Why the Kremlin Aids the Rise of Russia's Far-Right Hate Groups

Gallery: Photos of Hate Groups in Russia Yuri Kozyrev / NOOR for Newsweek

Within hours after Anders Breivik's July 22 bombing and shooting spree in Norway, Russia's ultranationalist underground was buzzing with sick approval. On vkontakte.ru, the Russian answer to Facebook, no fewer than 10 user groups sprouted, with titles like "Breivik Is the Hero of the White Race," each with hundreds of members. One admirer was Aleksandr Belov, founder of the far-right Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI), which was banned by the Russian government earlier this year. "In Russia there are thousands of unsatisfied people ready to take up a weapon and do something real…ready to become warriors in a holy war," Belov told NEWSWEEK, praising the Norwegian terrorist as "an effective manager."

As Norway's tragedy showed, paranoid and violent minds can lurk in the calmest, most prosperous countries. But the cancer of ultranationalism has found a particularly fertile breeding ground in the frustrations and resentments of young Russians. Belov claims to have predicted his country's future as far back as August 1991. Manezh Square, in the shadow of the Kremlin, was thronged with Russians celebrating the sudden collapse of Soviet communism; to most, the evening marked the birth of Russian democracy. But Belov, who was there with a friend, distributing pamphlets for the anti-Semitic Pamyat organization, says he saw something else. "We knew that these liberals would fail," he says. "And that their failure would fuel our rise—the rise of the right."

Twenty years later, at least half of that apocalyptic vision has come true. Russia's liberals have indeed failed; Russia is now ruled by an authoritarian clique of former KGB men. And Belov may also have accurately foreseen the triumph of the far right. On the surface, a decade of high oil prices has brought ordinary Russians rising living standards and a semblance of political stability. But even the Kremlin's closest allies fear that when oil prices eventually fall and the tide of easy money recedes, the ugly reality of an angry, fascist Russia could be revealed.

The country got a wake-up call late last year. For a few terrifying hours in December, history seemed to have come full circle at Manezh Square, as 5,000 angry youths rampaged through downtown Moscow, raising their arms in a Hitler salute and chanting "Sieg heil!" Some belonged to Belov's right-wing DPNI; others were fans of the Spartak football club, infuriated by the death of one of their number in a brawl with a gang of dark-skinned foreigners. "Russia for Russians!" the marchers screamed, hurling flares. Riot cops who fled too slowly were seized and beaten. As night fell, the rioters retreated into the Metro, where they ran amok all evening, beating hundreds of foreigners and stabbing two Uzbek laborers to death. "Next time we will take Lenin's mausoleum," vowed one DPNI man. "And we'll smoke those traitors out of the Kremlin."

Russian history has featured plenty of racist violence, from anti-Jewish pogroms under the tsars to the surge of ultranationalism that followed the Soviet Union's collapse. But there's reason to regard the Manezh riot as a game-changing event, one that could shape Russian politics for years to come. Poverty and unemployment are feeding the xenophobia that's always near the surface of Russian society. Although soaring prices for crude oil and metals have tripled Russia's GDP since the late 1990s, the conspicuous prosperity of some Russians has made life only more painful for the 30 percent who remain below the poverty line. The tension is worsened by the deep distrust, extending to hatred, felt on all levels against the corrupt police, bureaucrats, and authorities in general. And no one seems more angered by the country's shortcomings than the alienated generation that grew up in post-Soviet Russia.

It's an explosive mixture, one that has some of the Kremlin's staunchest supporters frankly alarmed. "The situation is similar to that during the Weimar [Republic]: there is zero state ideology, deep social imbalance, and the general weakness of state institutions," says Sergei Markov, a Duma deputy for the Kremlin-backed United Russia party. "Our regime is scared." Markov has been one of the Kremlin's leading ideologists for much of the last decade, so when an insider like him starts talking about Weimar—the shaky German democracy that preceded Hitler's rise in 1933—it's a worrisome sign. In fact, however, the growth of violent racism in Russia has been encouraged by the Kremlin's dabbling with nationalist ideology and politicized youth groups. And it's equally clear that the Kremlin, rather than seeking to eliminate the wave of ultranationalism, is doing its best to co-opt the movement.

Russia's leaders got chills from witnessing the youth-led pro-democracy protests that toppled governments in Ukraine and Georgia in 2003–04. Ever since, the Kremlin has given high priority to creating its own domesticated youth movement, indoctrinated with the greatness of Russia and ready to be mobilized in the streets at the president's command in case of a Kiev-style Orange Revolution. But in the process, the Kremlin's "political technologists" unwittingly trained a generation of cadres to be conversant in the dark arts of rousing masses of young people, organizing demonstrations, manipulating the press, and cutting deals with the authorities. "Concerned about the threat from the West, we have been empowering the anti–Orange Revolution youth forces," says Markov. "But we did not expect the 'white revolution' [that is, the rise of ultranationalism] to approach as a real threat to the regime."

