The Kremlin’s Youthful Folly

Aleksandr Potkin, 30, changed his name a few years ago. The name change had a double effect. It was at once an gesture to distance himself from his past and an act of rebirth for the future. You see, until 2002, Potkin was a member of a little known nationalist group in Moscow named Pamyat (Memory). Its roots date back to the 1970s but was founded in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a time where Russian nationalism was emerging from the ideological blanket of Communism. Pamyat, however, collapsed in the late 1990s after several of its leaders were jailed for anti-Semitic activities. Not wasting much time on finding another group to devote his nationalist energies to, Potkin decided to establish his own.

Most now know Alexandr Potkin as Alexandr Belov. His new name, which means “white” is well suited. It is unknown if his choice was conscious or unconscious. It is appropriate because Belov is the founder and leader of the Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI), a xenophobic Russian nationalist group that he formed four years ago. DPNI came to national prominence during last year’s Aleksandra Ivannikova case. If you remember, Ivannikova stabbed an Armenia taxi driver to death. She claimed the stabbing was in self defense because the driver tried to rape her. Her defense didn’t sway the court and she was convicted.

Enter Belov and his new, and then online, organization. Thanks to his agitation, the conviction was overturned on appeal. The DPNI later gave Ivannikova an “award” of 50,000 rubles (about $1850 at today’s rate). Since then, DPNI has entered the political fray over illegal immigration on many fronts.

When ethnic violence broke out in the Karelian town of Kondopodga in August, Belov mobilized his members north to protest the town’s Chechen residents. When Moscow police decided to raid Georgian businesses in Moscow a few weeks ago, Belov made a call on the group’s website for nationalists to report on illegal Georgians. “When we receive a notification of discovering illegal migrants, our public control service will check the information,” he then told Kommersant. “If it is confirmed, we will summon law-enforcement officers and demand they apply measures such as deportation from Russia, or closing the store, or collecting a fine.” Now they are planning a major demonstration for Day of National Unity (formerly Revolution Day) on 7 November.

Belov represents part of the growing problem of “youth extremism” Russia. As the D. I. Aminov and R. E. Oganian, the authors of a recent sociological study called Molodezhnyi ekstremizm (2005), “The appearance of extremism among youth at the present time carries a more dangerous character for society than in all past periods of the state’s existence. The results of criminal investigations testify to the profound failure in the social policy and educational-preventative work with youth” (3).

One can accept or reject the authors’ characterization. I can’t help to view it as a bit hyperbolic since most adults think that their youth is worse than any other previous times. Generational conflict works both ways.

But still there might be something to their concern. At least, that’s how the Russian authorities are assessing the problem. According to Kommersant, the Russian Federation Council held hearings on “Condition and Problems of Legislative Guarantees for Combating Extremism in the Youth Sphere.” The hearings were a showcase of Russian security officials. Presenters included Sergey Mironov, Deputy Minister of the Interior Alexander Chekalin, Deputy Prosecutor General Viktor Grin and head of the FSB anti-extremism department Mikhail Belousov. They all gave the Council recommendations on how to toughen laws to prevent youth extremism.

“Extremism is a painful problem that many do not understand,” Deputy Minister Mironov told the panel of parliamentarians, adding that youth extremist groups were “organizations with strict discipline and their own leaders.” Deputy Prosecutor General Grin concurred with “members of such informal groups of extremism inclination as skinheads, Russian National Unity and the National Bolshevik Party not only spread the idea of national, racial and religious enmity and hatred, they commit crimes on those grounds against the lives and health of citizens that cause public reaction.” Chekalin estimated that over 10,000 youths belong to about 150 extremist groups and crimes related to their activities skyrocketed by 84 percent in the last year. Finally, Deputy Interior Minister Ovchinnikov added that “The sharp rise in activities of extremist youth groups – skinheads, Russian National Unity, the National Bolshevik Party, the Red Youth Vanguard– poses a serious threat to the maintenance of law and order,” citing their “active participation in protests connected with the monetization of social benefits and housing utility reforms.”

Security organs’ testimony at the hearings signals a shift in authorities’ attention to radical youth organizations. The previous law adopted by the State Duma stiffed sentences for vandalism, which now gives an offender a maximum of three in prison. Other provisions specifically targeted racially motivated crimes and extreme expressions of nationalism. Serious acts of racial violence (I wonder how they determine “serious.” I would imagine that any form of racial violence is “serious”) carries a sentence of five years. The organization of an “extremist group carries a fine of 200,000 rubles (about $7,430 at today rate) or up to four years in the slammer. But now the radical Left is in their sites, with a special barrel aimed specifically at the National Bolshevik Party.

