Sean

Nighline’s Shamil Basayev Interview

For the past few days Russian news outlets have been filled with stories and condemnations. The issue: the Nighline’s broadcast of an interview by Russian journalist Andrei Babitsky with Shamil Basayev, the most notorious and wanted man in Russia. Basayev is a terrorist and he admits it. A proclaimed Chechen nationalist and Muslim, he’s been fighting for Chechen impendence for the better part of a decade. In the last few years Basayev has been the mastermind of some of the largest terrorist attacks in Russia. In October 2002, his fighters took the Odintsovo Theater in Moscow hostage. The attempt by Russian security forces to gas the theater led to the deaths of 129 people. In September 2004, Chechen rebels took the school of Beslan hostage. The incident left 330 adults and children dead and 700 wounded. A few days later, the Russian passenger deaths were blown up by Chechen terrorists, killing 89. Basayev is absolutely unapologetic. When Babitsky asked Basayev about how he justifies the horror of Beslan, he threw the blame back onto Russia as a whole:

 

“It’s not the children who are responsible. Responsibility is with the whole Russian nation, which with silent approval gives a yes. A nation that feeds their grasses who ravaged Chechnya. They collect food, things for them, they supply them. They pay taxes. They give approval in word and in deed. They are all responsible. And in Beslan, to be honest, I didn’t expect this. But in Beslan, the issue was either stop the war in Chechnya or have Putin resign. Just one of those two things. Carry out one, and all people are released, no questions asked. Get it? There wasn’t more to it. Well, you can ask why I did it. To stop the killing of thousands and thousands of Chechen children, Chechen women, and the elderly. Look at the facts. They have been kidnapped, taken away, murdered.”

The words of Franz Fanon haunt Basayev’s statement:

 

“On the logical plane, the Manichaeism of the settler produces a Manichaeism of the native. To the theory of the ‘absolute evil of the native’ the theory of the ‘absolute evil of the settler replies.” (Wretched of the Earth, 93).

It is also such statements by Basayev that have infuriated Russian officials about the broadcast of the interview. In their view, Basayev is the Russian Osama Bin Laden. In fact they claim that they’re affiliated. It is difficult to say whether that is true. I would place the global embrace Islamism by Muslim rebels as similar to the universal appropriation of communism 50 years ago. Basayev desires that an independent Chechnya be ruled by Shari’a law. But if we are to believe his own words, Chechen independence is key.

It is this wedding of Islamism and nationalism and its increasing influence on Chechen rebel forces that has led many Russia watchers to declare that after the Russian security forces killed Aslan Maskhadov in February, they had no one to talk to. Maskhadov, a moderate nationalist, was seeking a cease fire and peace agreement with Moscow. Now, Basayev is their de facto leader. His position is clear. Moscow must leave Chechnya. He isn’t interested in talking. And Moscow isn’t interested in talking to him.

Fanon states that there is a point of no return in anti-colonialist struggles. A point where the violence reaches such intensity that violence itself becomes a force of unification. Or as Sartre put it: “The only possible way out was to confront total negation with total negation, violence with equal violence; to negate dispersal and atomisation by an initially negative unity whose content would be defined in struggle” (Critique of Dialectical Reason). There is no sign of a coming dialectic between Chechen and Russian. Their own unity as Russians or Chechens is based on an absolute disavowal of the Other. An internal positivity predicated on an external negativity. For the Chechens, this point was reached sometime during the long drawn out campaign of Russian destruction and brutality. People say that the Chechen capital, Grozny, is little more than rubble. Thousands have been killed. Thousands have fled into the neighboring regions of Dagestan, Ingushetia, and Abkhazia. Over the last 15 years Chechen desires for political self-determination but economic dependence have transformed into absolute rejection of anything less that absolute sovereignty. It can be said that the point of no return for them was a long time ago.

For the Russians, however, if reconciliation was ever a desire, it was obliterated by Beslan. In the Russian eyes, the slaughter of children only reconfirmed inhumanity of their foe. Morover, the slaughter of children was an psychological affront to the entire Russian family. It struck the heart of its patriarchal structure. It made them seem weak, feminine. As Paul Starobin put it in an interesting article on Putin for the Atlantic Monthly:

 

“The Russian Orthodox and Islamic cultures are both patriarchal. As a man, and as Russia‘s symbolic father, Putin is supposed to protect women and children. His tormentors were triumphant when he acknowledged that he had “suffered immensely” from the Beslan ordeal. They had pierced his shield and made him seem womanish. “Putin screamed like a stuck pig,” Basayev crowed in a statement posted on a Web site.”

Hence the Russian government’s outrage over the Basayev interview. At the end of the program, Ted Koppel made an obligatory statement about free speech as if to make a distinction between our “free” press and the unfree Russian society. When threatened, you can always count on Americans to wrap themselves in the ideal force but materially bankrupt shards of the American Constitution, as if it had universal application. Koppel said, “Freedom is speech is never an issue when a popular person expresses an acceptable point of view. It is of real value only because it guarantees us access to the unpopular, espousing the unacceptable. Then, we can reject or accept it, condemn it or embrace it. No one should have the authority to make that decision for us. Not our government and certainly not somebody else’s.” I’m sure Koppel channeled Thomas Jefferson himself for this little speech. While I applaud ABC for airing the Basayev interview, until Koppel dares to air an interview with an American equivalent and takes the heat from “our government,” I can’t help to see his overtures to “free speech” as a pompous and laughable farce.