The trail is clear. A NEWSWEEK investigation has revealed that many of the organizers of today's extreme nationalist groups learned their tradecraft as "commissars" of the Kremlin-sponsored youth groups Nashi, Walking Together, and the Young Guard. Sergei Kravtsov, 21, is just one example. As a member of Nashi, the biggest of the Kremlin's organizations for young people, he rose to become deputy head of the group's ideological department. But last year he graduated from Moscow State Textile University and was dismayed to discover that all the textile factories in the region had closed, with little hope for a comeback in the near future. Abruptly rejecting Nashi for being spineless and "under Putin's foot," Kravtsov joined Belov's DPNI, which he now considers the true voice of Russia.

As far as ideology goes, Kravtsov's switch was anything but a giant leap. Many of Nashi's doctrines overlap with those of Belov's organization: followers are taught that the West is aggressively seeking to undermine Russia, and that Russia is a bulwark against Islamic terrorism. Essentially, the Kremlin-backed youth groups differ from the ultranationalists only in their definition of whether dangerous "foreigners" begin inside or outside Russia's borders. In fact, sometimes their echoes of Nazi Germany can be downright shocking. Take the newest Kremlin-created youth movement, Stal (Russian for "steel," a word that also inspired the Georgia-born Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili to adopt the nom de guerre Joseph Stalin), whose eight "Commandments of Honor" bear a disconcerting resemblance to Joseph Goebbels's "10 commandments" of National Socialism.

Early in Vladimir Putin's reign, Kremlin ideologists devised what they called "managed democracy." All acceptable political groups, from tame communists to officially sanctioned liberals, would be brought into one big orchestra that would be conducted by the Kremlin. Everyone inside would have Duma seats, official apartments, sinecures, chauffeured cars. Those who refused to play along would be ruthlessly crushed. The campaign has continued to this day: earlier this summer the Kremlin made a play for liberal support by installing a loyal oligarch, the metals billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, as head of a tame liberal opposition party called Right Cause.

Russia's leaders have made similar efforts to win over the country's ultranationalists. As Belov puts it, "If the Kremlin cannot destroy [ultranationalism], they will try to lead it." In March the authorities extended a formal offer of cooperation to an ultranationalist party known as the National Democrats. The group's formal platform is a mishmash of anti-establishment rhetoric, but its basic aims are simple and straightforward: to stop the "Islamization of Russia," and to stop the immigration of Caucasus natives to European Russia. The National Democrats' leader, Dmitry Fiaktistov, wants "purely Russian ethnic areas" to be established so that Russia's peoples can be segregated, like Israeli Jews and Palestinians in the West Bank. "We would agree to cooperate" with the Kremlin, says Fiaktistov, who described Anders Breivik as "a genius" after the Norway rampage.

Last week the Kremlin borrowed another page from an old playbook, summoning home its current ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, for a new assignment. Eight years ago he created a tame, officially sanctioned nationalist party, and now the Kremlin wants him to repeat the trick. "The idea of fighting for ethnic Russians' rights will grow," Rogozin predicts. "The state has not been doing enough to solve the problem." He hints that his revived party, the Congress of Russian Communities, will be allied with Putin's United Russia party. Meanwhile, groups that refuse the Kremlin's patronage and control, like Belov's DPNI, have been outlawed and their leaders placed under surveillance.

The state's policy for dealing with ultranationalists has been set by none other than Putin himself: treat them with respect, and try to win them over. Following December's Manezh riots, Putin paid his respects at the grave of Yegor Sviridov, the football fan-club leader who was shot in a racial brawl. Afterward the prime minister urged tighter registration laws for foreigners. The message was unmistakable: tough-guy Putin shared the fans' pain—and implicitly linked the murder with the problem of immigration.

Russia's legal system has shown remarkable restraint in its dealings with ultranationalist lawbreakers. After the Manezh riot, only three detainees received jail sentences. One spent three days behind bars; the other two—Slavic Force leader Dmitry Demushkin and senior DPNI cadre Vladimir Tor—each got 15 days. At the same time, police detained more than 200 dark-skinned individuals after the Federal Migration Service ordered a crackdown on "loitering foreigners." The prominent blogger Oleg Kashin shakes his head over the leniency with which the Manezh rioters were treated. "?'Softly, softly' was the way the authorities responded to what appears to be the largest protest action of recent years," says Kashin, who's still recovering from a brutal beating he received in November, presumably for something he wrote. Unidentified assailants mangled his writing hand and broke his jaw and both legs. The thugs didn't bother to take his wallet.

