Of all the phenomena that have shocked and scandalized Russian society over the last six months, first place surely goes to the skinhead movement. Fascist hooligans, almost unknown before last October’s pogrom at Moscow’s Tsarytsino market, have appeared across the country–Interior Ministry specialists cite Moscow, Moscow Oblast, Krasnodar Krai, Stavropol Krai, Sverdlovsk Oblast, Ekaterinburg and part of St. Petersburg. How is this possible in contemporary Russia, which lost more than 20 million people in the fight against fascism? Where does this sudden burst of extremism come from?
There are two different answers to these questions. The authorities and law enforcement agencies blame mysterious “extremist youth groups,” whose names are known only to them. The radical opposition and human rights groups see what is happening–as always–as a “special services plot.” Neither response is satisfactory.
The skinhead movement is an explosive mixture of teenage aggression and the racist xenophobia that hides behind patriotic rhetoric.
Nationalist ideology and racial intolerance are gaining influence in Russia. They are a response to the mood of national depression that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, the country’s economic decline and impoverishment and wounded national pride. The new authorities, represented by Putin, have played the patriotic card.
Marx defined religion as “the opium of the people.” By the same analogy, patriotism in its primitive form, is “LSD for the people,” distracting them from everyday problems and forming them into an easily manipulated crowd. “Jingoism” plays into the Kremlin’s hands because it makes anyone in opposition or critical of the authorities an “enemy of Russia.”
Love of country in Russia is still widely identified with love for the state as embodied in the ruling elite. President Putin has no clear political coloration, so he uses patriotic rhetoric to create and co-opt a totally abstract national idea. (He also co-opts sports, which brings the yuppie liberal and die-hard communist together in the shared emotions of a football or hockey match.)
It is a small step from pumped-up patriotism to a culture of violence. An imposing and sport-loving president, talking steely-eyed of the need to “whack the bandits when they’re on the crapper” … chauvinistic action films like Brat (Brother) or Voina (War), which solve ethnic problems with a fist to the gut or a burst of machine-gun fire … the pro-Kremlin book-burning youth movement “Forward Together”1. These and many other recent phenomena cultivate hatred for everything alien and “incomprehensible,” promote violence as natural and elevate aggressive mediocrity as a social role model.
Neanderthal nationalism spawns teenage gangs who attack anyone who stands out–a passer-by with a different skin color or a “hat and glasses” [the trademarks of the intelligentsia]. In Soviet times the “lads from our block,” the classless hooligans or muggers behaved the same way, but with no pretense to ideology. Their intellectual level did not allow it. It is one thing to beat people up on the street, quite another to read “Mein Kampf” and fight for racial purity. The Nazi ideology of these “new Lumpen” is perhaps the first thing that evokes surprise.
The second surprise is the wealth of evidence of official complicity. This includes the skinhead publicity boom launched simultaneously in every state media outlet against the background of almost complete inaction on the part of the police. (An “anti-extremist” action carried out in Moscow last April was the exception. It prevented a skinhead rampage on Hitler’s birthday). Even though major skinhead actions are carefully planned, with gang units in contact by cell-phone and coordinated from one main nerve-center, no one has been charged with organizing mass disturbances. Only about a dozen adolescents are under investigation for hooliganism. The deputy mayor of Moscow, Valery Shantsev, told Ekho Moskvy radio station: “It was very fortunate that there were so few police on Manezh Square; we know from experience that a heavy police presence provokes an aggressive crowd, and if we had brought in more police and riot troops the consequences would have been far worse.”
What is going on? The authorities effectively admit their helplessness while a coordinated media campaign creates panic in society and swells the ranks of young Nazis. After watching enough television news, street thugs work out who they really are, grab a swastika and a Nazi salute, and head off to cleanse Russia’s towns of foreigners.
The situation is escalating. Since the shock of the first pogrom at Tsarytsino, news of skinhead attacks is coming in from all over the country. The Nazi symbols make good video, but gang members don’t dwell on the symbiosis of Russian nationalism and Aryan ideals, or puzzle over Hitler’s belief that the Slavs were subhuman, fit only for slavery and annihilation.
Media fascination with skinheads is a planned propaganda campaign that provides aggressive youths with symbols to shock society and leads ordinary Russians to see skinheads not as delinquents whom the police could easily suppress, but as a mysterious political threat.
The perceived political threat is a boon to the Kremlin. In political terms, the model for the skinheads is Aleksandr Barkashov’s neo-fascist Russia National Unity movement. The RNU, which had played a major role in the events outside the Russian parliament in October 1993, was especially active in 1998-1999 in the run-up to the December 1999 parliamentary elections. It held a national congress in late 1998, and every television channel followed the legal shenanigans surrounding Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov’s effort to ban the congress from the city. In 1999 it organized a parade in downtown Moscow under a slightly altered swastika flag, and the press blared about the threat of the Brownshirts. The judicial ruling excluding Barkashov’s party from the parliamentary elections was another gripping television saga.
Parties in the center called on their supporters to vote for the “sensible and moderate candidate,” with the slogan, “We won’t let fascists into the Duma!” The result was the astounding success of the new “moderate, stable and centrist” party of power known as Unity, which was hastily thrown together less than six months before the election.
Although Russia has a strong force of the political left–a massive army of people who regularly vote for the communists–there is no clearly defined right flank. The Union of Right Forces is more a defender of social-democratic and liberal values, while the strongest “right-wing” politician in Russia is the clownish figure of Zhirinovsky, who has not been taken seriously for years, even by his own supporters. The incumbent “center” benefits from a mysterious, obscure, but very frightening-looking “threat from the right,” represented by Barkashov or the skinheads, that encourages votes for “moderates” who promise peace and order.
If the parliamentary elections take place on schedule, they are just over a year away. The party of power has done nothing to distinguish itself. Now merged with the other party of the nomenklatura, Fatherland-All Russia, it has turned into a 100 percent charisma-free organization of civil servants. Opinion polls show support for Unity running at around the 20 percent mark. It is time to create a virtual monster for Unity to oppose.
Skinheads have been chosen for the role. They are the most despicable yet at the same time the most easily managed marginal group. Nazi ideas have no political significance in Russia, and skinheads will never rise beyond street hooliganism. But the approaching sixtieth anniversaries of the great battles of the Second World War will provide the perfect political background for tough statements against extremism.
Thus Putin, like a knight of old, has to fight the fascist vermin and destroy Nazism once again, on behalf and in the name of the Russian people. His vision of a two-party system in Russia is “Us” and everybody else. Who would risk demanding a change in political direction when the “Fatherland is in danger”? The architects of the Kremlin’s electoral campaign want people to toss their ballot into the urns like hand grenades into enemy tanks.
And a year after the parliamentary elections comes the presidential election. We will hear a good deal more about the outrageous acts of thugs with Nazi symbols, and we will shudder again to think that this is possible in modern Russia.