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category russia / ukraine / belarus | repression / prisoners | opinion / analysis author Monday September 06, 2010 20:52author by Mikhail Tsovma Report this post to the editors

Far from quiet on the Eastern front

After ten years of uninterrupted rule by Vladimir Putin, the situation in Russia seems ever more complex and worrying. Mikhail Tsovma examines the situation today, the role of Russian neo-Nazis and the prospects for the anarchist movement. This article was first published in Italian in the Summer 2010 issue of "A-Rivista anarchica".
(Photo by Nastya Kelt)
(Photo by Nastya Kelt)

Background: Russia today

Far from quiet on the Eastern front

Russia seems to be less and less present in the news. Be it Euronews, BBC or CNN, there is hardly anything there about a vast territory east of Finland, north of China. In a way, it is understandable — there are no massive protest movements, strikes, changes of government or something of that kind there. Gas supplies to Europe are sometimes troubled, but still relatively stable. Oil flows to the world markets, and so do metals and timber. The rich Russian oligarchs get richer (and end up in London), and the poor stay poor (and remain largely silent). It looks like Putin will remain Russia's Tsar forever. From time to time something blows up and the pictures of victims make it to the news...

But is it correct to say that nothing else happens there? It's true — there are no massive social movements in Russia at the moment and the ones that exist usually don't make it to the news. But we need to look more carefully at what it happening in Russia for there are both very grave and very important developments going on, which among other things call for solidarity with Russian activists.

Putin's decade

Ten years after Mr.Putin's ascent to power in Russia — and of course nobody should be fooled by the formal presidency of Mr.Medvedev at the moment — the country has reached quite a peculiar point in its development. Parliamentary elections are less and less interesting for there are just two official parties supporting the government and two sham ones, one of them being the Communists, criticizing the government, but still voting as they are told. Presidential elections are even less interesting. And since the general public interest is falling ever lower, the elections of regional governors were abolished — these guys are now appointed by the Kremlin, who no doubt knows better. Political opposition is marginalized and heavily policed. Practically all observers now state the absence of politics in Russia these days. The thing just doesn't exist! Or so they want us to believe.

The relatively independent mass media has disappeared already a few years ago (although self-censorship of the media and journalists is probably also a big problem), however, there is one newspaper, that keeps its critical stance towards the government, and of course, there is Internet. But for the public at large these things hardly exist — most of the people are provided with a steady diet of state propaganda and official news (or else, bad news), TV series about cops, family sagas and endless variety shows. Dictatorships are not just things that fall on us from above, they are reproduced by the people, who are conditioned in authoritarian way — when they are scared, tired, look forward to comfort or prefer the «easier» way of living this life without thinking about the consequences always.

Other brutal realities of Russian social life include violations of basic human freedoms and rights, ever increasing capitalist exploitation in the absence of any massive trade union orgainizing, extreme police brutality. Moreover, there is overwhelming corruption and the lack of any working state administration, which at times threats to paralyze the whole system itself and makes it completely unmanageable. There is a growing understanding, even among the bureaucrats, that the system is very vulnerable. Hence their fears...

In a way anarchist and leftist critiques of both the Soviet regime and capitalism in the late 1980s predicted the current situation. While the majority of Russians seemed to have been charmed with the idea of living in a consumerist dream of the First world at the time, skeptics warned that Russia is destined to become a capitalist country, only not like in Western Europe or the USA, but like in Latin America of that epoch — with enormous gap between the rich and the poor, extreme capitalist exploitation of labor and natural resources, authoritarian political regimes and eventually even death squads. Well, now it is rather obvious that these warnings were quite reasonable. We have all that and more... We even have death squads now.

Bureaucrats and extremists

Two important features characterize modern Russia and the general atmosphere of social activism recently. These are the increasingly arbitrary "anti-extremist" policy (which often results in de facto prevention and often criminalization of social activism as such) and the rise of neo-Nazi terrorism. The government and local bureaucrats are very much afraid of social protests, so much that they are more than willing to label any social activism «extremist» - it is easier to forbid anything in the old Russian/Soviet fashion. As for rise of extreme right wing movements and violence (the real "extremism"), they were to a great extent nourished by the government.

Several years ago presidential advisors came up with an idea, which they considered to be great - "manageable nationalism"! A thing that will distract the masses from real causes of social problems and channel their negative energies into something that can be manipulated. While the government was already playing in the field of nationalists with its extreme patriotic propaganda, the glorious idea of Russian statehood and the like, it has also decided it can use the nationalist movements. Back in 2005 even a new holiday was invented for them, the Day of national unity of November 4 (to commemorate the defeat of Polish invaders in the 17th century — some important thing to celebrate!). Since then this occasion was actively used by Russian nationalists and outright Nazis for their legal marches. Right-wing Movement against illegal immigration (DPNI) was established and flourished for some time, as well as some other xenophobic and openly Nazi organizations. But as time went by, these actors were less and less willing to follow Kremlin's scenarios and were more and more willing to play an independent role.