Mosnews.com

I’ve made some changes to the blog over the last few days. Most of them have been cosmetic. I’ve changed the color of the fonts, etc. However, there is one change I feel I need to explain. And that is the news feeder you see on the right. The news feeder culls stories from Mosnews.com, an English language Russia news site. I don’t exactly remember how I found Mosnews, but I remember the first story I read from it: “Stray Rocket Kills Bull, Cuts Power Supply in Russia’s Far East.” At first, I thought Mosnews was the Russian answer to The Onion. After all, how else to you explain stories like: “Drunk Scuffles With Bear in Ukrainian Zoo” or “Breasts Betray Cross-Dresser Trying to Pass Moscow University Exam for His Sister“? The strange thing is that along with these stories there are rather serious one’s like today’s “Chechen Warlord Basayev Admits to Being Terrorist, Promises More Attacks“. This story is coupled with this one: “Police Detain Vampire in Russia’s EU Enclave” Terrorists and vampires? Are these stories even real? It is hard to say. The scary thing is that many of these inane stories come from Russia’s Interfax News Agency.

(Just as an aside, I noticed on Interfax that ABC News broadcast an interview with Shamil Basayev, the admitted mastermind of the Beslan massacre. Broadcasting an interview with Basayev is like if the main Russian TV news, Vesti, showed an interview with Osama Bin Laden.)

Since the tone of the blog tends to be serious political commentary on Russia, I wanted to make some space for some of the lighthearted and comic elements of this country. Mosnews seems like a perfect place to introduce these. Some other “stories” of note are:

Russian Schoolboy Dies After 12 Hours of Computer Gaming

Russian Woman Bitten by Pet Piranhas

Russian Villagers Blame U.S. as Lake Disappears

Russian Man Hammers Nail Into Head After “Hearing Voice”

and,

2 Tramps Detained for Cannibalism in Russia’s Far East

Until I actually see a stray dog riding the Moscow Metro and makes a transfer, as many I’ve talked to claim, enjoy Mosnews.

Nashi Update

Three news items appeared this week that concern Russian nationalism: the Nashi camp in Tver, the Russian government’s earmarking of 500 million rubles for “patriotic education” and the group of nationalists trying to get the Moscow courts to ban Jewish organizations. These three incidents all point to what I call in very mild terms the general redefinition of Russian national identity. In harsher terms these three signal the potentially scary growth of Russian nationalism.

I’ll first deal the attempt to ban Jewish organizations. This has been going on for a while now and would probably be ignored if Russia didn’t have such a long and strong history of anti-Semitism. The case involves the Russian translation of a Jewish text called the Kitsur Shulhan Arukh. The Kitsur is an ancient religious text that gives elaborate rules about Jewish daily practices of the self: mostly about washing, eating, and clothing. The Russians who’ve brought the case to court claim that the text spreads hatred because it calls Christians “worshipers of idols.” Moscow Rabbi Zinovy Kogan admits that there are some “incorrect passages” but they hardly spread hatred toward Christians or Russians for that matter. The most comical aspect of this story is that those who are bringing the case to court is claiming that Jewish organizations foment ethnic hatred and anti-Semitism. Huh? That’s right you read that correctly, Jewish organizations spread anti-Semitism.

The Moscow prosecutors apparently saw the absurdity of this issue when they dropped the investigation whether the Kitsur spreads hatred. That didn’t deter the unidentified Russian nationalists. They brought an appeal to the court I hopes that they reexamine the case. This whole issue would probably just fade away if it didn’t actually have some real support. In January, 19 Russian lawmakers signed a letter that accused Jewish organizations of fomenting hatred, citing the Kitsur. Mikhail Nazarov, a historian and writer is quoted as saying that any politicians who “support the principles” of the text should resign.

Statements like Nazarov’s would also be easily dismissed if other recent events around the issue of Russian nationalism didn’t rear its head. This week the Russian Government earmarked 500 million rubles to promote “patriotic education.” The Patriotic Education Program for Russian Citizens, which spans 2006 to 2010, seeks “to prepare the strategy of developing the personality of the Russian patriot” and “prevents attempts to discredit or deprecate the patriotic idea in the media.” The Program will do this by printing pamphlets on “correct reproductive behavior,” developing patriotic video games, producing cassettes and CDs of patriotic songs, as well as launch a Fatherland Program on television. But before everyone gets all hot and bothered about the Russian attempt to instill “patriotism” among mostly young people, keep in mind this figure: The United States will spend $88 million in 2006 to promote “democracy” in Russia, while the Russian government will only spending 77 million rubles (around $2.75 million) on patriotism.

While the Patriotic Education Program for Russian Citizens might be a bad throwback to the USSR, I’m afraid the pro-Putin youth organization Nashi might pose a real concern. I’ve already mentioned their “commissar” training camp in Tver. I wanted to touch on the Nashi camp again to point out some of its similarities to the old Communist Youth League in a 21st century key.
Nashi seems to have some pretty strong institutional support. According to a Moscow Times report, land for Nashi’s Seliger Camp was donated by the Tver governor, who gave 2 hectares, and the Russian Orthodox Church which handed over five. In return Nashi members helped restore the nearby Nilova Pustin Monastery. At the camp, Nashiisti chopped wood, visited the camp internet caf?, read the Nashi newspaper, Nashi Izvestia, swam, ran, and sang songs. The Moscow Times article provides an interesting picture:

“Soviet-era songs drifted from the main stage in the center of the camp, where the commissars gathered at 8 a.m. They stood at even intervals on an enormous grid of plastic strips. Young people who had birthdays that day were called to the stage and congratulated, then most of the group left for the daily five-kilometer run. Two circles of young women performed aerobics for the eager lenses of photographers.”

The future Nashi “commissars” also listened to lectures about new ideas, politics, and the future of Russia from politicos of United Russia. The deputy head of the Putin Administration, Vladislav Surkov addressed the crowd. Surkov’s speech set off a litany of rumors about what other important figures would visit Camp Seliger. Rumors, fueled by hope, also spread about a possible appearance from Vladimir Putin himself. There was no Putin, but the hope among Nshi young members shows desires if not the cult of Putin’s personality.

But what does this all represent? What is Nashi and what will they become? It is too early to tell. Perhaps this quote from Svetlana Kalinina, 19 year old “commissar” from Yaroslav, gives some indication:

“I know they call Putin an authoritarian in the West, but the Russian people have always needed a strong leader. Its part of our character.”

