Stumbling about The Information Superhighway, I (again) came across this interview Uri Gordon done a coupla years ago with Peter McNally, an anti-fascist researcher. Originally published on infoshop, I think it provides some good background on fascist movements in contemporary Russia, so I’m republishing it here.
Ultra-nationalist, fascist and neo-Nazi movements in Russia
August 30, 2007
Peter McNally (not his real name) has been researching the American and European far right for over twenty years. The recent murderous attack on the eco-protest camp in Siberia occasioned this interview, in which Peter uncovers some little-known facts about one of the world’s largest and – to many Western anarchists – least familiar networks of ultra-nationalist, fascist and neo-Nazi movements.
Uri Gordon: I guess the best question to start with is, what kind of activities are we talking about here? What do these people do, and how do they organize?
Peter McNally: Well, it all depends on how well organized they are. Normally it’s your typical skinhead bully-boy politics, beating up a Black or a leftist or whatever. Then a lot of times it’s the tit for tat, fascists vs. anti-fascists politics that has a momentum of its own. Basically, one could say it’s political gang warfare, though on a very minuscule level.
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t areas where people are pretty threatened about a very strong presence of right-wing people who, like in a lot of places, are in full complicity with the cops. Because the cops prefer them to the crazy fuckin’ anarchists, right? So they can go, “OK, I don’t understand your Nazism, but as long as you beat up these fuckers I don’t like, I’ll turn a blind eye. Oh, and here’s some money for beer.”
So that’s the gutter level. Then the next level is the people who are being groomed, not so much for political office but for higher-profile activity. So like in the States or anywhere else, you might be a young, smart skinhead who later gets cleaned up, prettied up and becomes a more serious player within that political scene. And these people are there because they show a much better face than Ivan Ivanov, the stupid fat skinhead, and because they are far more erudite. That doesn’t mean that a skinhead who’s smart couldn’t be one of them, it all depends on circumstances.
Then with the political parties like the National Bolsheviks (NBP) they have rallies and publications, a web site and conventions to show how legitimate the party is. Then you go to people like Zhirinovsky, who is in a sense a right-wing liberal economically, coupled with a Russian supremacist geopolitical belief system. Or in the case of some of the more conservative rightist parties in Russia, there is a serious structure and part of the military and security apparatus is behind them. And these parties all have extra-parliamentary activities and networks as well.
UG: So when you say there’s people who are being groomed…
PN: Who’s grooming them? Well, it could be old-line far-right people who may have ties to the moneyed class. I mean, that’s pretty typical. Within the business class you’re always going to have a percentage of people who are very sympathetic to fascism or national socialism, they want to have stability and a form of economic protection, coupled with cheap labor rates. You shouldn’t also underestimate the possible role of the more conservative parts of the military and the FSB, which is the successor of the KGB.
UG: The Moscow Bureau for Human Rights last year estimated that there were about 50,000 people on the Russian far right. Does that figure seem pretty accurate?
PN: Well, it depends on whether that’s people with sympathies or people who are active cadre. The NBP claims it has 15 thousand people. The skinhead stuff, I honestly couldn’t tell you because it’s so marginal, and because very few of those people ever put out anything, because a lot of them are so illiterate. I mean, that’s the part of it that’s more nebulous because these people are far harder to track.
With the NBP, all the demonstrations that I’ve ever heard about have either been in Moscow, St Petersburg, or the Baltic republics; Pamyat were much the same I think, more specifically mostly Moscow. I think the further east you get, it becomes more local. Again, there may be certain places that have big Oi scenes or skinhead subcultures. You may find out that there’s some isolated places that have a very large population that’s sympathetic. You might find some place in the middle of nowhere that’s really, really nasty. But because it’s such a vast country it’s hard to say anything general. Russia covers something like a sixth of the world’s land mass.
UG: What can you tell us about the emergence of the modern far right in Russia?
PN: The first thing that’s important for people to realize is that you actually had a large range of political discussion within the social context of the old Soviet Union. As with any totalitarian or authoritarian state, there’s a misconception that there’s a single monolith of ideas. In reality, there was a wide spectrum within the bounds of what was perceived as the boundaries of political dialogue.
So you had people who were more to the left of the main line, or far more to the right; however, they were still inside the discourse sanctioned by the Party. This is with the possible exception of the Stalinist period – but it’s true for the rest of the post-War period.
