20 January 2020
Below is an extract from an interview by 7×7 with Aleksandr Verkhovsky, director of the Sova Centre for Information and Analysis and an expert on the politics of the far right in Russia. Interview with Maksim Polyakov
Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: 7х7]
On 19 January, rallies were held in Russian cities in memory of the lawyer Stanislav Markelov and the journalist Anastasia Baburova, who were killed by far-right nationalists in 2009 in Moscow.
The day before that, the online magazine ‘7×7’ spoke to the Director of the SOVA Centre for Information & Analysis and winner of the Moscow Helsinki Group prize, Aleksandr Verkhovsky, about how Russia’s far-right and far-left have changed over the past 20 years, why it is that the government initially collaborated with right-wing activists, and then destroyed the movement, and what fascists and anti-fascists now have in common.
There were always many more of the far-right
We are speaking on the eve of the anniversary of the 2009 murder of Stanislav Markelov and Anastasia Baburova, who were killed by members of the far-right movement. Explain, if you would, for those who haven’t been following, what the far-right and far-left movements had been like up to that point 11 years ago. What did they stand for and how did they operate?
I’m an authority on the far-right, but I’m no expert on the far-left. I’ve been aware of them, to a degree, for many years, but I haven’t studied them. So I’m not as well informed about one as the other. And the subjects themselves differ in almost every way.
In the early 2000s, there was a fairly powerful far-right movement, which differed from that of the 1990s in that it was very much geared towards violence. Of course, it had a political body fronting it – the Movement Against Illegal Immigration (the DPNI, an extremist organisation banned in Russia), and later on, some other organisations. But it basically involved street violence and people who combined that with some sort of political activism. That feature of the 1990s resulted largely from impunity.
By comparison, the far-left movement was relatively weak. Also, within it, a specific anti-fascist agenda took shape. While it had always been around in some form, as a youth movement, specifically, well, that came about in the 2000s.
The landscape at that time was shifting. It revolved around core groups of anarchists or people with communist views – Trotskyists, if you will – and also by people who didn’t hold any particular views as such but were just annoyed by the neo-Nazis on the streets. Either they were annoyed by them on an ideological level, or it was the violence itself that annoyed them, or both of those things applied.
Of course, you get people of all ages, but fundamentally, this was specifically about young people, and it was very much tied to the music scene and certain bands. Sometimes this had the appearance, to be blunt, of clashes between fans of various rock bands. To the casual observer, these conflicts often looked like clashes among groups of friends. But actually, even if a person who called themselves anti-fascist didn’t have a positive agenda as such, they simply didn’t like the Neo-Nazis. That negative stance was very much an ideological one.
Accordingly, ideas about what anti-fascism ought to look like vary from one person to another. Some believe that you need to mould kids in school, while others think that you have to find nazis and punch them in the face. There was this documentary once about antifa in which they asked these musicians what antifascism was. They answered, “These people should be ******! That’s it. End of!”.
Importantly, these lads perceived the situation as a violent power struggle; the idea of rehabilitating your opponent simply didn’t come into it. Whereas for others it did. Moreover, we know that views have very often changed, in both directions. After all, we are dealing with young people here, and so the divide has never been completely clear.
As I said, things aren’t evenly balanced here in every respect. Nazis were almost always on top, with one or two local exceptions.
Why were there more ultra-rightists?
Because generally the leftist movement, if you leave out the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, isn’t very developed here. You can find all sorts of deeper explanations for it, but the result is visible to all: it was generally always weak.
The 2000s – that was the time when the numerous groups of street Nazis formed the basis of the nationalist movement. In some sense it was fashionable among a certain subculture of youth. It reflected mass tendencies to xenophobia. The ultra-right worried about the invasion of migrants, people from the Caucasus who (it seemed to them) were occupying the country.
I participated in the “Russian March” in 2007 in Moscow. That phenomenon was interesting to me as a journalist. At the meeting there were old ladies in the first row. And when they shouted “Russia for Russians” from the rostrum and listed all the people who should be kicked out, those old ladies all enthusiastically repeated the slogans. I saw a lot of older people.