Natsbol Update

Today’s Moscow Times has an article on the Trial of “Decembrists”, the trial of 39 National Bolshevik members for seizing a Presidential office last December. The moniker “Decembrists” shouldn’t slip notice. The Decembrists were nobles and about 3000 soldiers who tried to prevent Nicholas I from being crowned Tsar after the death of Alexander I. It was said that the nobles that headed the revolt sought to install a constitutional monarchy. Always conscious of history, Limonov’s group staged their siege on December 14, the same day the original Decembrists revolted.

The Moscow Times article describes the court’s hard handedness toward the “Decembrists.” This is only going to get the Natsbols support since many Russians will probably sympathize with their and their parents’ claims that their crime doesn’t fit their treatment.

There is something to be said about the Time’s claims that Limonov’s group is “arguably the most popular political movement among urban youth.” I believe there is some truth to this because of some of the things I wrote in the previous post on them. Their radical rhetoric and political aesthetics make them attractive to a section of Russian youth culture that is looking to strike back at the government. The Natsbols are not punks. They are punk rockers.

But the concentration on the Natsbols diverts attention away from what I think is a much more frightening group. That is Nashi, (Our own). Here is an except from a recent interview in Novaya Gazeta with its leader, Vasili Yakemenko:

Question: You have frequently labeled people with quite liberal beliefs as fascists.

Vasili Yakemenko: Well, there are fascists – Wahhabis, extremists – and then there are their sympathizers: Yavlinsky, Khakamada, the Free Choice 2008 Committee, and Garry Kasparov.

Question: Don’t you think that Kasparov, as a Jew, is by definition incapable of being a fascist or Wahhabi sympathizer?

Vasili Yakemenko: It doesn’t matter to me who he is. You’re asking the questions of a three-year-old child. Let’s have a normal interview, otherwise I will stop talking to you.

Question: And you don’t count the skinhead gangs as fascists, although they actually do kill people on racial grounds?

Vasili Yakemenko: Those who kill people on racial grounds are always fascists. Nonetheless, “skinhead” is not a system of values; these gangs have no ideology. These are simply socially maladjusted guys. This is a category of people with whom it is possible and necessary to work.

Question: It has been rumored that your movement includes the football fan groups. One of the leaders, Vasya the Killer, was even seen at your congress. It was rumored that he attacked the bunker of National Bolshevik Party according to your request?

Vasili Yakemenko: This is not true. I am against violence.

Question: Yes, but in a speech you gave in in Kursk you stated that if you “contacted some colleagues from fans of the Spartak football club” and brought them to Kiev, they would havedispersed all the orange protesters.

Vasili Yakemenko: I have no Spartak supporter colleagues. I said that if a group of a few thousand people with physical strength was brought in from Moscow to counter the demonstrators in Kiev, there would be no trace left of the demonstrators.

Question: Of course, this contradicts the statement that you are against violence. But you admit cooperation with football supporter gangs?

Vasili Yakemenko: They are young people being football enthusiasts, that is all. If we need them for some reason, I do not see any problem in this.

Question: Is a color revolution possible in Russia?

Vasili Yakemenko: If everyone stands by and watches indifferently as these processes develop, including financing from foreign foundations, yes.

Question: If you had been in Leonid Kuchma’s place, what would you have done?

Vasili Yakemenko: There wouldn’t have been a revolution. I would have brought in the armed forces two days earlier to make everything secure, and nobody would have dare to go there. But no one had the will to do that.

(Source: David Johnson’s Russia List #9191, Translation: Pavel Pushkin)

And they call the National Bolsheviks fascist?!

According to today’s Kommersant, this past weekend Nashi opened a camp for its members in Tver oblast. The camp was for developing “nationally orientated managers and plans.” At the two week camp, members will play sports and listen to lectures by Sergei Markov, Director of the Institute of Political Research in Ukraine, Viacheslav Nikonov, President of the Polity Foundation, and economist Andrei Parshev. The article notes that opponents of Nashi, like Ilia Yashin from Yabloko Youth simply see the youths at the Nashi camp as shock troops and suggests that there is a special “detachment” of Nashi members called the Power Bloc, which is made of up football hooligans. Considering Yakemenko’s statements above, that might not be to far from the truth. Yakemenko’s response to charges that the Nashi camps is for “shock troops” was to point out that the attendees are “very polite boys and girls, and don’t look like shock troops.”

Bilingua Burns!

It is impossible to spend any length of time in Russia and not have something totally fucked up happen to you. The place is just too damn unpredictable. It lacks that well-ordered atmosphere that you immediately sense after stepping off a plane in Western Europe. No, Russia is wholly something else. If you’re not constantly jumping through the obstacle course of both official and unofficial bureaucratic hoops, you are constantly confronted by what you can only conclude as stupidity. And if that doesn’t get you, then the dilapidated state of buildings and the complete lack of safety will get you. I, and several friends, experienced the latter this Friday.

When there is a fire in Russia it is likely that people die. For example, on my first day in Riazan there was a fire down the street from where I was staying. An old woman and two children burned to death. While staying in my apartment near Profsoiuznaya metro in Moscow, I often wondered how the apartment buildings were evacuated if there was a fire. I was living on the first floor, which meant all my windows are barred with no means of opening them in an emergency. I couldn’t even climb out the windows. I was fucked if there was a fire in my apartment.

I was in a fire this Friday and I wasn’t fucked. Thankfully, everyone got out safely and no one was hurt. Given what I’ve stated above, luck was on our side.

This is what happened. . .

Since January, several of us foreign researchers have been meeting every Friday at a place called Kafe Bilingua for drinks. Bilingua is one of these interesting places in Moscow. It’s part bookstore/coffee shop, part bar, part restaurant, and part club. It’s a nice place to get something to eat and hang out and drink. Our group had a reserved table every week and our own waitress, Vika. Sometimes over 20 people showed up. Last week the bill was over 11,000 rubles ($350). They make a lot of money off of us and we make sure Vika is well taken care of.