In fact, Limonov’s band of youth was given special attention in presenters’ comments. AS reports Kommersant’s Ekaterina Savina,

Advisor to the Federation Council Committee on Defense and Security Vladimir Trofimov said that the regular seizure of administrative buildings by the National Bolsheviks and the march last year at which member of national movements shouted “Heil Hitler” fall under the category of extremism. Thus, the National Bolsheviks and ultra-rightists who preach fascist views are treated identically. National Bolshevik leader Eduard Limonov was indignant over this. “We are fighting for freedom and against an actively antipopular regime,” he said. “We should not be confused with some sort of thugs.”

Stanislav Belkovsky, president of the Institute for National Strategy, also thinks that the measures suggested at yesterday’s hearing are directed against the National Bolsheviks and nationalist groups. “They are the ones that present a danger to the authorities,” he commented. “No matter how many National Bolsheviks they put in prison, the movement continues to gain in popularity, and the nationalists have grown from a pet project of the Kremlin, which wanted to show that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin was better than the fascists.” Dmitry Demushkin, leader of the nationalistic Slavic Union, opined that “the fight against mythical extremism indicates that they are trying to purge everybody before the elections.”

There are many causes of youth extremism and Aminov and Oganian cite many of the usual explanations in their study: poverty, social dislocation, broken families, despair, the lack of education, drugs, drinking, and the need of belonging. Russian youth are apparently no different than other youths around the world in this regard.

I find these explanations typical and rather flat. I don’t discount these as factors. However, many of the ills they cite are historically constant. Youth’s gravitation to radicalism is not. There have been only a few periods in modern history that have seen a rise in youth radical political activity: the 1900s, 1920s, 1930s, 1960s and 1990s. There are exceptions, depending on the specific country. These periods, however, match most explosions of youth political activity around the world.

Therefore I think that there is larger issue at work; one that gives voice to the particular ideological situation most youths find themselves in. Here I think the NY Times’ Steven Myers makes an interesting point. Youths, like Belov and perhaps most youths who join extremist groups, he writes are part of the first post-Soviet generation in Russia, a country that is still struggling, in a way, to define itself and its ideology. The Soviet Union endeavored to erase ethnic and racial boundaries, at least officially. And its collapse gave rise to a new Russian nationalism, founded on the language, culture and history of the Russian Empire, on the Orthodox Church and on an abiding preoccupation with ethnic identity.”

If Myers is right, and I think he is, the rise in youth extremism also has to do with the ideological vacuum created and left by the Soviet regime. I say “created” because the sanctioning of only one ideology inevitably created an ideological hole when the system imploded. I say “left” because as the historian Shelia Fitzpatrick recently reminded us in her book, Tear Off the Masks!: Identity and Imposture in Twentieth-Century Russia, “Successful revolutions tear off masks: that is, they invalidate the conventions of self-preservation and social interaction that obtained in pre-revolutionary society. This happened in Russia after the October 1917 revolution which laid the foundations for the Soviet state. It happened again in 1991, when that state collapsed” (3).

Here we might compare the 1920s and the 1990s as similar periods of ideological flux, if not a vacuum, as well as a period where one way youth dealt with this ideological fluidity by joining youth organizations. There was the Komsomol, of course, where would be revolutionaries joined to build socialism. But that wasn’t all. Russian youths were also forming or joining scouting, communist, anarchist, fascist, and religious sects throughout Soviet Russia. Political groups were not all, youth also formed sex and drinking clubs. These were usually places of innocent debauchery. And it was often created and maintained by using local Komsomol organizations as fronts. Political or not, they were all trying to navigate their way through a society that was in chaos. For the Soviet state and the Komsomol they were intolerable and treated equally dangerous. Either they encouraged anti-Leninist ideologies or promoted corruption and meshchanstvo among youth. And then, as it is now, the Soviet authorities tried, unsuccessfully by the way, to strike these groups down.

One can see a similar process in Russia today. Is it no wonder that the Kremlin is increasingly using nationalism and xenophobia to its advantage at the same time it attempts to crackdown on radical youth? Many suggest that Moscow’s use of nationalism attempt to inflame these extremist youth group to their advantage. I would suggest just the opposite. They are trying to win the ideological battle by attempting to control the political discourse of Russian nationalism. Russian nationalist discourse not only transcends the radical left and right, it is also currently lies outside of Moscow’s hegemony. The problem is not with nationalism per se, the problem is who monopolizes its meaning. And radical youth can’t be trusted with it.

That said, I think the Kremlin, like the Soviets before them, is playing with fire. The Soviets too tried harness youth’s revolutionary romanticism to transform society to their own ends. The results of giving Komsomol youths a political mandate to smash the peasantry during collectivization led to an uncontrollable disaster. Presently, whipping up “official” nationalism as a means to combat “unsanctioned” nationalism inadvertently gives a similar mandate to groups like the DPNI and neo-Nazis to strike out thinking that it is with the Kremlin’s blessing. And that perceived blessing could exacerbate the very thing the Russian state is trying to tame.