Russia's New Fascists
— Kirill Buketov
ON THE STREETS of Russian cities, it is not hard to find stalls trading in fascist literature and insignia. Here one can buy Hitler's Mein Kampf, tape cassettes of Nazi marches, swastika flags, and publications of the present-day fascist press.
The best-known fascist newspaper, Russkiy Poryadok (“Russian Order”), is distributed free of charge in the very center of Moscow -- free, however, only to “people of non-Jewish appearance.” Members of the group Russian National Unity, well-built young men with bulging torsos, hand out the paper as reverently as if distributing keys to the kingdom of heaven. Lamp-posts are pasted over with leaflets calling for Russia to be cleansed of Jews, of members of Caucasus nationalities, and of non-Russians in general.
Involuntarily, you find yourself asking how this could be in a country where almost every family lost relatives or friends in the war against German fascism.
Unfortunately, the matter is not limited to nazis distributing printed tracts and other goods. Young fascists regularly set out to intimidate opponents, invading newspaper officers and sending threatening letters. Press reports speak again and again of acts of thuggery committed by young men with swastika armbands.
Fascist ideas and tendencies in the new Russia already have a considerable history. In the early days of Gorbachev's perestroika extremely diverse “informal” organizations arose in great numbers. But few people now recall that the first offspring of perestroika included the patriotic organization Pamyat (“Remembrance”), which also held the very first unsanctioned meetings. Other informal clubs kept their distance from Pamyat, whose activists became known as “blackshirts” because of their somber clothing, which at that time seemed nothing more than fancy-dress.
Pamyat eventually split into various independent organizations, as many as ten in all. Each of these organizations followed its own course; some occupied themselves with restoring Orthodox churches, and others with constructing monuments to Russian warriors, while still others decided to take power in the country.
In October 1990, as a result of a conflict within Pamyat, a group headed by karate instructor Alexander Barkashov was expelled from the organization. This group was the forerunner of what is now the largest formation of Russian fascists. The new body took on the name Russian National Unity (RNE). The members of RNE no longer had any qualms about using as their official symbol a runic design incorporating the swastika, and unashamedly identified themselves as fascists.
Russian National Unity
From the very beginning, RNE posed its aim as winning power. Unlike the case with Pamyat, there were no discussions in RNE; the will of the leader was the law for every member of the organization. Nor did the Barkashovites devote themselves to reviving Russian culture.
“Our job is to help free Russia from democrats, communists, Jews, pacifists, ecumenical Christians and humanists,” Barkashov declared. The organization began growing swiftly. From no more than 200 members in 1992, its strength by late in 1994 was reportedly as high as 20,000.The Barkashovite “brown plague” has now spread to 250 cities throughout Russia.
RNE is organized along hierarchical lines. The group's skeleton consists of “companions-in-arms,” each of whom heads a troop of fellow combatants numbering anywhere from two to twenty. Jews, Gypsies and Turks are not allowed in the organization.
Information that seeps through to the press from time to time indicates that the RNE has its own covert security services. One of these is reportedly called Counterintelligence-B. Its membership is completely secret; no one who associates with members of this service, including at times RNE leaders themselves, knows that its operatives belong to RNE.
The service collects and analyses information; arranges financial and political contacts; seeks to influence public opinion in favor of introducing “iron rule” to Russia; recruits supporters and sympathizers; prepares lists of opponents of RNE; and tries by all possible means to stop these people advancing in their jobs or rising to high political office.
At a particular point the service tries to neutralize opponents of RNE, isolating and discrediting them. Once “Russian order” is introduced in the country, the people on the list of “undesirable elements” will be sacked and arrested, while those on the list of opponents will be physically liquidated. The tasks of the service also include helping advance the fortunes of politicians, state officials, banks and large firms that sympathize with RNE.
RNE has an ample material base -- guest houses, tent camps, leased allotments of land, sporting facilities, offices, cars and trucks, stores full of uniforms, clothing workshops, printing works and boats. It is quite possible that stores of weapons have been accumulated.
RNE has many enticements for young people: free food, free instruction in three or four forms of combat, and free trips throughout Russia. But the main thing the organization offers is liberation from solitude, from feelings of alienation, abandonment and fear. No one dares to insult the people who march in the iron ranks. All that is required in return is discipline and unquestioning obedience.
In the words of RNE leaders, the organization's present strategy is “gradually to climb into people's souls as their impoverishment proceeds and they come increasingly to hate the commercial nouveau riches.” Slowly but surely, predatory reforms and liberal demagogy will do their work.
Special sympathies for the RNE are shown by the Stalinists, who remain possessed by a sadomasochistic dream of iron fists and labor camps, and who are not much troubled by the ideological sauce with which these delights are served up. In the current climate of chaos, fear and uncertainty, the historical experience of Stalinism is perversely evocative.
For example, the victory of the Great Patriotic War (World War II) is often utilized as an illustration of Stalinist/nationalist power in the face of great odds. The warped message, then, is that Russian national socialism can alleviate the disastrous present social situation.