So there we were, as usual, at Bilingua on Friday night. Everything was normal except that the crowd was less than usual. Around [11:30], Maya noticed smoke outside. At the same time, Vika went to open one of the windows behind our table. Of course at first we didn’t pay much mind to either the smoke or the opening the window. Next we heard fire extinguishers going off in the kitchen. Maya was surprised that they had fire extinguishers. I think most of us figured it was a grease fire. Even after the extinguishers, Maya smelled something burning. About two minutes later, the room where we sit filled with smoke. We grabbed out shit, scooped up the money, and got the fuck out.

The exit was quite calm. This was probably because we were never really told to leave. As Arch said after, “The funny thing about all this is that they never told us that there was a fire and that we should leave.” Instead, we were told to go into the dance part of the club. As we were leaving most of the people in the place were dancing. At the staircase Vika was waiting with the bill. I grabbed it and told her I would settle it outside. At that point, I didn’t know how bad the fire was and figured we’d be back next week. I didn’t want to screw over Bilingua, and I certainly didn’t want to screw over Vika. The bill was 6500 rubles and I wanted to make sure that at least Vika got her tip.

Maya and I counted all the money and figured out the tip. Collected a bit more from some people to cover the tip. The fire trucks arrived. Some people began clapping. I don’t understand this clapping phenomenon. I’ve also seen this on planes where the passengers clap when the plane lands. Isn’t safely landing a plane or, for firefighters, arriving to put out a fire their FUCKING JOB!? Clapping is like you’re surprised the plane didn’t crash or that the firefighters came at all. Maybe I’m the crazy one for taking such things for granted.

Everybody that was in Bilingua, including all of us–Maya, Matthias, Arch, Darin, Eric, Venera, Gayle, Jean-Francois, and me stood and watched the fire. Darin noted the appropriateness of “the roof, roof, the roof is on fire. We don’t need no water. Let the motherfucker burn. Burn motherfucker, burn” but attributed the song to the Bloodhound Gang. Their version was inspired by the Dynamic Three’s 80s dance hit. But in this postmodern world origins seem to only matter when intellectual property rights are concerned. I’m sure the Dynamic Three was adequately compensated. Wherever they are. But I digress . . .

It doesn’t take much to capture the attention of drunk people. We all stood there–Look at the pretty lights. Ooooh fire. Pretty fire.–watching the fire. I’m surprised I didn’t hear anyone make a Beavis impression. I began wondering the crowd looking for Vika to give her the money. At this point I didn’t care if she pocketed the 7500 rubles. She was now officially unemployed. At least for the foreseeable future. Jean-Francois joined me and as we wondered toward the back of the building, we noticed that the fire had spread. The roof of the stage area was ablaze.

We doubled back and noticed Vika standing down the street. I handed her the money. As you can imagine, she was worried about her job, but then sweetly said “Uvidimsia.” I hope so but I wouldn’t count on it.

Oh yeah, Arch never did get the veal he ordered. The theory is that the fire was all his fault.

I went by Bilingua yesterday to check out the damage. The whole staff was standing outside. It looked as if they had a meeting to figure out what would happen next. They were all no defacto unemployed. I saw Vika and began asking her how bad it was. The fire only damaged the roof and the kitchen. The place also has a lot of water damage. The owners planned to rebuild it. She said it would take around 2 months. Knowing how fast things go here, I say six. Luckily for her and her coworkers, another location was opening up in a month or so. So they won’t be unemployed for that long.

Like I said no one was hurt. The whole situation never even reached a panic. The big problem we have now is that we don’t have a place to meet. Everyone is shocked and bummed. An alternative will turn up. We already have some leads . . .

Matthias took a film of our “evactuation.” You can watch it here.

(Photo credit: Photo #1 J. Arch Getty)

Banning the Natsbols

“This is a mass organization which is not interested in the Kremlin. The arm of the court is trying to liquidate us, but we will not stand for it and will go to the European Court on Human Rights . . . If you ban us we will flee underground and from this it will be worse for everyone!” Such were the words from the former Soviet dissident, writer, and the National Bolshevik Party founder and leader Edward Limonov at the Moscow District Court last Wednesday. Kommersant reported quite a scene. Outside the court a bus full of OMON agents (the Russian riot police) waited for signs of protest. Police lined the corridor leading to the court room. Agents were on duty in the courtroom with dogs. The Moscow District Court banned the National Bolsheviks or Natsbols because they failed to properly register as an official political party. According to Russia law, “social organizations,” which the Natsbols registered themselves as in 1993, cannot call themselves a political party. Since the Natsbols don’t run candidates, and by Limonov’s own words are a “mass organization” that is “not interested in the Kremlin” they don’t seem to fit in the legal definition of political party. They don’t have candidates for office. Nor do they participate in the electoral process at all. In fact, it seems their goal is to destroy it.

The question I’ve had since I heard of Limonov’s motley crew of radical youths is: what exactly are the National Bolsheviks? This question pertains more to than just the semantics of Russian electoral law. Like most radical groups the Natsbols straddle the line between “party” and “mass organization.” Their actions and ideology hardly fit in a liberal electoral system. Their politics appeal to the disaffected. Their style hails from the fringes of youth culture. Their discourse is political venom that seeks to demolish the pretenses of polite political society.

Because of all this, many correctly surmise that their liquidation is not about form, but content. The National Bolsheviks are a fascist organization of mostly young people in their late teens and early twenties who are attracted to Limonov’s radical writings, the group’s extremist views, and militant, if not cartoonish, tactics. Their symbol: a red flag with a solid white circle in the middle with a black hammer and sickle in the center of it that embodies the colors of Nazism and the symbol of Soviet Communism. In their program, the Natsbols call for the destruction of the “anti-human trinity” of liberalism, democracy, and capitalism; the creation of a Russian Empire from “Vladivostok up to Gibraltar on the basis of Russian civilization”; and, among other things, the creation of a “total state” that places the nation above human rights. All that sounds pretty fascist to me.

