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Russia: The Uses of Extremism

The emergence of three far-right discussion clubs and their links to the Kremlin spell more bad news for East-West relations.

by Andreas Umland 28 August 2013

Since the revival of the Russian democracy movement in December 2011, some Western observers of Russian ethnocentrism have focused on the partial cooperation between democrats and ultra-nationalists during the protests. During the past few months, however, radically anti-Western nationalism consolidating itself as a relevant political force has become linked less to the Russian opposition than to Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime. The recent further promotion of an already rabid anti-Americanism in the public rhetoric and politics of Putin and his cronies is a transparent attempt by the Kremlin to distract the population from other domestic challenges such as widespread corruption, elections manipulation, or bloated government. At the same time, the societal impact of the bizarre TV campaigns, and the deeper effects of the escalating demonization of the United States on Russian public discourse, cannot be dismissed as merely temporary. This has become clear from the long-term repercussions of similar, earlier instances of Russian media hysteria, for instance, in connection with the bombardment of Serbia by NATO in 1999, the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City in 2002, the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the Russia-Georgia war in August 2008. Following these campaigns, public opinion in the Russian Federation has become increasingly critical of the United States and, to some extent, of the EU.


Russian nationalists march in Moscow in November 2012. Photo by RiMarkin/flickr.




The renewed stimulation of anti-Western discourses through the use of “political technologies” is promoting a dangerous undercurrent and accelerating the development of what may be called “uncivil society” in Russia. The anti-democratic faction in Russia’s nonprofit sector represents a network of partly cooperative, partly competing, extremely anti-liberal groups, organizations, and publications. Many, to be sure, are distinguished by the support they receive from government agencies and through active advertising on Kremlin-controlled TV channels. They thus represent GONGOs (Government-Organized Non-Governmental Organizations), rather than genuine civil society initiatives. However, there is a danger that the stepped-up campaign of incitement against the United States may both permanently establish a conspiracy-minded, paranoid world view as the legitimate interpretation of international events and help entrench the clubs that promote this world view as legitimate participants in Russian public discourse.


As a result, an aggressively anti-Western right-wing extremism seems to be forming within Russian political life as a stable third pole between the authoritarian regime and the democratic opposition. The Kremlin appears to be implementing a risky political scheme aimed at restructuring public life: the increased incorporation of ultra-nationalists into mainstream political discourse appears designed to cause a comprehensive rightward shift along Russia’s ideological spectrum, so that the nationalism of Putin and his immediate associates, which is also quite virulent, seems relatively centrist against the background of the far more radical demands “from the grassroots”, i.e., from the increasingly prominent right-wing extremists.


Several ultra-nationalist groups and leaders have connections – sometimes through one and the same person – to both the government and the opposition. One example is the blogger and activist Vladlen Kralin, known in right-wing extremist circles by the pseudonym of “Vladimir Thor.” He has been a member of both the Coordinating Council of the opposition, on the one side, and of two nationalist organizations – Rodina (Motherland) and Velikaya Rossiya (Great Russia) – once organized with the support of Dmitri Rogozin, today a deputy prime minister, on the other. Right-wing contacts with Putin’s government are politically more relevant than the ultra-nationalist participation in protests, which is controversial among Russian democrats anyway. Within the democracy movement there is an eloquent minority that is explicitly opposed to any cooperation between the liberal opposition and radical nationalists. These voices are organized, for example, in a Facebook group called “Russia without Hitler! No to meetings with fascists, Nazis, and nationalists.”


Amid the spectrum of ultra-nationalist associations – which, though often promoted via Kremlin “political technologies,” were not dreamed up by the Kremlin – right-wing extremist intellectuals and their clubs, publications, and media appearances deserve particular attention. These include propagandists, TV commentators, and (self-styled) academics, who help form public opinion through their influence on university students, junior academics, political bloggers, and civic activists in particular, but also on the general public.