So like in any large bureaucratic system, you had a right-wing or an authoritarian tendency. In the old Soviet Union you had people who were extremely right-wing, in a traditional western sense, who would still be part of the party. One recent example is Lt. Gen. Alexander Lebed, who was Yeltsin’s Secretary of the Security Council. I mean, he was really in contention – before Gorbechev, during the 1991 coup, and thereafter – and he was very right wing.
And then with the beginning of the collapse of the Communist bloc is when you had the start of a more overtly fascist movement, basically people who wanted to hearken back to a time of stability. And early groups like that were used by state security services as a way to quell the demonstrations. So like in East Germany there were East German skinheads, who might have a Nazi ideology or at least a Nazi symbology, iconography, who were used by the Stasi to cause havoc for the demonstrators.
UG: In Russia, though, these movements show a very special ideological mix.
PN: Well, one of the most notorious groups early on was Pamyat, who were Russian-Orthodox Nazis, who were vehemently anti-Semitic and talking about a “Ziono-Masonist plot,” mixing in occult references and lots of other stuff. Coupled with that, they played to this sentiment… well, some people would say this is a bit paternalistic, the line that “the Russian people are always looking for a great father figure”, which I’m not sure is true but it is one of the explanations.
UG: This is, indeed, ironically “paternalistic”…!
PN: …and let’s not forget that Russia is the “great motherland”, so it’s even more ironic, “wanting papa to tell mama what to do”… Anyway, Pamyat broke up in the early 90s and out of it came Konstantin Kassimovsky’s Russian National Union and the Russian National Socialist Party, which is the most straightforwardly Nazi splinter group, and that last put out a paper in 2003. More importantly, Aleksandr Belov who was in Pamyat now heads the Movement Against Illegal Immigration, which is pretty big and active right now.
At this point you also started to have Soviet exiles going back to the ex-Soviet Union, with the specific example of Eduard Limonov who set up the National Bolshevik Party. As in many former Eastern Bloc countries, this party is difficult to discuss in simple left-right terms. Eduard Limonov was a dissident, he got an exit visa, he went to New York, and became a sort of important writer in the old Soviet exile community. Ironically his first book, which is about his adjustment to being in the US, being out of sorts and the whole diasporic experience, describes how he met this black guy and they became lovers, and it’s like “well, we just needed each other”.
UG: You mentioned earlier that you reckon that far-right groups actually have in them many gay and part-Jewish people, which I found a bit unbelievable.
PN: Well, it’s mostly hidden, but on the other hand everybody knows Zhirinovsky’s father is Jewish, and if you saw the movie The Believer you know the story of Dan Burros in the US. It might sound surprising at first, but it actually makes sense in its own way if you think about it.
But anyway, Limonov later goes back to Russia, and because he is a very unique character, and because of his cultural niche as a writer and the rest of it, he got more press. And he actually had a column in the English-language paper in Moscow called The eXile, which was a paper for the English-speaking people who came to Russia to grab what they could after the fall. He also gets involved with some of the ties between the Russian mercenaries who fought on the Serbian side during the Balkan wars. But he looks to Stalin as a great period of social stability within the Soviet Union, and this is the part about National Bolshevism.
Now this goes back much earlier because within fascism, national socialism and what we look at as the extreme right, there has always been a leftist tendency, a socialist tendency in a classical sense. So in the ‘30s during the time of social upheaval in Germany you had the brothers Gregor and Otto Strasser, who were part of the German Nazi Party in the earlier days and had a more left economic agenda. Gregor Strasser was killed during the Night of the Long Knives, as he was part of a left-wing faction within the NSDAP. Otto Strasser, who died in ’74, kept writing after the war. He was instrumental in the regrouping of European fascism in the post-war period. The Strasser brothers’ writings re-emerged in the mid-80s to early 90s to become part of the whole Third Positionist discussion, which is influential in some of these groups. Otto Strasser was very active in far-right circles; however, during the mid-80s more doctrinaire and overtly “National Socialist” politics were being reassessed in favor of losing the Nazi iconography, and putting forward an economic view that was more “left.”
