Publication: Prism Volume: 5 Issue: 6

By Mikhail Zherebyatev

The mayor of Moscow’s conflict with Russian National Unity (Russian abbreviation RNE)–the largest and most well-established radical nationalist organisation in Russia–has highlighted with particular clarity the differences in the political processes which have been taking place in the capital and the provinces since the break-up of the Soviet Union. The word “capital” here means the presidential structures which churn out federal electoral parties or movements especially for the elections. The vast majority of these only exist in central Moscow, because the basic conditions for a multiparty electoral system nationwide are only beginning to emerge. Civil society lacks structures which coordinate with each other; the public’s contact with the authorities is dominated by informal relations which make redundant socially active groups asserting their rights by means of lawful, legally enshrined procedures applicable to all. Moreover, the “lower” the type of settlement in the social and administrative hierarchy, the more influence these informal relations have on politics. Alongside purely electoral organizations, there is another group of sociopolitical organizations which are the post-Soviet equivalent of mass membership parties. The best known and most cited example is the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), but there are many more such parties and movements. By no means all of them have managed to establish themselves. These neo-mass parties are characterized not so much by mass membership as by: (1) a network of provincial structures capable of implementing general party policies outside the electoral season; (2) a focus on their mass nature as declared in their names (“communist,” “Russian,” “national-Bolshevik”); and (3) their ambivalent attitude to electoral procedures (on the one hand acceptance of the existing formal aspect of the elections–multiparty competition and universal, direct and equal suffrage by secret ballot–and on the other hand an openly declared dissatisfaction with the political regime and its institutions, including elections). A party of this kind can be developed out of nothing by an unknown charismatic leader–as demonstrated by Russian National Unity (RNE) leader Aleksandr Barkashov.

Yet there are differences within the group of parties under discussion. RNE actively avoids elections. Participation in municipal and regional elections is a legal way for its activists to put up their propaganda leaflets, though a solid hierarchical organization could put up candidates in every constituency. Defeat at an election would rank it alongside the electoral parties, however, which is unacceptable for an organization which advocates taking direct control over the institutions of power.


Paradoxically, having shaped the institutions of power alongside the multiparty system, it was the presidential structures themselves which determined the place RNE now occupies on the Russian political spectrum. A party which is not registered federally cannot become the main political force in the country as the German national socialists did. In this way the presidential structures anticipate controlling the situation indefinitely, apparently presuming that the elections have become a fail-safe mechanism. The political reality in Russia, however, is that one of the main problems is that of creating an electoral system with no glitches.

Despite these unfavorable conditions, the radical national organization has succeeded in establishing itself. Perhaps central to RNE’s fate was its “involvement,” at the beginning of its creation, in the last struggle of those united under the banner of the Soviets in opposition to the president in October 1993. Leading the defense of the besieged parliament building was a brilliant tactical move on the part of Barkashov, or of those who advised him to do it. Participation in the shooting ensured RNE’s recognition as a “savior” of the Fatherland, the communists and democracy simultaneously, as embodied by the people’s elected representatives. This de facto guaranteed it the right to existence in post-Soviet Russia, putting itself “above” all the disagreements between the conflicting political forces and branches of power.

The peripheral existence for RNE prepared by the architects of the Russian political landscape perfectly matched its declared role as the defender of the “lower classes” (the Russian people and the provinces) against the “elite” (those of “dubious” extraction in the upper echelons of power).

RNE’s connection with the provinces, that is, with the “real” Russia, or the heart of Russia, has found symbolic (almost mystical) expression through its leader. Barkashov emphasizes in every way possible the fact that he is a son of Great Provincial Russia: the peasant roots of his parents, his own secondary education, the fact that his wife is from his parents’ native village. In the political context, this last point has taken on the character of a mystical marriage of the leader of Russia’s nazis with Russia herself. It is a mystery how this fact, so widely publicized by Barkashov, can have escaped the attention of political scientists and psychologists. Socially, Barkashov’s marriage (which looks like a patriarchal, endogamous one–“from my own village”) is unquestionably a highly unusual phenomenon for any large Russia city, let alone Moscow, with its enhanced social mobility. It bears witness, above all, to the extreme parochialism of social relations in the family of the Russian nazi leader. Psychologically, such a marriage explains many of Barkashov’s personal traits, qualities and complexes.