Yet there is something about the Natsbols that makes it hard to take them seriously. They seem more style than politics. Theirs is a political aesthetic that weds the politics of the 1920s and 30s with the punk rock nihilism of the 1970s and 80s. As Limonov describes in his trademark broken English in the Exile, a Moscow expatriate weekly a new political aesthetic was the center piece of the National Bolsheviks birth:

“In 1994 I have founded National-Bolsheviks party. I was so sick of conventional politics that I have decided to create some entirely new idiology [sic] based on style. Much later I have declared that National-Bolsheviks were in existence before National-Bolsheviks Party was created. Yes, when in 1994 somebody asked Egor Letov, Russian punk idol, why he is so poorly dressed, I was present in that moment. Letov answered that he is wearing clothes which his admirers normally wear. “And they are poor people, you know,” explained Letov. “That why I wear cheap baskets, he pointed at his sneakers.”

Taking example from Letov we have recommended to our followers in few first issues of “Limonka” to wear black jeans, black footwear, to cut their hair short. That was precisely those clothes that poor moscovits youngsters were sporting in those days, and now. So our party style was an imitation of street style. In that very sense it is true that National-Bolsheviks were valking streets of Russian cities before National-Bolsheviks Party was created. Black is very practical colour, stains and dirt are less visible on black clothes. Later some vise journalists wanted to tie our black clothes to fascist black shorts. I always pointed out that poor moscovites youngsters are dressing up in black. And short hear is practical, it doesn’t require much care.

Moreover, Limonov claims, “Our party style was an imitation of street style. In that very sense it is true that National-Bolsheviks were valking [sic] streets of Russian cities before National-Bolsheviks Party was created.” Their combination of fascist and Bolshevik symbols produced shock in a country where Soviet Communism defeated German Nazism to the cost of 28 million of its citizens. As did the Natsbol slogans like “Capitalism is shit!”, “We hate the government!”, and “Eat the rich!”

Their political actions are more akin to anti-globalization groups in Western Europe and the United States. The Natsbols have dropped banners from expensive Moscow hotel windows calling for Putin’s resignation. They’ve pelted former NATO Secretary-General George Robertson with rotten vegetables, smeared mayonnaise on Russian officials, and even slapped Prince Charles with carnations. The National Bolshevik style is to be scandalous, witty, confrontational, loud, and colorful. Their aesthetic was to offend; to turn politics into the carnvalesque of street theater.

Yet there is nothing in this political aesthetic that is antithetical to fascism or communism. In fact, quite the opposite. The political aestheticization of everyday life was a main tenet of Italian, German and Central and Eastern European fascism and communist movements. Fascist uniformed marches, banners, slogans and songs went hand in hand with street brawls and attacking individuals, whether they were Jews, ethnic minorities, liberals, communists, anarchists, etc. In fin-de-siecle Russia, futurist youths engaged an in your face street transformed “hooliganism” into a political art. The aestheticization of politics also captured the imagination of early 20th century avant-garde artists, writers, poets, and dramatists. Many were subsequently drawn to and joined both radical movements.

The Russian Revolution made the aesthetics of politics a centerpiece of youth’s political expression, whether official or unofficial. For example, under the auspices of “cultural revolution” or “anti-religion,” both of which employed a wide range of propagandistic styles, members of the Communist Youth League (Komsomol) broke into churches or mosques, destroyed religious artifacts, and even beat up the resident priests and mullahs. In 1928, in Turkistan, Komsomol members turned the celebrations of the introduction of the Turkmen alphabet into a pretence for pulling the beards and knocking off the turbans of men and ripping the veils off of women. All of this was much to the horror of their superiors, who referred to these members as “Komsomol hooligans.” Such incidents were quickly referred to the secret police.

By National Bolshevik accounts, they too have attracted the attention of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). Their confrontation with the State security forces came to a head in Devcember 2004 when 39 Natsbol members took over a Presidential administration office near the Kremlin. Several Natsbols are now on trial and could face up to ten years in prison. The combination of fascist-communist rhetoric, aggressive style, and militancy seems to have finally caught up with them.

The legal crackdown on this small group that portends to have 1500 “active” members and 30,000 “sympathizers” in all of Russia (their website, both official and unofficial boasts National Bolshevism as an international movement) must also be explained within the current context of “orange revolution” hysteria. Many believe that the crackdown on the National Bolsheviks is the Kremlin’s way of sending a message to both the far right and left. They’re small and they’re freaky social outcasts so no one will miss them.

Despite their existence on the fringes of Russian politics, the ban of the Natsbols has got the notice of Russian political parties. Ivan Mel’nikov from the Communist Party said that the case showed that the court lacked “independence” and the decision was completely “political.” Dmitrii Rogozin, the leader of Rodina (Motherland) declared that the banning of the Natsbols was a “precedent” and that the Kremlin ultimately seeks to “liquidate the opposition.” Sergei Mitokhin from Yabloko simply saw the whole affair as a way for the Natsbols to get media attention. And predictably, Vladimir Zhironovsky from Liberal Democratic Party felt that the ban was the correct decision and that “[the National Bolsheviks] have no place in a modern democratic society” while Oleg Kovalev from United Russia said that the descision was also correct because “this brown plague must be liquidated.”