I remember the 2007 march very well. There were some old ladies, sure, but in general they were the exception. In fact it was a march of youth, quite war-like. Of course Belov [Aleksander Belov, coordinator of the DPNI Central Committee] wasn’t yet 20, but he was active very young.
The ultra-right also had the upper hand in that they were much more popular among football supporters. Although football fans are a little differently constituted — it’s a separate milieu that overlaps with political circles.
Generally, the sides were completely unequal. Apart from that, the anti-fascists weren’t at all in a mood for killing people. Neither were the Nazis. That boundary on killing is very important. Attacks were very rarely and badly investigated, and the victims seldom even went to the police, but if you’ve got a corpse, there’s no way out of it, there’s going to be a criminal case and some kind of investigation. Nobody wants it. But nevertheless there were more killings on the side of the Nazis.
What role did the authorities play in the 2000s? Did they have agents infiltrate the rightwing movement?
That’s a complicated story. Of course the militia, the FSB and probably the president’s office had its agents. They didn’t even need agents so much. If we remember the Surkov era [Vladislav Surkov, inventor of the concept of “sovereign democracy”, crafted the internal politics of the Russian Federation from his post as first deputy in the President’s office from 2008 to 2011], it was the dominant idea that the administration should concern itself with everybody and find ways of manipulating them. You don’t need agents for that, you need intermediaries of a kind, people who can go back and forth.
There was no need to create groups. They grew like mushrooms anyway. Of course there was infiltration and there were attempts at manipulation. The story of “Russian Image” [an ultra-rightwing organization] is a prime example. That organization was helped to grow and given the appearance of influence so that some of the smaller groups ran to join them from DPNI and thereby weakened the DPNI as the main political actor on the far right.
Then it was though that Russian street nationalism was a political problem and you had to deal with it seriously. Center “E” [The Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs] used repressive methods, although they also used preventive methods and infiltration. And the President’s office did the smears and scandals.
How did this change the situation that followed? That is, the behaviour towards these movements of the right and left?
The security forces are all different, with their sympathies. There are times when they have pronounced political leanings. But in general, the law enforcement system views all of these fringe movements very negatively, especially the violent ones. That’s why I think the situation hasn’t gotten worse. The discovery of the Militant Organization of Russian Nationalists dramatically shifted the administration’s position, because it became clear that the whole thing with Russian Image was, essentially, a failure.
The FSB were great, they uncovered everything. And while the FSB were arresting Tikhonov, the presidential administration allowed this same Russian Image to hold a concert on Bolotnaya Square. It didn’t look so great, because these events took place at the same time. Antifa’s time came later, when they attempted a serious revolt and tried to step outside the boundaries of conflicts between marginal oppositional groups.
It’s clear there was another issue that existed both before and after this. There’s the opposition in the broader sense of the word, and everyone recognizes that it’s not very powerful. Frankly, before 2012, it was extremely weak. The rally for Khimki Forest was considered an accomplishment, but everyone there fit in the square around the Pushkin monument in Pushkin Square. It was pretty puny. The Russian March was the main oppositional event in the country simply in terms of size, so it’s clear that people were paying attention.
Then, in December 2011, the scale changed dramatically. These radical movements stopped attracting attention, although the people who were at Bolotnaya Square in 2012 definitely did not represent any serious threat of destabilization.
Our government is always three steps ahead and is trying to nip the threat in the bud, as it were. And therefore, radical groups focused on violence are viewed by the government as a critical element that must be monitored.
Udaltsov appeared to be one of these potentially dangerous rebels. But if he were to decide to lead some sort of attack, the ordinary people who were at the Bolotnaya protest wouldn’t be there. But there are a number of people involved in the Left Front organization who are truly capable of some sort of attack.
And this approach by the authorities continues to this day. Suppose there’s a large Navalny rally. You always want to say, “Look, such peaceful young people.” But somewhere out there in the crowd there are radicals, and if they are organized correctly the situation could be destabilized, or there could be an attack on someone or other. None of this is really within the realm of possibility, because we don’t see it happening, but as speculation, as a hypothetical, it could be. I have a feeling that this theoretical idea still plays an important role. People believe that there’s a potential threat, so it must be monitored all the time. This applies to the far right and far left, to any groups that could objectively or hypothetically use violence.