And you also had Ernst Niekisch, who would be a fascist or an extreme nationalist, and sympathetic to national socialism. But instead of looking at Hitler for his primary model for the Füehrer Principle, he looked to the outward popularity of Stalin and the rebuilding of Russia, et cetera. So he used Stalin for his model and was very open about it, and meanwhile in Russia you have far-right people saying similar things. So these are the original National Bolsheviks. It was a little-known party, and when Hitler was appointed Chancellor all these parties got null and voided and everyone forgot about it. But then in the ‘60s you have people like Jean-François Thiriart in Belgium who was a fascist and looked at Niekisch’s writings and went “Ha, this is very interesting” and he started to mix the extreme left with the extreme right. These were very marginal views, so it’s interesting to see that these ideas have now returned as the cutting edge of racialist politics, particularly in Russia.
[On Thiriart, see Chapter 54, 'Red Swastika', in Kevin Coogan's Dreamer of the Day: Francis Parker Yockey and The Postwar Fascist International, Autonomedia, 1999, pp.541--551. Another transition from and admixture of left and right may be found in the career of the German Horst Mahler.]
UG: So getting back to Limonov…
PN: Well, for him all this was a logical extension of where to push Russian nationalism, especially with the older folks, who might not have liked Stalin at the time, and it was not a stable regime, but it was a point of Russian dignity, et cetera. So that’s sort of where Limonov comes from.
And another thing about Limonov is that he attracts a lot of people on the cultural margins. And in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, because of punk rock, Oi and so on, you have the beginnings of what we’d now call Russian skinheads, in the sense of a worldwide skinhead movement, or a grouping of people who are aping right-wing skinheads in Britain. So you have people who are in punk bands, industrial bands or whatever, and he courted that because he was a marginal cultural worker and was sympathetic to those aesthetics and hyped them up. And these days he heavily recruits within the Goth and black metal scene, which is probably the central cultural scene for the more avant-garde, out-there far right – the bands, the graphic art houses and so on are serious cultural players there.
UG: Now Limonov also worked with Alexander Dugin of the Eurasian Movement, right?
PN: Yeah, and Dugin… I mean, he’s really a one-off. He’s connected to the European New Right, which was started in the 60s by people like Alain De Benoit, who saw that the right needed to have a form of cultural hegemony and cultural analysis equal to what Gramsci wanted to achieve for the left. And they had the support of many parts of the old secret army organization (OAS) in France and Algeria, ex-collaborators and so on.
So Dugin reads this stuff, and mixes it again with geopolitical language and inherent Russian nationalism and Russian orthodoxy. Also Russian metaphysics and occult stuff, which is its own little world with its own national myths, its own occult practices. And you have ideas like that, especially earlier on in Eastern European fascist or ultra-nationalist circles, to have a cadre who are similar to the old religious warrior monks. This goes back to people like Codreanu and the Iron Guard in Romania during the ‘30s, who was also very popular again during the ‘80s, especially in Britain. And Dugin mixes the left and the right and old occult historical references, so for example he might talk about the “Society of the Spectacle of the New Templars in Russia”.
Another person these people are influenced by is Julius Evola. He was a Dadaist who became very involved with occult practices and eventually his own brand of fascism. Evola was also incredibly important for people like Stefano Delle Chiaie and the Ordine Nuovo in the early part of the far-right strategy of tension in the early ‘60s in Italy.
UG: It was interesting to learn how the followers of Limonov staged these civil disobedience actions when they occupied the Ministry of Health offices and tried to occupy Putin’s office in 2004, before they were banned. And this isn’t the first time you have this heavy borrowing from the left – I mean, like with the idea of “leaderless resistance” that we hear about in English-speaking far-right groups.
PN: Well, this goes back to Louis Beam, who was part of the Klan. In the early 1960s the FBI had totally infiltrated the Klan and other far-right groups, actually before they turned their attention to the new left. Later on in the ‘80s when you had the rise of Christian Identity and people like The Order and that – things simply became too difficult for them to work together in large groups, and more importantly, in large groups that had a leader who knew where all the bodies were laid – because many times that guy was the federal agent! Like, “He’s a good typist! He’s enthusiastic! He’s willing to do things no-one else is willing to do! We like him!“
So Louis Beam was looking at leftist politics and the perceived success of the extra-parliamentary left, groups like the NWLF and the Weather Underground, et cetera, and he said “OK, we need to find a form of resistance where we don’t need the traditional notion of leaders, because they’re too easily compromised”. So he thought about working in cells or small groups, and more importantly to set up a horizontal network of people who didn’t need to have leadership, because he thought it was more effective. So it’s not quite affinity groups or prefigurative politics, but it’s somewhat inspired by that.