RNE and Russia’s provinces clearly complement one other as a social phenomenon. In normal liberal-based social and political circumstances, the provinces are the alter-ego of the highest state authorities–a source of grassroots initiatives coming from the very heart of a society structured according to various principles: economic, political, ideological, cultural, religious, ethnic and so on. Under these circumstances, the provinces are an indivisible part of civil society, a synonym for it. But these are not the provinces that Russia knows.

The fight against home-grown nazism, which has become a matter of political prestige and honor for Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who has effectively banned RNE from the Russian capital, is complicated by the fact that RNE is working to forestall competition from the prototype structures of civil society in the provinces–small and medium-sized businessess. Security firms are an essential element of any form of economic activity in Russia today. RNE is one of the groups actively shaping this service market. Therefore the optimism shown by a number of human rights defenders, who argue that if RNE is pushed underground it will lose its appeal among ordinary people, is very unconvincing. The profession of the security guard and the concomitant subculture still enjoys prestige among part of the population. In its turn, RNE’s ability to control mass economic activity in the provinces means a possible ban on the organization will not be very effective, for it will only affect the formal aspects of the organization’s activities, while its economic affiliate corporation will sooner or later rescue the political organization.


It may seem that the lack of information about RNE is due to the closed nature of the organization, which derives from its militarized character, and that the principle of dividing RNE members and their sympathizers into cohorts of “comrades-in-arms” and “supporters” confirms the idea that it is a closed organization. But this is not the case at all. The motive for the Ministry of Justice’s current investigation of RNE was Barkashov’s order to his staff to take up their spades for a while and set about planting trees and bushes. Meanwhile, it is not widely known that, firstly, this order was circulated legally (!) by fax around RNE’s grassroots organizations, and secondly that representatives of the provincial press caught minister of justice Pavel Krashennikov by surprise with questions about the order to “go green” received back in October by the local RNE organization (this happened in Voronezh in early December).

It is easy to examine the techniques RNE used to create for its image in places where it has fairly well-established grassroots organizations. In the internal hierarchy of RNE the “Voronezh department” is considered one of the most active divisions, headed since 1996 by Yevgeny Lalochkin. According to “Nezavisimaya gazeta,” in 1998 Lalochkin helped form the St. Petersburg organization, while still leader in Voronezh.

At first the Voronezh media bosses observed an unspoken agreement to ignore the existence of an organization which used blatantly fascist symbols. However, RNE was easily able to ensure that local publications began to show exaggerated deference to the “organization of Russian nationalists” after it had joined in baiting Jehovah’s Witnesses. Officials and some media declared war on sectarianism long ago, so RNE’s appeal to the same effect did not go unnoticed. Developments did not stop there. RNE organized free martial arts workshops, which were highly popular with high school and technical college students from poor families–potential recruits for the criminal world. RNE gave their compulsory political indoctrination the respectable cultural form of Russian history lessons–and free ones at that. As a result a grateful letter to RNE appeared in the newspaper from the mother of a young stormtrooper.

Meanwhile, the organization did not forget about the existence of institutions of power. People involved to some extent in the local (frankly rather weak) nomenklatura-based authorities and in politics (driven by the KPRF, which is losing ground) quickly responded to the appearance of “strength.” (It is of no consequence that this “strength” mainly consisted of incantations such as “RNE can do anything!,” and, much more importantly, that RNE did not threaten the ruling authorities at all, but simply offered its services to “impose order.”) So RNE members began patrolling the town’s markets and streets like vigilantes. This was sanctioned by the head of the people’s militia corps, who was the KPRF’s official candidate at the 1997 local elections.

Things came to a head with a blatantly intimidating display which saw RNE activists wearing uniforms adorned with swastikas checking the documents of traders from the Caucasus on the 56th anniversary of the beginning of the war between Nazi Germany and the USSR. The patrols were suspended–thanks to the protests of local democrats, whose calls were finally heeded by the head of the register office after having received official responses from the deputy head of the oblast justice department along the lines of “if you democrats want to maintain order, become vigilantes yourselves.” However, a petition to liquidate the organization, after an investigation by the oblast justice department, never made it to court. Apparently there was simply no corresponding ministerial order. An attempt by the town authorities to bring a multibillion ruble action against RNE–for willful damage by sticking propaganda leaflets wherever they wanted–also got nowhere.