What then is the source for this so-called “brown plague” that Kovalev speaks of? Surprisingly, Zhironovsky, (surprising because if you’ve ever seen Zhiri debate on Russian TV, you’d know that with him there is little debate, less sense, and a lot of shouting. Zhiri would be great on Reality TV. He would make the Donald look like a total wimp) in a discussion of the matter on Ekho Moskvy radio, said that the reason why many youths are attracted to Limonov’s group was because

“We’ve got a lot of young people who are, basically, destitute. They’re not in school. They’ve got no jobs. They’re from poor homes. And they need some sort of revenge. And they can see there’s a party and it’s okay, it’s got the hammer and sickle – didn’t their grans and granddads say that was a good thing? – people with armbands, like Hitler.”

He then went on to add that the Red Youth Vanguard (a similar, but far left wing group based in St. Petersburg) was next because, “It’s a warning to everyone who will try to go out on the streets in the next few years and resort to violence,” emphasizing events in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. He added, “Everyone had to be warned that nothing like that can happen in Russia … It shows the danger if radical organizations aren’t put in their place in good time.”

Once again the specter of the Ukraine haunts Russian politics. I’m afraid Zhiri is correct on both points. Aspects of Russia’s present economic, political and social climate parallel the conditions that made youths attracted to such radical movements in the 1910s and 1920s. Granted the situation is not near the same, nor do I think Russia will get to that point. However, the extreme reaction to such a small band of youths, who probably never contemplated the seriousness of their actions, shows that there are some real visible tensions in the Russian polity. Sections of the elite seem scared, if not down right paranoid.

Is it justified to ban the Natsbols, even if they are honest to god fascists? I can’t say. I’m still trying to figure them out, however much their rhetoric and platform scares me. I can’t help seeing this as just another politically opportunistic move by the Kremlin to send a warning to everyone else, even if there is no place for such groups in a modern “democratic” society.

Updates will follow . . .

Super Antonio

A momentary pause from Russia to give notice to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who was inaugurated this past week. From pictures of the inauguration, it seems that the crowd well represented LA both by ethnicity and by class. This was my hope despite the code orange alerts from now ex-mayor Jim Hahn’s campaign that Antonio would only serve the Latinos. A pretty bold statement that fed on the white man’s ubiquitous fear of the Other. It was also damn racist, and Hahn should be damned ashamed of himself for it. He should have known better considering that his popularity came from his father’s strong links to African Americans in South Central. But this time, the use of race by the Hahn camp was not just directed again whites in the Valley; it was also to exploit the ethnic and class divisions between Latinos and African Americans in South Central. What Hahn probably didn’t suspect was for black dignitaries such as Magic Johnson and Maxine Waters to endorse Villaraigosa. Plus Hahn’s firing of Bernard Parks was what really did him in anyway. Enough of that. It didn’t work and I think all of us Angelenos are better off for it.

Antonio, as he is now affectionately referred to, has already done more before becoming mayor than Hahn did in four years as mayor. Villaraigosa seems to have single-handedly solved the 14-month labor dispute between hotel workers and their employers. As reported by Robert Greene in this week’s LA Weekly, ‘Raigosa worked tirelessly on both sides to get them to talk. This averted a possible lockout of hotel workers that would have crippled the city’s tourism and business. Greene’s article as a whole is an interesting just to get a sense of Villaraigosa’s seemingly super hero powers, stature, and, what makes him the polar opposite of Hahn, his personal style. I also recommended Harold Meyerson’s complimenting piece on Antonio’s unlikely rise to power, given his liberal-left political associations. By Meyerson’s account, the conjunction of forces of Los Angeles ethnic and racial makeup plus the power of labor were partially responsible for the possibility of someone like Villaraigosa to become mayor.

The question now is what he can actually accomplish. It seems that the three big issues are the MTA, the schools, and the corruption in City Hall. If he even attempts to tackle these it will be an improvement.

Finally, there is an interesting political dynamic occurring, which Greene briefly points this out. Villaraigosa, the superhero, is being set against an arch villain, the evil Governator. As Schwarzenegger is reviled by teachers, nurses, firefighters, and more and more regular voters, Villaraigosa is being thrust forward as a potential bulwark to Arnie’s assault on labor and the State itself. This was probably best seen in the Governator getting booed so loudly at Villaraigosa’s inauguration that Antonio had to step up and calm the crowd. It is only a matter of time before the Antonio for Governor chants begin.

Hopes and Fears for 2008

On Friday, I went to my local photo shop to get some passport sized photos for a library card. While I was waiting I noticed a letter sized portrait of Vladimir Putin on the wall. This was no regular portrait that you see in most government buildings with Vlad looking all presidential and, incidentally, ever so metrosexual. This one was of Putin the commando. It was him, shoulders up, so you could see he was wearing a winter commando jacket and fur hat. I couldn’t help thinking of not just the cheesiness of the portrait, nor just how easy the ubiquitous pictures of Lenin of the Soviet times too easily returned in different content, but I also wondered what will happen to Russia once their beloved Vanya is gone.

Such is also the question increasingly on every Russian politicos’ mind: What will happen in 2008? You see, in 2008, there will be a Presidential election, in which Putin cannot run because of term limits. The newspaper articles seem non-stop. They overflow with predictions of chaos. From the necessity of a handpicked successor to avert chaos to complete doomsday scenarios about colored revolutions and the Russian State imploding. There doesn’t seem to be any room for any middle ground. Authoritarian anti-chaos or democratic chaos. Take your pick.

These views, of course, break down by political affiliation. Many liberal democratic politicos envision, or rather hope, for some kind of Russian version of a “colored revolution” similar to their cousins in the Ukraine and southern neighbors in Georgia. Many liberals are already mobilizing their grassroots forces a la Ukraine to prepare for the 2008 challenge. Yabloko is trying to make a political comeback. Students and other youths are starting to form their own anti-Putin groups. Taking a page from the Ukrainian youth group Pora (It’s Time) and the Georgian group Kmara (Enough), Russian youth groups like Yabloko Youth led by Ilya Yashin, Mikhail Obozov’s Idushchiye bez Putina (Walking Without Putin), student associations Ia Dumaiu (I Think) and Da (Yes) are starting early in anticipation of a 2008 showdown in the streets. The groups first began networking on the internet. Since the pensioner protests at the beginning of the year, they had increased in membership and furthered their activities. Speaking to the LA Times in January, Mikhail Obozov summed up liberal youths desire in this way:

“We are not for bloody revolutions or cataclysms. We are looking for normal democratic development. But if they continue their suppression of all possibilities, I’m afraid some bloody variation of events is possible. In Ukraine, everything went down peacefully. It won’t be like that in Russia.”