Then you had people in the States like Robert N. Taylor who was the national spokesperson for the Minutemen, which was sort of the beginning of the militia movement in the ‘60s, quasi-fascist gun-toting Americans who were really questioning the social changes that were happening in the ‘60s, who wanted to go back to a stronger… sort of a fascism with an American face. But because he was smoking pot and hanging around with hippies, he gleaned things that he thought were useful from their politics.
UG: So going back to Russia, what are these people’s international connections like?
PN: Well, like with anarchism you have this huge international supermarket of ideas, and like an anarchist could go from Israel to Argentina to the UK and get translated into French, you have these international networks on the right that have weird impacts in unexpected places. People like Dugin et cetera are very important in the international European New Right movement, and vice versa, because those ideas come over, so magazines like Krisis in Germany and Elements in Italy come across. When you add to this the internet, you have a large transfer of ideas, very similar to the anarchists, and these ideas can travel at a much faster rate. People on the far right do also travel, hold conferences and so on.
UG: OK. Now what about specifically Russian forms of xenophobia?
PN: Well, within Russia specifically you always had a fear of different encroachments, whether it’s from the West or the East. Let’s not forget that Peter the Great and his court spoke French, they didn’t speak Russian. And when he moved from Moscow to St Petersburg he really looked to the West – and that was not a popular sentiment at the time, and still isn’t. This sentiment goes the opposite way as well: many people in the West have a fear of the “great Russian hordes.”
And then there’s what some people would call the “inbred” anti-Semitism of Russia and Eastern Europe. I mean, you have to remember that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion were first printed in Russia, and that in Poland there were pogroms in 1946-47! So this is more endemic than something taken over from the Nazi policies or, earlier on, the “scientific” racism going back to Gobineau and so on. It was something that was always there, and it was used in the old Soviet Union in various times. And specifically in the Soviet Union this was bounded up with the opposition to Zionism, where you had the “Jewish Section” back in the ‘20s and then Stalin setting up his own Jewish autonomous regions. So they portrayed Zionism as imperialism while pandering to anti-colonial national liberation struggles, and this created the conception that Jews were suspect of a double political allegiance.
Then there’s the fear of the East – the Mongol hordes, the Yellow Peril, which again doesn’t come from nowhere. Since the Mongolian invasions of the Middle Ages, these have been important historical bogey-men. In Russian prison tattoos, it’s fairly common for them to say “No Yids” and “No Mongols”. The same goes for the fear of Islam, which also goes back in historical memory as far as the Ottoman take-over of Constantinople. So you have the decadent West, anti-Semitism, the Islamic threat and the yellow peril.
Plus you have all these groups being played off each other in the Soviet Union in ethnic situations. So the Crimean Tartars, who are Islamic, Christian and Buddhist even though they’re from the Ukraine, were shipped off to Siberia after the war. After the fall of the old Soviet Union they could go back to the Ukraine, and now there’s a xenophobic reaction to them there among the white Russians and Ukrainians. And now the central Asian republics are also thought of as where the horrible gangsterism comes from, like “it’s not from us Russians per se”, or “it’s the Jews” or whatever.
UG: And political ultra-nationalists were also very active in some of these countries in the 20s and 30s.
PN: Right. So just to put it into historical perspective so you understand, when the Germans took over the Baltics in 1941, many people there saw the Nazis or the German army as liberators, and then of course because of Hitler’s policies and his racial ideas they were considered sub-human too. Or, for example, you had Dmytro Dontsov and the far-right Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, who were active throughout the war, with a military wing as well, and remained influential later.
Also at this point in Harbin, which is today in China, you had lots of white Russian exile fascist groups and, by the way, a large Jewish population as well, many of whom were allied with Jabotinsky’s right-wing Zionist Revisionist organization. Harbin was the largest city in Manchukuo, the Japanese puppet state, and the far-right Russian exiles there happily collaborated with the Japanese fascists. And during ‘39 when the Japanese were testing the border between Manchuria and the Soviets in Mongolia, in one of those minor precursors to WW2, within the Japanese forces you also had white Russian troops. Also, during 1938-1940, there were battles between the Soviets and Japanese on the Mongolian plains, the Soviet-Japanese Border War, won by Soviet Gen. Gregory Zhukov.
