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 . . .