Non-accidental deaths of anti-fascists

Violence against prominent public figures, journalists and human rights activists sometimes makes it to the front pages of the international media. The murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2006, human rights activist Natalya Estemirova in 2009 or some liberal politicians earlier were big scandals (as well as the mysterious poisoning of Litvinenko in London, although he was hardly a real dissident). More recently, though, the faces of the murdered activists became younger, and if we look closer at the facts that are reported (or not) in the media, we will see some important changes.

Recently Russia witnessed a growing wave of ultra-right-wing racist violence, which for some time was in fact nurtured by the government, who failed to react to Nazi terror. Nazi violence — mainly against immigrants, people of color, but also against anti-fascists, anarchist and progressive social activists - was on the rise. Recently we have also witnessed the emergence of Nazi underground, which is an increasingly terrorist force.

On January 19, 2009 prominent Russian lawyer Stanislav Markelov was shot in the head in the very centre of Moscow, and while the journalist Anastasia Baburova, who accompanied him, tried to stop the murderer, she was also shot. This case has stirred an international scandal, for Markelov was a well-known defender of Chechen civilian victims of police and military brutalities and various social activists, including anti-fascists. He was also a socialist, who cooperated actively with anarchists. And Baburova was not only a reporter for the oppositional "Novaya Gazeta", but also an activist of anarchist and anti-fascist movement. These facts were less publicized. Also less known to the public are the deaths of other Russian social activists, including anarchists and anti-fascists, that happenned recently and that were made often in the same way as the murder of Markelov and Baburova.

For a while police pretended not to notice the problem or to state that there is just some strange war between two youth subcultures — Nazi skinheads and anti-fascists. But the situation went out of control and the existence of Nazi terrorism in Russia is finally admitted officially. The most recent murder was that of a judge, that sentenced Nazis to prison sentences.

In June 2004 in St.Petersburg Nikolay Girenko, a human rights activist and expert who testified in courts against racist attackers, was killed with shots fired through the door of his apartment. In November 2005 Timur Kacharava, a young musician and anti-fascist activist, was murdered following a Food Not Bombs action in St.Petersburg, he was killed with knives by a dozen Nazi skinheads. In April 2006, also in St.Petersburg, Nazis shot a Black student from Senegal, Samba Lanpsar, who was active in an anti-racist NGO. Same month in Moscow anti-fascist activist Alexander Ryukhin was attacked by a gang of Nazis with knives and killed on a way to an anti-fascist concert. A similar attack in Moscow also took the life of Alexey Krylov in March 2008. In July 2007 an ecological protest camp against imports of nuclear waste into Russia was attacked in Angarsk, Siberia, by a gang of Nazis, who no doubt were acting on the unofficial order of the local authorities and the police, - one of the protestors, Ilya Borodayenko, was stabbed to death. (Three years later the case has still not appeared before the court because the investigators don't do their job properly.) In October 2008 in Moscow Fyodor Filatov, one of the leading organizers of anti-fascist resistance and an anti-racist skinhead, was stabbed at the entrance to his flat. Ilya Dzhaparidze, also an anti-fascist organizer in Moscow, who was active among football fans, was killed the same way in Moscow in July 2009. In January 2009 Nazis shot Stanislav Markelov and Anastasia Baburova, both active anti-fascists. In November 2009 Nazi bullet took the life of Ivan Khutorskoy, one of the leading organizers of street anti-fascists in Moscow.

These are just the cases when people were killed, while there are numerous others, which involved only injuries (and there are cases of attempted bomb attacks against anti-fascist concerts or houses). According to the report published by Sova Centre, about 22% of all Nazi attacks in 2009 were aimed against anti-fascists. The style of the murders is the same as the one used in racist killings — attacks in group and multiple knife wounds, which are lethal, or, more recently, also gunshots.

Until now the antifascist movement has a policy of not killing Nazis in revenge. That's a very strong moral statement and a noble stand, but nobody knows for how long this can be sustained. (And, of course, there are already cases of deaths of Nazis — one such accident took place when an anti-fascist in Odessa, Ukraine, was defending himself against an attack by a Nazi gang and accidentally killed one of the attackers. Ukraine, it seems, also starts to have a problem with growing Nazi violence, although the scale is still not as large as in Russia.)

  2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009
Number of victims of racist attacks by the ultra-right * 267 464 564 653 486 333
Number of deaths 49 47 62 73 109 71
Source: Sova Centre

* Included are the attacks by the ultra-right that were racially motivated and attacks against anti-fascists. Russian Ministry of interior until recently didn't publish any such statistics, so the statistics were gathered by Sova Centre independently. They mostly include attacks in which racial hatred and xenophobic motives can be traced, which were carried out by Nazis, but do not include many of the cases of everyday racism and xenophobia, which basically canbnot be counted for lack of reports by the Ministry of the Interior.