Aleksandr Dugin
The extremely right-wing Russian political spectrum is divided by whether the respective groups fall into either the pro- or anti-Putin camp. Since the announcement of Putin’s return to the presidency in September 2011, two further tendencies within the radically anti-Western intellectual milieu have intensified. First, the extremely anti-Western literati milieu is experiencing a partial consolidation. This means that formerly manifest differences between similarly oriented, but separate intellectual clubs and their respective interpretations of Russian history and world politics are gradually losing significance. The rivalry among the various “Slavophiles,” which was still manifest in the 1990s, is decreasing against the background of the new polarization between the increasingly anti-Western regime and the largely pro-Western opposition. Witness the recent cooperation between two of the most influential theoreticians and TV commentators on their end of the spectrum, Sergey Kurginyan and Aleksandr Dugin. In the 1990s, acting as the propagandist for a reinstitution of the Soviet system under new auspices, Kurginyan had harshly criticized Dugin in his then capacity as an openly neo-fascist publicist. In the meantime, however, Kurginyan, who was closely linked to the conservative establishment in the final phase of the Soviet era, has come to more closely and publicly co-operate with Dugin, who had once been marginalized politically as an SS admirer.


Second, there is increasing cooperation between ultra-nationalists outside the ruling circles and those in power who sympathize with their conspiracy theories – a tendency that has been observable since the end of the 1990s but is intensifying. This includes a partial coopting of marginal polemicists into structures close to the Kremlin or sometimes even into governmental institutions. One example is the quick academic rise of Dugin, who is now a professor of international relations at Moscow State University, Russia’s leading higher education institution.


The growing consolidation of the extreme right-wing is also illustrated by the recent emergence of three intellectual clubs.




Aleksandr Prokhanov
Created by Kurginyan on the basis of his Sut’ vremeni (Essence of Time) movement, the Anti-Orange Committee has so far been the most visible new structure, although it may turn out to be only a passing thing. It includes, among others, Dugin, prominent TV journalists Mikhail Leontiev and Maksim Shevchenko, neo-Stalinist publisher Nikolai Starikov, and Aleksandr Prokhanov, the editor of the most important extreme right-wing weekly journal, Zavtra (Tomorrow). The committee was a result of a pro-Putin counter-demonstration organized by Kurginyan in February 2012 on Submission Hill (Poklonnaya gora) in Moscow, against the simultaneous opposition event on Bolotnaya Square. The name of the club refers to the 2004 Ukrainian so-called Orange Revolution, which is interpreted by some right-wing extremists, as well as by many representatives and apologists of the Putin regime, as a conspiracy that was steered by the CIA or even as a fascist-inspired event.


The leap from the Orange Revolution to “fascism” – a glaring example being Leontiev’s TV propaganda film The Orange Children of the Third Reich (2010) – is made in Russian anti-Western conspiracy circles by highlighting the role that some Ukrainian émigrés played in the electoral uprising in 2004. This includes, for instance, Kateryna Chumachenko, wife of the Orange Revolution leader and 2005-2010 Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko. Chumachenko grew up in the 1970s and 1980s in the United States, within the nationalist Ukrainian diaspora. The North American émigré milieu was then dominated by adherents of the so-called Bandera faction of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, which at the beginning of World War II had been a fascist underground movement. In spite of being marginal, the participation of nationalists returning from the Western diaspora of Ukraine, as well as of some native extremely right-wing splinter groups, like the mini-party UNA-UNSO (Ukrainian National Assembly – Ukrainian Self-Defense of the People), in the Orange Revolution constitutes a problematic legacy of the Ukrainian electoral rebellion. It is today being used by the Kremlin’s conspiracists as a welcome pretext to denigrate both the Ukrainian and the Russian democracy movement as a crypto-fascist “Orange plague.”


In any event, according to its website, the extremely anti-American Anti-Orange Committee has met only twice, in February 2012. Even though the website of the committee is still online and calls upon visitors to sign an “anti-Orange pact,” it remains unclear whether the structure is still in operation.




A project that has a similar ideology but is so far less well-known is the Isborsk Club, named after the place of its first meeting, the city of Isborsk in northwestern Russia. Constituting a relatively big intellectual circle, it has a broader political appeal and may be more sustainable.


The Isborsk Club is the brainchild of the grandseigneur of Russian right-wing extremism, Prokhanov, who seeks to unite the “Reds” (national Communists) and the “Whites” (anti-Soviet nationalists). It is apparently intended to compete with the well-known Valdai International Discussion Club of RIA-Novosti, which consists of foreign experts and journalists working on Eastern Europe, as well as Russian politicians, scientists, and intellectuals. Prokhanov is a member of the Valdai Club, and, for his new anti-Western Isborsk Club, he copied Valdai’s format of a geographical term as a name, the versatile composition of its membership, and the practice of large meetings outside Moscow.


