Democracy Lab

Maksim's Warriors

How one of Russia's young ultranationalists sees the world.

MOSCOW — The activist's entire face was covered -- but it wasn't a burqa that he was wearing. A zipped-up sweatshirt concealed the lower half of his face, while a black hood covered his head and forehead, its red label falling right over the bridge of his nose. I couldn't see his eyes under his dark sunglasses, but I strongly suspect that his expression was cold. As the rain drizzled down, hundreds of his friends -- all of whom were identically dressed in black and waving flags bearing skulls and the word "Wehrmacht" (the name of Germany's World War II army) -- waited in well-organized rows for him to lead them on the Russian March, contemporary Russia's now-traditional annual mass celebration of extreme nationalism. In the course of the day, the march through Moscow's outskirts turned into a rally of some 10,000 activists representing about a dozen hate groups. All of them were calling for a revolution, for a coup, for a war against non-Russian ethnic groups.

"Are you fascists?" I asked him. He nodded: "We are warriors."

Smiling broadly, he introduced himself as Maksim (pictured above). His unit, consisting of a few hundred young masked men who called themselves the "Black Bloc" (or "Social Nationalists," a twist on Hitler's "National Socialism"), was the most aggressive at the rally. As we spoke, similarly attired Black Bloc activists waved flags adorned with the pagan symbol kolovrat, a Slavic swastika, and chanted racist slogans, vowing to destroy the Caucasus and cursing Allah in the most inappropriate Russian slang.

Why so much anger? "Russians have been fighting this war against the Caucasus for over 150 years," Maksim claimed. "But this regime is selling authority to blacks [a slur for dark-skinned people] all across Russia -- that will lead to unavoidable chaos in our country." So what would that mean for Russia? And what would the Black Bloc suggest instead? "We'll inevitably see overwhelming chaos and violence. To prevent that, we call for revolution and for the annihilation of the Caucasus."

To be honest, Maksim's ideas sounded neither revolutionary nor original. I've been hearing them in Russia for years.

Over the last two weeks, Russia has experienced a flurry of violent acts and extravagant declarations of xenophobia. In late October, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leading right-wing buffoon in Russia's parliament, proposed that Russia effectively detach itself from the restive North Caucasus by building a barbed wire fence around the region. He also appealed to the authorities to reduce the birth rate in the southern republics by imposing a financial penalty on families that opt to have a third child.

While Moscow politicians poured fuel on the fire, young ultra-rightists acted. A group of 15- to 16-year-old self-professed White Power activists in St. Petersburg came up with their own ironic way to mark Unity Day (established in 2005 in place of a previous holiday commemorating the Bolshevik Revolution). They chose to carry out a kind of attack they call a "white wagon" -- a sort of mini-pogrom in which they violently assault the dark-skinned passengers in a particular subway car. The news agency published an amateur video on its web site inviting witnesses to identify the participants.

The same afternoon, a dozen teenagers in white-laced military boots killed a middle-aged Uzbek migrant worker on the outskirts of St. Petersburg. He was the 19th victim of racial hatred this year, according to monitors at the Sova Center, which tracks racist violence. "Their violent rules dictate that each one of them has to participate in the crime," said Dmitry Dubrovsky, an expert at the Socio-Humanitarian Commission, which evaluates hate crimes for state investigators. "There were 14 stab wounds in the man's body."

Dubrovsky wasn't sure which groups the young criminals belonged to. "National Socialism is once again on the rise in Russia," Dubrovsky explained. The reason, he said, is mainly because the Nazi leader Dmitry Bobrov and members of his group were recently released from prison. Bobrov was sentenced to six years of prison for organizing a gang of extremists called Shults-88, which is notorious for attacking visitors from South Korea, Africa, China, and other non-Slavic states. 17 of his accomplices were later convicted for murdering Nikolai Girenko, a St. Petersburg ethnographer who was a leading expert on hate crimes.

These days, hundreds of websites and blogs on the Russian Internet seethe with debates about various aspects of White Power, a recent ideological import to Russia. Even Alexander Belov and Dmitry Demushkin, two of the most prominent leaders of the Russian nationalists, profess themselves shocked by the new wave of enraged teens that joined the Russian March this year.

"I was surprised how many angry boys joined us this time around," said Belov, who was famous for walking around Moscow in Nazi uniforms in the early 1990s. "They must have been picking some of their ideas off the Internet." He took care to note his disapproval of what he perceives as their lack of discipline: "Hitler would have executed them right on the spot for their black masks and stupid yelling."

This year's Russian March was no larger or better organized than any of the annual nationalist marches of the past eight years. Old nationalist and ultra-nationalist groups have disappeared, and new ones have emerged as teens don the military boots of their older brothers. The new Internet generation has adopted international trends, symbols, and ideas -- including White Power rhetoric and the Black Bloc strategy. Meanwhile Russian cities have grown more multinational with each passing year. Every café, every grocery store, and every yoga club in my neighborhood employs cleaners, waitresses, and shop assistants from Central Asia. The evidence is overwhelming: most local Russians aren't willing to do these jobs, but there are plenty of migrants who are.

So why are Russian nationalists so violent once again? "We see that violence is on the rise as a result of the anti-migrant campaign by authorities," says Alexander Verkhovsky, director of the Sova Center. "I don't believe that that was the Kremlin's original intention, but it's certainly been the result of the policy." At its core, though, there's nothing really that new about this latest wave of public xenophobia. White Power activists donning Black Bloc clothes are simply putting a new face on the familiar old bigotry.