Most people also don’t realize there were still pitched battles in what we now call the Soviet Union during the post-war period, so you had this in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and to give you an idea of the ideologies involved, let’s not forget many of the concentration camp guards had been Latvians. There were running battles, major battles between the Soviet army and partisans up until 1954, so you have almost 10 years of civil war there after World War II. And you have civil war in the Ukraine on and off from as far back as 1917 with Makhno and up until the mid-50s. So they had a very tenuous border here.
UG: Sounds pretty mixed politically.
PN: Well, the fighters were of a wide political spectrum – Catholic democrats, left socialists, but right-wing people as well. And especially in the case of the Baltics, remember they had a civil war in 1919-1920 to get national status. So you have a myth of this great war of independence but that was always a part of it.
UG: So there’s obviously a strong military ethos underlying all this…
PN: Definitely – for example The NBP has a paper called Limonka, which means little lemon, which is a name that the Russian soldiers who went to Afghanistan called their grenades. And in the ‘70s and ‘80s you had a disgruntled population who fought that war, which was Russia’s Vietnam, so you had a lot of people who wanted at this point to save the face of mother Russia, and those people were also sympathetic to a more conservative nationalist orientation. And some of them were also involved in drug smuggling at the time, which is a sort of the link between the gangster side and the far right.
And more generally some of these people have spent some serious time in the Zone. The Zone is a unique Russian thing that goes back to the old Soviet period. The Zone includes the prisons, the gulags, the orphanages, mental hospitals, but importantly the military in general is also part of the Zone, and that’s another place where some of these ideas and some of the criminality was involved, plus the Soviet Union and Russia today has very strict laws against what we’d call hooliganism, in fact you could get tried and convicted as a hooligan and end up in the Zone.
UG: Can you explain more about that?
PN: The term “hooliganism” covered a wide variety of offenses in the Soviet Union, from vagrancy to gang activity. It was also used against political dissidents. When guys were charged with hooliganism they entered the Zone, and in the Zone they would encounter right-wing political ideas and imagery.
For example, if you look at old prison tattoos, Nazi imagery was popular and mixed with old communist imagery. However, it was more thought of as anti-social vs. what we would consider as more politically Nazi. When someone goes into the prison system, somebody who doesn’t have a tattoo isn’t thought of as a man and isn’t thought of as a human being. So you start to get your tattoos and your tattoos are like your own autobiography. So I can suss you out immediately because I can look at your tattoos and see who you are. Now one of the popular tattoos for someone who was “a-social”, i.e. someone you don’t want to fuck with and somebody who’s not gonna fuck with you if you don’t fuck with them, was a swastika. And the term they used in the prison would have been anti-social or anarchist – they also used the anarchist symbol, but the “circle A” anarchist symbol wasn’t around until 1964.
There’s a level of duplication: because of the weather and whatever, many people would duplicate their life history in different tattoos on their hands, and then have other tattoos on the rest of their body. So one of the symbols they used for what’s known as a “ring tattoo” was a swastika. But what’s important to remember is that in ‘45 at one point you would have had maybe three or four million German prisoners of war, soldiers, who were in the gulag system for years. So during the 40s you had a lot of German soldiers around in the gulags who had Nazi tattoos – not just the SS tattoos but it might be, like, “Love Margarethe” with a big swastika or something.
Equally, it’s important to understand that the old gulag was actually one of the freest places for political debate. I mean, once you got stuck in there, there were maybe twenty different Trotskyist groups around and they’d just have their political arguments in the open because, like, nobody was going anywhere! And the guards didn’t give a shit. So ironically, the place with the largest freedom of speech in the old Soviet Union was the gulags. In fact, they had vast political libraries. I mean, it was traditional that when you left the gulags, you left your books. So you had this marketplace of ideas in the gulag. Now who’s also in the gulag in the 40s and 50s? Nazi soldiers! And being a product of a Third Reich education I’m assuming they may have had some influences there.
[Introduction to:] Martin A. Lee, The Beast Reawakens: Fascism’s Resurgence from Hitler’s Spymasters to Today’s Neo-Nazi Groups and Right-Wing Extremists (Routledge, 1999).