The historical memory of power through the complete subordination of the populace, combined with the feeling of impotence that the Stalinists are experiencing, conjoins quite nicely with the concrete aggressive activities of the fascist RNE. No accident, then, that at demonstrations today portraits of Stalin are to be seen alongside swastika flags. Oppositionists who in organizational terms are quite impotent look with great respect on the tightly marshalled nazi ranks.
Maneuvering in the Crisis
Nor was it an accident when, in September 1993, the Barkashovites appeared in the Moscow “White House” (parliament building) after Yeltsin had decreed the dissolution of the parliament. It has since emerged that a plea for help was addressed to the RNE from within the apparatus of then parliamentary speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov.
Barkashov was given the command of a motorized battalion of the White House, and was appointed by Rutskoi himself to the post of assistant minister of defense. On the anniversary of these events Barkashov even showed journalists a document signed by Rutskoi in which the opposition leader named the fascist fuhrer as his official representative.
The Barkashovites guarded the cash funds of the parliament, and performed sentry duty in the places from which an attack was most likely to come. Barkashov personally had no particular enthusiasm either for the president or for the parliament. Discussing why the RNE had involved itself in the conflict, he stated that if the parliament and Rutskoi had come to power, “the RNE would have had to stop Russia sliding into inevitable chaos.”
These revelations put the dots on all the i's in the discussion that has revolved around the participation of democratic leftists in defending the parliament. A year after that bloody autumn, it has finally become clear that whatever the outcome of the struggle between the president and parliament, the Russian people would have been the losers.
The events of last year brought former electrician and now RNE fuhrer Barkashov -- a politician in hob-nailed boots -- into the establishment of the Russian opposition. Old ties with influential figures in Yeltsin's defense and interior ministries had allowed Barkashov to get his people out of the parliament building half an hour before pro-government forces began their bombardment.
At the same time as the political influence of Russian fascism was growing, the movement was experiencing an inner transformation. Groups of “mystical fascists” started appearing. In most cases they were small, numbering only a few dozen people.
One such group was uncovered by the Federal Counterintelligence Service (FSK -- the former KGB) in June 1994: The nazi-terrorist group Werewolf was preparing assassination attempts against a series of political and religious figures. So far, only limited information has emerged about this organization. It had no charter, and did not keep lists of its members.
No weapons were discovered at its base, but the group nevertheless represented a serious social danger. Iron discipline imposed by a local fuhrer, together with constant training and indoctrination, had done their work. Several dozen cut-throats were ready to carry out any order from their leader.
One night in mid-May 1994 five Werewolves broke into the Marfo-Maryinskaya church, overpowered the guard, and after committing outrages against sacred objects, made off. The FSK conducted an investigation, in the course of which two corpses were discovered on a farm in Yaroslavl Province.
One of the corpses was that of a former Werewolf; his sometime comrades, it was later explained, had chosen this way of punishing him for treachery. A search turned up a jar containing the severed ears of the murdered man; these were being kept especially to frighten other members of the group.
The murdered man had been the central figure in a planned arson attack on the Olympic Sports Complex, the largest covered stadium in Russia, where a conference of the organization Jews for Jesus was being held. The terrorists had brought a suitcase there, full of an inflammable mixture, but someone had scared them off, and they had been unable to carry out their plan. Future Werewolf plans had included terror attacks on cinemas showing the film “Schindler's List”...
Despite the obvious political agenda behind the Werewolves' actions, the team conducting the investigation did not profess to see anything more in all this than a homicide carried out for hooligan motives. To openly pose the question of nazism in Russia, and bring a court case against fascism as a phenomenon, would require considerable courage in present-day Russia. What if Barkashov or Zhirinovsky were eventually to come to power?
News emerged of another such group when hearings began in a prosecution for inciting national hatred. The accused was a certain Bezverkhy, a former teacher of Marxism-Leninism living in St. Petersburg, who had published and distributed an abridged translation of Hitler's Mein Kampf.
This was the second time that Bezverkhy had come under investigation. In 1988 he had been given a warning by the KGB for “preparing and distributing documents containing ideas inflaming national and racial hostility between peoples.” Already at that time Bezverkhy, “approving of the practice of genocide,” had worked out the organizational principles for a Society of Wolves, foreseeing the creation of paramilitary groups along the lines of the storm troopers in fascist Germany.
There is speculation that the only groups which the security services are able to render harmless are those which are in opposition to Barkashov, and which fall foul of the authorities as a result of tipoffs from the RNE. If this is true, one can only guess at the number of nazi groups that remain undiscovered.
Whether the government admits it or not, it is conniving with the fascists. Formally speaking, inciting national division is a criminal offense. But in practice, only once in the entire history of Russia has a prosecution been launched under this law. Meanwhile, there are more than 150 extreme nationalist and openly fascist publications appearing in the country.