Translated: we’re not for chaos, but we won’t shy away from it either.

Many “pro-democracy” (whatever that means in the Russian context) advocates are hoping former Prime Minister Mikhail Krasianov makes a run for President. In something that is pretty unprecedented in Russian politics, Krasianov openly criticized Putin for his move away from democracy. Many observers note that Krasianov might be one of the few Russian politicians who could muster not only a coalition of liberal or anti-Putin parties, the backing of Russians Oligarchs, and possibly exploit the factions that have developed in Putin’s clan of former KGB/FSB and other security elites, the Siloviki.

Such political hopes for many Russian liberals might never get beyond hope, though their early mobilizations might fare them well. All this, especially the youth activity, only fuels the already widespread beliefs that the CIA orchestrated the “revolution” in the Ukraine with a combination of marketing and Soros money. Putin supporters and nationalists thus vow that Russia will not tolerate any “colored revolutions,” and some concrete steps are being taken to make that so. Pro-Putin youth have since ditched the moderate youth group, Idushchie vmeste (Marching Together), for the much more openly nationalist Nashi (Ours). Though the group has not been officially endorsed by the Putin Administration, its leader, Vasily Yakemenko also headed Marching Together. Nashi, says Yakemenko, has a long list enemies: oligarchs, bureaucrats, and what he called “fascist” enemies, which, as he told the Christian Science Monitor, includes “counter-revolution of former officials trying to seize power” (3/16/2005).

Despite the difficultly in imaging life with Putin, legislaters squashed the anticipated official move to allow Putin to run again. Last week, Lower Duma member Alexander Moskalets from United Russia introduced legislation that would alter Chapter V, Article 32.4 of the Russian Constitution so Putin could run again. The bill only gained 32 of the 226 votes it needed to pass. Such a defeat shows that United Russia, which dominates the Duma and is Putin’s party doesn’t even favor such a move.

It seems that the Putin/United Russia camp is paving a different road to victory in 2008. Despite the emergence of a more militant youth group like Nashi, United Russia might attempt to transform itself into a centrist party that places “Just imagine if they came to power” at the center of their platform. The “they” in this slogan is the Communist Party and Rodina (Homeland) the respective far left and right parties. In an interview given to the German weekly Der Spiegel this week, Putin deputy chief of staff Vladislav Surkov, described a strategy where, unlike their main opponents, United Russia is preparing for the future without looking to the past for solutions. This means that United Russia will focus on providing viable candidates not just for President, but for lower political positions as well. It is also looking to present an inclusiveness that could siphon off support of liberal democratic parties like Yabloko.

Yet the doomsday scenario continues to weigh heavily in the political discourse around 2008. After all, Untied Russia’s “Just imagine” slogan is a play against imagined right and left wing political chaos. Surkov’s response to Der Spiegel’s question about a potential revolt rising was “Sure, there will certainly be some attempts to stage a coup – but they will not succeed.” (Vedomosti, 6/30/2005). The assurance that there will be “certainly be some attempts” is an equivocal yes something will happen.

But will it? Such is hard to say. With the specter of revolution in Russia is only being fueled by the simultaneous hope and the fear of a repeat of the Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan informing the entire discourse surrounding of 2008, it will certainly be anti-climatic if there isn’t. It certainly seems that in the Russian and Western press, 2008 is being built up to Y2K proportions. There is no middle ground. Any suggestion of normalcy is cast off as naive.

However, one does have to wonder why normalcy for Russia is so out of the question. Sure, daily life lacks predictability. There is always some stumbling block. Take a small, but I think telling example. One day, I went to buy a bass pass and was refused purchase because I didn’t have exact change. The women in the ticket booth did not have 30 rubles to give me change. I walked away without a pass. Such is a standard occurrence. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve got eye fucked by grocery store checkers for not having kopecks for exact change. At the same time, there is a saying here in Russia: “Nel’zia, no vozmozhno” (It is forbidden, but possible.) There are barriers everywhere, but all barriers are movable. If you know how to play the game, especially if it involves bribes of money, chocolate, flowers, tea, etc, all things are possible. Daily life is a constant negotiation that involves a set of personal relations that stand in for the lack of legal ethic. (Here I mean not the rule of Law, whose existence here is also quesntionable, but an professional/service ethic that governs daily transactions.) If this game occurs on a micropoltical level can you imagine it in the macropolitical heavens of Russian politics?

The sheer lack of predictability creates a political culture that assumes chaos as the norm. Everyone predicted said chaos in the transition from Yeltsin to Putin, and when that chaos didn’t happen it was then argued that it was because Yeltsin handpicked a successor. Chaos inevitable and chaos averted in the same breath. Now, it is the same line. There will be some kind of chaos unless Putin runs again or hand picks a successor. His opponents are predicting a chaos of their own because they seem to believe that since Russian “democracy” is a sham, the only way to come to power is through chaos.

They are right about one thing: Russian democracy is a sham. But the only people who seem to care about this are Russian liberals who want power and the Western, mostly American, observers who see the Yukos affair as a sign of, that’s right, chaos. My sense is that most Russians don’t care about Putin’s assault on freedom of speech and political rights. They certainly don’t care about Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Yukos. As far as they’re concerned, he is a crook.