The far-right leaders interviewed by NEWSWEEK for this story all boasted of having powerful friends in law enforcement. "We have allies in the Army, in the police, and among the FSB," says Demushkin of Slavic Force—known by the group's Russian-language initials: SS. For some rightist thugs, the connection goes beyond mere friendship. Skinheads have been photographed assisting police at demonstrations and beating up opposition protesters. And there have been hints of far more sinister ties. A skinhead named Maksim Bazilev, alias Adolf, was arrested in March 2009 with 12 other members of the ultraviolent National Socialist Organization for a string of 27 hate murders. Bazilev was found to have more than $6 million in his bank account, but he didn't live long enough to tell prosecutors where he got the money. He was found soon afterward with his wrists cut—in a cell at Moscow's security-police headquarters.

Cops and ultranationalists have a complicated relationship. The Manezh rioters shouted that the police were the regime's "whores" and "bitches." And the paranoid, antigovernment rhetoric of many ultranationalists echoes that of self-styled "partisan" groups that have attacked and killed police in the Russian Far East and the heartland cities of Kaluga and Orel. In May 2010 six fascists from a village near Vladivostok made a martyrdom-style video declaring "an armed struggle against the corrupt beasts" in the police. The so-called Primorye Partisans became Internet heroes overnight, with support from more than 70 percent of respondents in one poll. By the fall, all six had been killed or jailed.

The ultranationalists also talk of armed conflict. Last winter NEWSWEEK visited a training exercise 40 kilometers outside Moscow with a dozen Slavic Force members wearing white winter camouflage outfits and balaclavas. Their trainer was Dmitry Baharev, a former public prosecutor, who demonstrated professional knife-fighting skills and marksmanship with a licensed Kalashnikov rifle and Makarov pistol. "Keep your knife moving all the time, to the face, the liver, the neck," he exhorted. "One, two, three thrusts—for all our friends in jail!" One SS member, 23-year-old Vitaly Kurylev, displayed his chest, tattooed with the Nazi SS slogan, "My honor is loyalty." He says he joined because "aggressive immigrants from the North Caucasus" were taking over his North Moscow neighborhood. Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev are "the real fascists," he says—"using force against Russian patriots and making friends with the North Caucasus and the West."

But trouble is growing in and around the North Caucasus. Running battles have been reported between the region's indigenous peoples and its Cossacks—descendants of escaped Russian serfs who were allowed their freedom in exchange for guarding the country's frontier. Hate crimes and mass brawls have surged in the southern city of Stavropol, where in the past six months bombs have exploded in two public places. "We are in minority here in Zelenokumsk," says 28-year-old Artem Dzyga, one of eight ethnic Russians in a nearby town who were shot after trying—they say—to rescue a teenage Russian girl from harassment by a group of Chechens. "This is a war against the Russian people, supported by Moscow."

Cossack leaders like Boris Pronin say they're readying to fight back against the "Kremlin and its anti-Russian policies." Pronin claims to have more than 100 men under his command, and dozens of bulletproof vests hang in his group's headquarters. At a recent evening meeting in Stavropol attended by Cossack nationalists and atamans (regimental leaders), every attendee was armed. After a midnight church service, Bishop Feofan of Stavropol addressed the bearded Cossack elders, some wearing tsarist-era smocks and breeches. "The only way to avoid the war in the Stavropol region is by moving Russian people here," the Russian Orthodox prelate told his audience. "There is an obvious ethnic imbalance here."

Kremlin insiders say they're determined to stop the ultranationalists. "We will do everything in our power to crush this sickness in our society," says one of Putin's top aides who is not authorized to speak on the record. "And we will not react well to any criticism from the West while we are doing it." Police presence has visibly increased on Moscow's streets, and Medvedev has made a point of calling Russia "our multiethnic nation." But many observers worry that it may be too late to undo the damage. Pavel Bardin, a Moscow-based film director whose hard-hitting portrayal of skinheads in Russia 88 was banned from general distribution, fears that the Kremlin made a "terrible mistake" in flirting with nationalism. "The ethnic Russian population has woken up and are searching for their identity," says Bardin. The trouble is that for all Putin's bluster, the Russian state is desperately weak. The institutions of democracy—elections, the Duma, the press—have lost all credibility, having been systematically hollowed out by the Kremlin. No political system remains that is capable of channeling the anger and aggression of the alienated youngsters depicted in Russia 88. "If a moderate nationalist party called 'Russia for Russians' had seats in Parliament, there would at least be fewer of them in the streets," says blogger Kashin. Instead, the Kremlin will keep on with its longstanding tactic of trying to co-opt the nationalists' ideology—seemingly oblivious to the way power keeps moving toward the right. Unless Putin finds a better way, Russia's future could belong to Belov, and not to the liberals who celebrated their freedom so naively that August night 20 years ago.