationalist movement has not been tested and it remains uncertain whether or how long it will continue.
Yet arguably more effective has been the regime’s co-optation of extreme nationalist causes such as decreasing migration and protecting the rights of ethnic Russians outside of Russia. The conflict in Eastern Ukraine, for instance, acted as a magnet for many extreme nationalists and racists. This strategy of co-optation is exemplified by the fate of the ‘Russian march’- an annual rally of the far right on November 4th which had been gaining in strength up until 2015, when the regime authorized three simultaneous marches and thus drained support from that of Demushkin and Potkin-Belov. The cooptation of right-wing ideas does nothing to address their root causes, however, and arguably postpones their active expression in future, more unstable, circumstances.
At the same time, right-wing ideas have gained influence over senior members of the Russian administration. that Putin is heavily influenced (via Dugin and other members of the administration, like Surkov) by the neo-fascist philosopher Ilya Ilyin. Putin has cited Ilyin in his annual speech to the Federal Assembly, and saw that his corpse was repatriated to Russia from Switzerland. Ilyin argued that individuality was evil and antithetical to the nation, needing to be sublimated to build its greatness. Ilyin spoke approvingly of Hitler and Mussolini. More substantively, several extremely right-wing think-tanks have come to exercise influence over Kremlin policy in recent years, such as the Izborsk club, the anti-Orange committee, and the Florian Geyer club. Although it would be overstating the situation to discuss the capture of the Kremlin by fascist ideas, their prominence has created a milieu in which right wing groups can flourish. Thus, the rise of the right in the post-Soviet context can be explained by a combination of systemic and extra-systemic political developments.
Russia has become the darling of the extreme-right throughout Europe and the world in the modern era. That this should have taken place against the background of Soviet internationalism is remarkable. This essay has accounted for the emergence of Russia as a right-wing ideal in the post-Soviet context in two ways: first, the Soviet Union was never as free from racism and ethnic prejudice as is commonly thought; second, a combination of systemic and extra-systemic forces in late- and post-Soviet Russia have accounted for the rise of the right. Whether this turns out to be a long or short dalliance with right-wing ideas is open to question, although one can surely hope for the latter.
¹ Richard Arnold. Dr. Richard Arnold, Profesor Asociado de Ciencias Políticas y Co-Consejero, Oficial de Asuntos Internacionales en la Universidad de Muskingum (Ohio).