What many Russians are looking for is a predictability to the micropolitical chaos that rules their life. They don’t care, or need, anymore. They care about stability. A predictable chaos, if you would. For them, Putin’s rule has established at least a semblance of it. It has put the breaks on the truly chaotic times of the 1990s. This new stability is not necessarily happening economically, though it perceived as better than ten years ago. The stability is mostly happening culturally. Reconciliation with the Soviet past has finally begun that doesn’t damn it, but praises its achievements. Nothing said this more than the recent 60th Anniversary of Victory Day celebrations. The glory of defeating the Nazis was relived through red flags with images of Stalin and Lenin. Putin has slyly absorbed the Soviet Union into his narrative. It lives in content, but not in form. This doesn’t mean that Putin is a Communist. Not by a long shot. What it does mean is that he is exploiting a nostalgia for the stability that the Soviet Union provided without actually providing it.

This is why I think when 2008 arrives, United Russia will come out on top because people don’t want to “imagine if they came to power.” And in my local photo shop, the Putin as commander picture will come down, and the picture of some, probably, handpicked Putin successor will take his place. Commando suit and all.

100th Anniversary of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Birth

A pause from Russia to note that thanks to the wonderful journalist and francophile Doug Ireland, I found out that this past week marked the 100th anniversary of Jean-Paul Sartre’s birth. Ireland is right to draw attention to one of the most famous intellectuals of the 20th Century. Apparently, many people don’t read Sartre any more, seeing his Existentialism as outdated and naive. I only started reading him recently, when I used a section of his Critique of Dialectical Reason in a paper on reification in Frantz Fanon and Georg Lukacs. I remember a professor happened to see the text on my desk and commented, “People still read him?” I haven’t read much of him, though at the time I planned to. His preface to Fanon’s book is a classic essay which I think every educated person should have read, as for his Being and Nothingness (which I haven’t read). Ireland mentions this in his blog, and I also recommend Edward Said’s interesting first encounter with Sartre in 1979.

The White Stripes Live, Moscow June 26, 2005

Two weeks ago, while waiting for the bus at the corner of Sevastopol’skii and Nakhimovskii prospect, I noticed a big billboard of the Jack and Meg White from The White Stripes. To my surprise they were playing one night in Moscow to promote their new album, Get Behind Me Satan. I excitedly noted down the website to order tickets and promptly did so when I got home. 800 rubles (about $26)? No problem. Considering tickets for their show at the Greek Theater in LA were around $40, I was willing to pay up to $35. Plus seeing the Detroit duo in Moscow added a special incentive. How often can you see the White Stripes in Moscow? I ordered two tickets and told my friend Maya that she was going whether she liked it or not. Surprisingly, I was able to convince two more grad students to plop down the money and join us.

It was raining the day of the show. I hesitate to say night because it doesn’t get dark here until around 11:30 pm. Plus the show started at [7:00], hardly the standard 9:00 pm of shows in the U.S. I assumed the early time was because the Stripes were playing St. Petersburg the next night, which is a good 6 hour train ride from Moscow. Let me tell you, it’s pretty strange leaving a concert and it still be light out. Anyway, yes raining, as it has been off and on for the last two weeks, and when we approached Klub Mekhanika, we came upon a large crowd waiting to get into the show. You could hear five languages emanating from the crowd: Russian, English, German, French, and even some Italian. It took us about 20 minutes to get inside. Luckily, the rain broke into a light drizzle.

Located near metro Avtozavodskaia (Auto factory), Klub Mekhanika is well located but badly placed. Not only does its moniker from the car motif, the place looks like it used to be a giant car garage. It is also adjacent to the “Tret’e transportnoe kol’tso,” or the third ring highway that circles the city. Klub Mekhanika claims to hold 2000 people, but I estimate that there were close to 3000. Plus there is no reason to believe that the Russians abided by any building code, if there are such things. The stuffy air was the combined stench of sweat, cigarette smoke, and Moscow. It was impossible to swim through the thick crowd to reach the middle so we settled to stand in the back. Our glimpses of Jack and Meg were sporadic. The six roof supporting columns and the several Russian girls perched on their man’s shoulders did help the view either. The place was so hot that in the middle of the performance, Jack sarcastically asked, “Do you want us to turn up the heat in here?”

The Stripes started relatively on time, around [7:30]. A miracle according to Maya, because when she saw Front 242 there two months ago, they didn’t go on until [9:00]. Jack and Meg came up to the roar of the crowd dressed in their trademark attire. Meg was in red pants and sleeveless white shirt. Jack in red pants and a black t-shirt. The only difference was the addition of the top hat he sports on the cover of the new album. Meg thumped her bass drum twice. Jack lightly strummed his guitar and then broke into “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground.” At first the sound was shit but was properly leveled by the time they played “Apple Blossom.” I can’t remember the entire track list order, but I remembered that including the aforementioned, they played: Blue Orchid, One More Cup of Coffee, Hotel Yorba, The Hardest Button to Button, The Nurse, Little Ghost, I’m Lonely (But I Ain’t That Lonely Yet), The Denial Twist, Stop Breaking Down, Passive Manipulation, Red Rain, I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself, and Seven Nation Army. “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself” was by far the most amazing. The whole crowd sang the chorus, leaving Jack silent. Jack’s responded, “See they can speak English.” It was one of those great concert moments when everyone was in harmony with the band.

Plus, Jack just puts on an amazing performance. He truly becomes possessed by his blues. He runs around, drops to the floor, and writhes with the sounds screeching from his guitar. Meg’s drums were great, despite charges to the contrary by Sasha Frere-Jone’s in an otherwise fair and interesting review of Get Behind Me Satan in the New Yorker.

It was a treasure to see them in Russia. Apparently it wasn’t easy for them to come here. At one point Jack said, “My sister and I always wanted to come and play Russia, but we were told it was too expensive to fly the entire crew and equipment. Well, thanks to many people, especially the people you see around dressed in suits and derbies, we were able to do it, because they volunteered their labor and are working for free. Give them a round of applause. . .” The crowd didn’t disappoint. And neither did Jack and Meg.

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