As in other regions, the local nazis tried to put legal pressure on the press, which was outraged by their actions. They probably thought it expedient to begin with a small town, but in June 1998 the Novovoronezh court ruled that comparisons made by local television journalists between RNE and nazis had the right to stand.

Eventually, despite its reputation as an organization which used openly nazi symbolism, RNE began to be accepted as part of the town’s sociopolitical scenery. An opinion poll conducted last August by the local sociological information agency Qualitas found that of a representative sample (by age, sex and education) of 600 townspeople aged 18 and above, 38.4 percent agreed with the statement that “RNE is a militaristic nationalistic organization of a pro-fascist persuasion,” while 24.9 percent disagreed. A quarter of those polled said that they knew nothing about the RNE and 11.7 percent said they could not answer the question. Those in favor of banning the organization were in the majority–35 percent–in second place. Those who thought that “things should be left as they are” made up 25 percent. Those indifferent stood at 18 percent indifferent and those who “didn’t know” at 13.6 percent. Those who thought it necessary to “support the activity of RNE in every way possible” made up 7.6 percent.

To a question about support for RNE among political movements and power structures, the informative answers broke down as follows: 15.6 percent–no support; 12.7 percent–federal structures; 11.1 percent–procommunist parties; 5.8 percent law enforcement bodies; and 5.3 percent local authorities. This result indirectly indicates that the main source of information about RNE (in the provinces aslso) is the central media.


In February, in those provincial towns where RNE has a foothold, the authorities began receiving applications from local organizations for meetings and pickets in support of their comrades-in-arms in the capital. The events of 28 February in Voronezh and Samara demonstrate the differences in approachs toward RNE from different state agencies. At first, events unfolded in a similar way in both towns. The local organizations got permission to hold events: in Samara a demonstration, although without the use of symbols which might shock the public; in Voronezh a picketing. (For Voronezh this “good deed” was tantamount to self-flagellation; eighteen months ago the town administration tried to take the nazis to court). But then two days before the authorized picketing, the Voronezh applicants were turned down. The mayor’s office explained its change in position by referring to a petition from the local internal affairs department, the oblast justice department and war veterans’ organizations. Rumors began to circulate around the town about a certain letter, signed by Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin and sent to regional Interior Ministry offices, which purportedly prescribed a range of possible measures in case.

In its turn, the oblast justice department brought a bill to the oblast Duma “On liability for the manufacture, distribution and demonstration of nazi symbols, including symbols similar to nazi ones.” A war of nerves was expected. RNE activists did not give the authorities any direct reason to intervene, but neither did they toe the authorities’ line. Instead, they sent out a few people to the site of the planned picketing and a little later to the spots where they usually sell their literature. The authorities, who had sorted things out with the local nazi leader the day before, did everything they could to reduce the chances of a confrontation to a minimum. The following day, the mayor took credit for the peaceful outcome. In his turn, Anatoly Ivlev, the head of the oblast justice department, in an interview with the local state television channel, said that the town’s leaders did not have the right to give permission for picketing without first consulting his organization; Stepashin had nothing to do with it.

Such different outcomes of the events in two Russian towns indicate how law enforcement bodies may deal in future with RNE. It looks as though the interior ministry, the justice ministry, the FSB and the Kremlin do not have one single strategy to neutralize the regional organizations of Barkashov’s party and notable figures from RNE. At the moment, several different proposals are being developed. Strange as it may seem, even unplanned factors may be useful here, such as those which worked in Voronezh to ensure a peaceful end to the recent nazi action.

During the recent events, Qualitas asked people in Voronezh the same questions they had posed back in August. This time, half the respondents were in favor of a ban on RNE; the number of supporters had fallen to 4 percent and the percentage of those who believed things should be left as they are had fallen to 15 percent. Nearly 63 percent supported the actions of Moscow’s mayor against RNE, but at the same time only 28 percent think such a confrontation between the Voronezh authorities and RNE is possible.

Mikhail Zherebyatev writes for “Itogi” magazine (Moscow) and “Russian Thought” (Paris-Moscow), and is a specialist of the International Institute for Humanitarian and Political Research.