Not running away

With the establishment of an increasingly authoritarian government of president Putin after 1999-2000 and the emergence of new problems (authoritarian police regime, the war and continuing trobles in Chechnya and the Caucasus, terrorism, growth of xenophobia and the continuing rise of the Nazi movement in Russia) anarchist movement was also growing stronger, as a reaction to these negative developments. Anarchists in Russia are generally part of various social struggles, same as other progressive social activists. Moreover, in the face of growing nationalism in Russia, anarchists and anti-authoritarians constitute the core of anti-fascist movement and are among the most consistent internationalists in the situation when the left is largely non-existent in Russia. (The peculiarity of the situation is that there is no strong left in Russia at all. Obviously the Communist parties cannot be considered "left" in any meaningful terms, because they are Stalinist, nationalistic, extremely authoritarian and xenophobic. There are some non-Stalinist left groups, but they are usually smaller in size then the anarchists.) That is why it is no coincidence that anarchists and our close allies are among the regular victims of Nazi violence recently. Both the anarchist movement and the larger anti-fascist movement in Russia is predominantly young, 16 to 25 years old being the average age. And the victims of Nazi terror against the anti-fascists are also strikingly young.

Yes, same as elsewhere, we also have debates in Russia about whether we should fight against fascism or against capitalism. There are those who argue quite convincingly — usually before the computer keybord and screen only - that we should first of all fight capitalism, because it is at the root of all the problems. Quite so, one should not forget about fighting capitalism and the state in the midst of anti-fascist struggles. But we do not have much choice regarding whether to fight or not to fight fascism here and now and what exactly should be the order on our list of priorities.

Where do we go from here?

One of the main problems for anarchists and progressive social activists in Russia remains the same: most people traditionally don't believe in «political», that is collective, action and the possibility of achieving anything through it. In a way this is a legacy of several hundred years of very repressive state administrtaion, which survived through both the Tsarist times and the Communist regime. Some traditions die very hard! This mood also seems to be supported by the current progressing social atomisation in Russia, which is one of the consequences of neoliberal reforms.

Recently slowly, but steadily social activism is re-emerging in Russia in the face of growing repressive state, overwhelming corruption and capitalist practices, which become ever wilder. There is a growing disbelief in Putin's regime, which more and more resembles Soviet-style administration, but this disbelief still leaves many people paralized as the ideas and tools for change are lacking. Social movements are very weak, there are no well-established forms and organizations which can be instruments of civil action (be it unions or local initiatives). But in recent months we also saw a number of protests which were aimed explicitly against the government and its policies and which were attended by more people than before. As the policies of the government, impudence of bureaucrats, capitalist practicies, ecological violations, police brutality and Nazi violence become really unbearable, more people think that we have already hit the bottom and something must be done.

However the very atmosphere of social activism in Russia remains very repressive (and becomes even more repressive recently). Besides the constant surveilance of activists by the police and FSB, raids on offices of social and political organizations (even very law-abiding and peaceful NGOs), there are rather strict limitations on protests. For example, there is a widespread practice by the local Russian authorities to ban or make practically impossible any legal manifestations or sometimes even small pickets. In Russia you have to warn authorities 10 days in advance if you want to have a rally or manifestation (if I'm not mistaken, similar regulations once existed in Chile under Pinochet). In practice (although not according to the law) they may not even give you a permission. Sometimes even if you have a permission, that still doesn't mean that your rally will not be illegally and brutally stopped by the police. That makes any open street protest and activism very difficult, often confined to a small square behind police barriers, at times it makes it impossible. And imagine your comrade was killed by Nazis or brutalized by the police? Do you wait for 10 days to express your protest?

But the anarchists with their practice of illegal demonstrations in recent years are sometimes better of than the rest of the opposition, because they basically don't ask for permissions and have the opportunity to plan and hold their actions in spite of the police. There still can be a very restricted field for action — you can only make a fast-going manifestation, as you may be sure that the overwhelming and brutal police forces will arrive pretty soon after they learn about the protest. But at least you can do something in a rather visible and sometimes quite efficient way. On numerous occasions anarchists in Moscow and St.Petersburg were able to have manifestations in this way, blocking the traffic on central streets (for example, during the campaign against police brutality and during protests over Nazi murders of comrades). There is also a growing practice of confrontation with the police if it prevents or restricts legal assemblies (as was the case with the anti-fascist manifestation on January 19, 2010). So in this respect, although not without problems, but anarchist street politics are developing and anarchists are able to slowly build up a protest culture of their own.

One of the Russian writers once said that «there are two main disasters in Russia — the power of evil at the bottom and the evil of power at the top». Back in 1886 he was referring to the mutually reinforcing duality of authoritarian state administrtaion and the lack of enlightenment and civil consciousness of the people. This is a pretty universal statement that could be made in 1916, 1936 or 2006 - we still have this problem, very much so, it seemed to have disappeared at times, but kept coming back. And we have no choice, but to fight this state of things.

However, in these struggles it would be helpful to know and feel that we are not fighting it on our own and international solidarity is still a powerful tool. As experience shows, Russian bureaucrats are still worried about their international reputation, so solidarity actions in front of the Russian embassies may be rather effective (as well as other means of protest and solidarity). Unfortunately, the situation in Russia doesn't give one an idea that such actions will not be needed soon.

Mikhail Tsovma

(A slightly abridged version of this article was first published in Italian in "A-Rivista Anarchica", No.355, summer 2010. Italian version -

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