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 Fontanka.ru 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

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