Anna Nemtsova

Democracy Lab

On the Edge of Siberia's Dark Blue Heart

Time has finally run out for the town of Baikalsk.

BAIKALSK, Russia — During my journey I woke up twice.  Once I looked out the window to see a group of men examining two crashed cars next to a gigantic bump on the road. The next time I awoke to see the huge blue eye of Lake Baikal, the world's biggest lake, staring at me through thin, naked tree branches; a range of snow-topped mountains hugged the lake's banks. The breathtaking scenery kept me awake for the rest of the trip even after the sleepless night I'd spent on the plane from Moscow. In a recent survey, a majority of Russians said that Lake Baikal should be the symbol of Russia. Not Red Square, not even the Kremlin, but the deep, dark blue heart of Siberia.

My destination was Baikalsk. It's a sleepy town with a population of about 15,000 people. Until recently it was a place that found itself squarely at the center of not always welcome attention from the world's environmentalists. Baikalsk is one of about 400 Soviet "monotowns," communities whose existence depended on a single industry or factory. Baikalsk was originally founded in 1961 to support the town's single industry, Baikalsk Pulp and Paper Mill. For decades, the mill dumped tons of pollutants into the air and soil and the water of the lake and its environment. Indeed, its assault on the unique Baikal environment so inflamed local people that they began one of the first ecological protest campaigns in the history of the Soviet Union. Over the past decade the Kremlin has struggled to resolve the issue: President Vladimir Putin, Vice Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov, and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev have all, at various times, flown over to decide the fate of the tiny town. The officials said powerful words about Baikalsk's future and gave the mill's employees big promises of alternative livelihoods. But when the mill finally shut down last month, no alternatives were apparent. The city sank into depression.

We drove a few more miles along the shore of the world's clearest, deepest, and oldest lake. Gradually the bumpy road smoothed out. I recognized the two- and three-story gray brick buildings on Gagarin Street, the fading facade of the town's main store, my sad-looking hotel, and a concrete Soviet restaurant on the main square. Our bus came to a stop. A woman pushed a carriage with a little boy towards a kiosk selling cell phones across the square. A group of men smoked cigarettes in the freezing air without saying much, just spitting on the stained asphalt.

At the first glance, Baikalsk looked more dead than when I had visited during the town's first big crises in 2008. That year, the mill fired about 1,300 workers, both men and women. Some of them threatened to lie down on Tran-Siberian railroad in order to draw Moscow's attention to their plight; others went on a hunger strike, setting up camp in tents on the town's central square and demanding compensation for their ruined lives. Dozens wrote letters to Putin about their personal bitterness and the collapsing infrastructure. After all, the entire life of Baikalsk -- the kindergartens, the schools, central heating and electricity -- depended on the pulp mill.

The mill stayed closed for two years, then reopened in 2010, to the horror of environmentalists, and went right back to dumping industrial waste into the fields and forests around the town. The smell of rotten cabbage returned as the mill's smokestacks went back to belching methanethiol into the atmosphere. The workers, though, were happy: once again they had jobs. Until this summer, at least. That's Prime Minister Medvedvev drew a line during a visit to the region: "There is no way back," he said. "It's time to muster up the courage and make responsible decisions."

Medvedev promised to boost tourism and make a paradise in Baikalsk by investing $1 billion in projects to benefit the environment and the further development of the town, starting by the end of the summer. Summer passed, and the mill closed its doors to hundreds of workers. But Baikalsk has yet to see the envisioned swarms of tourists rushing in to the rescue.

The drama evolved right behind the curtain. In a little café on the main square, local women told me their family stories: their unemployed men had set off to look for jobs in the far North, at oil and gas fields, or at construction sites. They left their families behind for weeks at a time; some of them never came back. "Our families fall apart," Irina Maksimova, a waitress, told me. "What were they thinking when they decided to end the era of industrialization in our town, where three generations have had stable jobs at the mill?" Maksimova made about $200 a month; as we spoke her husband had already been away from her and their two children for over 28 days.

"Ah, come on," Vasiliy Temgenevsky, the mayor of Baikalsk, told me. "It's a woman's own fault if her husband leaves her. It doesn't depend on long-term shifts or employment. Men leave women if they're unhappy." The mayor told me that he was currently negotiating with a Chinese company to build a factory for the production of low-energy lamps. "We're going to employ about 800 people," Temgenevsky said. "But the Chinese investors want 60 percent of them to be women." At least someone in Baikalks may get jobs soon.

So what will happen to the hundreds of other people that have been fired? I decided to ask Alexander Ivanov, the manager assigned to shut down the old mill by a Moscow-based company entrusted with the task by the Kremlin. "It was probably wrong to shut down the mill before creating new jobs for people, " Ivanov admitted. "But we're paying the required compensations of five months' salary to all of the fired workers." So far Ivanov has fired 330 of them. 470 more employees will lose their jobs by Christmas.

In the mornings, local people come for a walk on the beach to see Lake Baikal "boiling" in the first rays of the sun, when clouds of steam rise from round stones that have become covered with thin layer of ice during the night. There's only one monument in the town: a statue of a strawberry. Picking and selling strawberries in early summer has been the only stable income for many local people over the years. "We've heard so many lies from officials that we don't believe in anything any more except for own hands," Yuri Nabokov, the head of the mill's professional union, told me. "Not a single letter we wrote to Putin about the situation here has ever received a response."

On my last day, when I went down to the shore to say goodbye to the lake, I saw a woman staring at the water. "Put your hand into the water and make your wish," she told me. "Baikal remembers and keeps its promises." At least the lake does.

Brendan Hoffman/Prime Collective /for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.