If I understand correctly, the turning point in relation to far-right movements in Russia occurred once Surkov had left the president’s administration?
There wasn’t just one turning point, but several. But the real turning point was Kondopoga.
This was a very significant event. It wasn’t about the fact that a restaurant was set on fire, but the fact that on that day, there was no authority whatsoever in the city. All top brass ran off, and it turned out that for some essentially spurious reason, those in charge of the city had simply disappeared. So it was in Kondopoga, but then what if it suddenly was somewhere else? It is a serious threat. And then they decided to take on the nationalists because they played a certain role, although it’s clear that it wasn’t really about them. If Belov hadn’t come to Kondopoga the situation would have remained unchanged.
After that, the Centre E agency was created, which first and foremost deals with these issues. Talk that hate crimes were just hooliganism ended. When those in power realised this represented a threat not for migrants from Tajikistan – to which the state was indifferent – but to the state itself, suddenly things changed.
Then when Surkov left, the complex games ended. Furthermore, all that time, the repressions, roughly speaking, increased every year until these groups of street fighters had not been well and truly thinned out. Hundreds and hundreds of people were jailed. And the next generation of “young idealists”, as one colleague put it, who had joined this movement, were now afraid, while before then they had not been afraid.
This changed the situation and the ultraright movement became more political. They started talking about democracy and human rights. So the pressure they had applied suddenly everything changed. Then the mass protests happened that led to an increase in repression on the whole, and, of course, affected the nationalists too.
And then there was the story of the huge number of prosecutions for expressions of opinion, which eventually numbered in the hundreds. This change happened before the protests, at some point in 2011, without any external reason. I suspect that the repressive machinery had been finally restructured and was able to do this. Because for your average inspector to launch an investigation into a post on VKontakte would be quite out of the ordinary – they don’t work like that normally. But when they learnt how to do this, it all became possible.
Then there was Ukraine, the division within the nationalist movement and the threat that military mobilisation might somehow backfire. And already in autumn 2014, we see fierce reprisals against nationalists beginning, because they were hypothetically speaking a potential breeding ground for militants. These repressions continue, although it is no longer so clear what their targets are: there is no one to really take action against, the movement is virtually crushed. Only small groups remained. Now, it looks like the repressions against these ultraright groups won’t increase any further because the groups themselves have become insignificant.Is there any common denominator characterising those who remain in the far-right movement and those who remain in the far-left movement? Are they making any political demands? Or are they simply making their views known?
The thing they have in common is oppositionism. We need to understand that almost all of them, anarchists and all the left-wingers and nationalists alike, are opposition groups. And that makes it all the more apparent when the nationalists cannot organise their own big rallies; they simply don’t have enough people. They have to go to other people’s rallies – the pro-Donbass groups go to rallies with the KPRF and the Left Front, and the (nominally) pro-Kiev groups go to rallies of the liberal opposition. The far left go to both, but under different circumstances. And what do they still have in common? Only 19 January.
Do you think that the conditions are in place for the far-right or far-left movements in Russia to gain the momentum they had 10 or 15 years ago?
Yes. I’m not talking about the far left. I don’t think there’s much potential for it to pick up steam – after all, it didn’t manage to do so previously. I can’t bring myself to believe that escalating social stratification or something of the sort will mobilise the far left, because people can convert their social dissatisfaction into anything at all, and it certainly doesn’t need to be revolutionary left-wing ideas. To be perfectly honest, that’s probably the last thing that would happen. The conversion of this dissatisfaction into far-right ideas is a definite possibility, however.
The nationalist movement that emerged in the 1990s was essentially about nostalgia and looking back to Russia’s “golden age”, but that is not a particularly good foundation for a political movement. To a large extent, this nostalgia resulted from trauma, crisis and the subsequent collapse of the USSR, but after a while this got swept under the carpet, and it was replaced by this straightforward, fervent and racist nationalism, aimed at getting rid of “newcomers” and achieving an illusory cultural homogeneity. This kind of thing is much easier for people to understand and much more relevant to their lives, which means that there is a constant source of fuel to fan the flames.