Similar names, including Dugin, Leontiev, Starikov, and Shevchenko, appear in Prokhanov’s club and in the Anti-Orange Committee. The Isborsk Club’s spectrum of members is, however, broader and includes many other prominent anti-Western polemicists, such as Sergei Glaziev, Leonid Ivashov, Nataliya Narochnitskaya, Archimandrite Tikhon (Georgy Shevkunov), Yuri Polyakov, and Mikhail Khazin. The group’s links to the Kremlin may be even closer than those of Kuginyan’s committee. For example, Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky, mostly known for allegations of plagiarism in his doctoral dissertation, took part in the founding meeting of the club in Isborsk. Prokhanov’s club seems to be well-funded and has so far held meetings in the cities of Khimki, Yekaterinburg, and Ulyanovsk. The Isborsk Club publishes an illustrated journal of the same name, with a run of 999 copies.




Igor Chubais
The most astonishing new foundation in the extreme right-wing intellectual milieu, however, is a small circle that calls itself the Florian Geyer Conceptual Club and was founded in September 2011. Led by the notorious Islamist and avowed anti-Western activist Geidar Dzhemal, the group uses the name of a figure from the German Peasants’ War of the 16th century. The historical figure Geyer is entirely unknown in Russia, and unfamiliar even to many Germans. The name Florian Geyer, however, is well-known among experts on contemporary European history, as the byname of the Third Reich’s 8th SS Cavalry Division, which was deployed on the Eastern front in 1943-1944.


Dzhemal, Dugin, and Shevchenko, the founders of the Florian Geyer Club, claim to be referring to the former peasant warrior and not to the SS division. Dugin’s past in particular, however, suggests that the club’s founders are familiar with the name’s Third Reich association and that the twofold historical significance of Florian Geyer is actually intended. From 1980 to 1990, Dzhemal and Dugin were members of a small occult circle in Moscow that called itself the Black Order of the SS. During the 1990s, Dugin, both under the pseudonym Aleksandr Sternberg and under his own name, repeatedly expressed support for sympathizers, members, and divisions of the SS, for example the Ahnenerbe Institut (Ancestral Heritage Institute) of the SS, the Italian fascist theorist and admirer of the Waffen-SS Julius Evola, the SS-Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler, and the SS-Obergruppenfuhrer Reinhard Heydrich (the initial organizer of the Holocaust).


Thus, it is all the more astonishing that – in addition to several right-wing extremists – some well-known Russian intellectuals were participating in the club’s roundtable-talks who do not fit the mold, among them historian Igor Chubais, legal scholar Mark Feygin, and sociologist Boris Kagarlitsky. It is also worth noting that, at the meetings of the club, anti-American activists from abroad were also invited to speak, including, for instance, the notorious Italian “traditionalist” Claudio Mutti.


Another noteworthy participant is the infamous political writer Vladimir Kucherenko, better known under his pseudonym, Maksim Kalashnikov, who is also a member of the Isborsk Club. Like Dugin, he sympathizes with aspects of National Socialism and weaves extravagant flights of political fantasy in his publications. In the book Toward USSR-2 (2003), which had a large print run, for example, Kucherenko-Kalashnikov speculates about a future “neuro-world” that would be a “structure” combining the characteristics “of a church, a giant media conglomerate, and a financial empire” that is “equipped with a secret service.”


As in the case of the Anti-Orange Committee, despite its continued Internet presence, it is unclear whether the club is still active. The last meeting documented on the Florian Geyer club’s website took place in June 2012.




Since the announcement of Putin’s third presidency in September 2011, a restructuring of the ultra-nationalist intellectual milieu has been under way in which the Isborsk Club plays the leading role. Extreme right-wing propagandists lament, sometimes, hysterically, today’s situation in Russia. They frequently conjure up apocalyptical scenarios for the future of their country and the world.


Notwithstanding their dubious background, questionable academic credentials, and tarnished reputation, they can act freely, often appear on government-controlled television, and are regarded with favor by the Kremlin, if not purposefully promoted. Should these tendencies continue, the already critical Russian public opinion toward the United States will deteriorate even more, and the alienation between Russia and the West will increase.

Andreas Umland is a DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) associate professor of German and European Studies at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, a member of the Valdai Discussion Club, and editor of the book series Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society. A version of this article was previously published in the Russian Analytical Digest.


Translated by Christopher Findlay.

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