Fascism does not arise out of a vacuum. Particular conditions are needed for it to gain a foothold. In social terms, its spread in Russia represents a reaction to the chaos reigning in the state.
People have grown tired of the growing disorder, of the danger of losing their jobs, and of their deteriorating socioeconomic positions. Their anger is especially acute when they observe how the country's rulers, using liberal-“democratic” demagogy, divide state property among themselves in the course of privatization.
Fascism in the Labor Movement
The spread of fascist ideology in the labor movement has aroused particular alarm recently in trade union circles. The advance guard of fascism here is the leadership of the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Russia (KSPR), which has signed an agreement with the RNE “to inculcate the Russian national idea in the labor movement” (for a detailed account, see Russian Labor Review no. 3).
It is unfortunate that for all the tears which have been shed over these events by the trade union and left press, there has not been a single article addressing the question of why the KSPR leaders lined up beneath the fascist banner.
The fact is that apart from the objective causes that have fostered the rise of nationalist moods, there are subjective reasons. The latter include a widespread desire for a renewal and radicalization of the methods of trade union work.
Until recently, the economic situation in the majority of Russian enterprises had not favored a clear distinction between the interests of workers and bosses. Both had an interest in maintaining production, in saving their enterprises from total collapse, and in opposing the government's ruinous tax policies. In political matters, the directors therefore depended on the support of trade unions.
Since the end of the first stage of privatization, which saw the bulk of enterprises transformed in effect into the private property of their former managers, the bosses are behaving more and more like owners, thinking first and foremost of their own personal benefit.
As a result, the specific interests (one could say class interests) of workers in the enterprises have come to be defined more clearly. The bosses are now autocratic sovereigns in their domains, and do not shrink from any infringement of the rights and simple human dignity of the workers. The old trade union methods are inadequate for resisting bosses of this type. Unions need to be able to speak to them in radical terms and from a position of strength.
The old trade unions have become bogged down in internal wrangles, and despite reforms to their structures, are continuing to play the role of mutual aid societies in the enterprises. The new unions are rapidly losing their authority, as they become transformed into nomenklatura feed-troughs for so-called “workers' leaders.”
Unions of both types are falling behind the pace of events, and failing to address the new realities of Russian life. And here the blackshirts appear on the scene, telling workers: The main cause of the deteriorating situation is foreigners and Jews! The nation has to unite in resisting them! The interests of workers and employers need not be in conflict, only employers do not always understand this -- the only force that can make them act in the interests of the nation is the workers!
Fascists are not in principle afraid of using any methods, and they are quite prepared to talk to employers from a position of strength, forcing enterprise directors to act as “social partners.”
What is involved here is something very different from the liberal “social partnership,” which is sustained primarily by demagogic appeals for friendship between poor and rich, appeals which are issued mainly by the wealthy and which are liable at any moment to collapse should the social activism of the workers extend beyond certain bounds. The “partnership” of the fascists is based on physical force, and therefore has greater chances of success.
Here let us again turn to the KSPR. The largest union affiliated to this organization has about 2000 members, and is active in the Severstal metallurgical combine in the city of Cherepovets. Two other unions also operate at this enterprise; these are the old reformed union with about 12,000 members, and a new union which was set up with money from the AFL-CIO and which has about 300 members.
The Barkashovites became established at Severstal during a strike that took place in the spring of 1994. The struggle extended to physical clashes between workers and guards hired by the management, and the strike committee was naturally concerned about the methods to be used in the dispute and about possible allies. In the criminalized conditions that exist in Russia, any trade union work can be dangerous.
“When we organized the strike,” one of the members of the strike committee related, “I was scared even to step out of my home, the pressure on us was so great.” Trying to intimidate the workers, the general director ordered searches to be conducted and checks to be carried out on personal possessions. For this purpose he hired special guards, whose pay was three times that of workers.
There were cases when guards detained workers even outside the grounds of the enterprise. The plant was gradually transformed into a concentration camp. These tactics could only be resisted from a position of strength.
It was at precisely this point that RNE members moved into action, coming to the enterprise and helping organize the stoppage in a disciplined fashion. In the process, they handed out their propaganda. After the strike had been won, the volunteer auxiliaries enjoyed increased authority.
As a rule, however, the sympathy for the RNE among the workers went no further than this. Few workers paid any serious attention to the RNE's ideology.
Fascism is thus taking root in Russia's trade union movement primarily because of the impotence of the existing trade unions. It is the general approach to trade union work employed by the fascists -- an approach that could be summed up as “Think radically and act decisively!” -- that is attracting workers to fascism, not the ideology.
The main task of the trade union movement is to make this slogan its own, rejecting traditional conceptions of trade union work if this is what the situation requires. Only a militant organization, employing the whole political arsenal of democratic radicalism, can stand up to the management thievery and arbitrariness that now holds sway.
But for the moment, sadly, the Russian trade unions remain preoccupied with dividing up property, and with publishing tirades against one another in the pages of the newspapers.
ATC 55, March-April 1995