But as we now know, this too proved unsuccessful, and the far right ultimately ground to a halt and all but died out. Does this mean that we’ll never see it again, not even in a different configuration? No, not at all. I think that we probably will. I don’t know which constellation of events might cause that to happen. And the North Caucasus is still bubbling away, even if it is largely off the radar of those living elsewhere in the Russian Federation.
I wouldn’t like to guess how it might happen, but I certainly think it might happen; after all, anything’s possible. If a serious crisis occurs, it’s likely that the ethnicity of those involved will be mentioned, because that’s the easiest and most accessible way of framing a story – and that in turn may well trigger a new wave of ethnic nationalism with completely different protagonists. And that’s just what comes to mind first – what really happens may be something else completely, it’s impossible for me to know.
It’s also fair to say that the imperial version of nationalism has been successfully – very successfully – monopolised by the state. You can attempt to observe it from the side lines, but there’s very little point since you won’t achieve anything. Or you can act the clown, but even clowns fall out of favour.
We have a historian, [Nikolai] Starikov, who once created a party, by the way. We have Deputy [Evgeny] Fedorov with his NOD [National Liberation Movement, which advocates freeing us from “U.S. neocolonial dependence” by means of restoring the sovereignty of the Russian Federation through changing the Constitution]. That is, one can continue on in this vein and try to stand out against this backdrop, but this idea, as we have seen in any number of examples, doesn’t work.
The Rodina party, still alive by the way, what is it? Nothing. But in some indefinite future, if something should happen to our state monolith, then imperial ideology might be rejected by the elite but become the motor for political mobilization. One can imagine all sorts of things.
One other point. Right now there is a strange phenomenon. In a certain sense it relates to the entire oppositional field.
Right now, differences in views are not that important. What is more important is that people oppose the regime. Exactly how they oppose the regime is of secondary importance.
At one time we saw this with the nationalists, which in the 1990s quarreled desperately over important questions of how exactly a monarchy might or might not be established, how to think about Stalin, and so forth. And in the 2000s, it became clear that all these differences still existed, but it didn’t really matter.
What does matter is fighting the “interlopers” and this anti-Russian regime, as they put it. The rest we can resolve later, so to speak.
An analogous transition is happening right now, at the start of the new decade, I think, in the oppositional field as a whole. How this will be reflected on the future political configuration, including on the formally persistent opposition between the ultraright and ultraleft, is anyone’s guess. Then there are, finally, the National Bolsheviks [NBP]. The NBP was founded on the principle that you can be ultraright or ultraleft, you can be perpendicular for all they care, the main thing is that it all be cool and fun. Okay, understandably this can’t be repeated literally, but why not something in that vein.
Stanislav Markelov was a lawyer for the Moscow Human Rights Centre. He defended antifascists and participated in several high-profile cases. Anastasia Baburova worked as a freelance correspondent for Novaya gazeta and wrote about the antifascist movement. On 19 January 2009, they were shot in Moscow by ultraright activists Evgeny Khasis and Nikita Tikhonov. In 2011 Khasis was sentenced to 18 years’ imprisonment, Tikhonov to life imprisonment.
There is an article on “The Russian March” of 2007 in Moscow on Lenta.ru «И „Нашим“, и фашам». It says that unlike in previous years, “no one asked the activists to refrain from fascist greetings and they took full advantage of this. “Come on, now, ****** out of here! Russia for the Russians, Moscow for the Muscovites!” The crowd ran through one nationalist rallying cry after another without the slightest embarrassment. New slogans were added as well. For example, the capacious “***** Chechnya, *****!”— to harmonize with the soccer chant.”
There were mass riots in Kondopoga in late August and early September 2006. A group of people from the Caucasus started a fight in a restaurant and killed two local residents. On the eve of the victims’ funeral, residents of the city smashed several shops belonging to people from the Caucasus, then set fire to a restaurant, and pogroms began in Kondopoga. A few dozen families who had come there from the Caucasus were forced to leave. Law enforcement agencies were brought to the town from all over Karelia.
Translated by Lindsay Munford, Alissa Valles, Nina dePalma, Nathalie, Wilson, Joanne Reynolds and Marian Schwartz