Who are the Primorye Partisans?

Russia’s Far East has always been an unruly place.  Tsars and Communists alike dumped its criminals and politicals there.  In the interwar period it was a hot bed for lawlessness and banditry, where gangs and holdouts of the White Army made life difficult for the new Soviet state.  There is one historical artifact that always stands out in my mind when it comes to the Russia’s Far East.  I tend to give it to my students so they can get a flavor of the heady days of the Russian Revolution.  The document is an anonymous letter to Lenin dated 15 January 1918.  After lambasting Lenin for not keeping his promise to deliver “peace, bread, land, and liberty in three days’ time” the complainant ended with this warning: “If you’ve picked up the reins [of power] then go ahead and drive, and if you can’t, then, honey, you can take a flying fuck to hell, or as we say in Siberia, you’re a goddamned motherfucker, son of an Irkutsk cunt, who’d like to sell us out to the Germans.  No, you won’t be selling us out: don’t forget that we Siberians are all convicts.”*

This document has resonated with me over the last few days as Russian police forces scoured the Primorye Krai looking for the so-called “Russian Rambos.”  The problem is that the evidence that these guys are “Rambos,” “Robin Hoods” or “revolutionaries” is rather thin.  It seems that they are at best common criminals and worse Russian fascists, making the supposed support of the “partisans” quite disturbing.

The group, which experts say may number between five to thirty members killed one police officer and wounded three others in a series of attacks last month.  The group is said to be led by Roman Muromtsev, 32, a supposed former army officer and Chechen war vet.  However, information has since come out casting doubt on Muromtsev’s war credentials.  Russian prosecutors are saying he isn’t the group’s leader at all nor did he fight in Chechnya. According to one source, Muromtsev has been in prison since he was 17, from 1996 to 2009 making a jaunt in the North Caucasus unlikely.  Moreover, according to one source, he “isn’t special forces, a terrorist, or an extremist.  He is an ordinary criminal.”

The other known members of the group are no more glamorous.  Andrei Sukhorad, 22, is a skinhead and was accused of beating up a Tadzhik in Vladivostok last year.  Roman Savchenko, 18, is also skinhead, according to his own father.  Aleksandr Sladkikh is said to have deserted from the army last year.  Scant information has been released about the last member: Aleksandr Kovtun, 22.

Little is known about the group and what exactly they believe in, if anything.  Most news reports have followed a story in Komsomolka which said that Muromtsev’s group was spreading flyers addressing police corruption around Spasskii and Kirov districts in Primorye before their first attacks in May.  There are also reports, again from Komsomolka, that an anonymous letter was sent to the MVD demanding “a purge of the MVD’s ranks.”  The cops didn’t pay it no mind that is until one cop turned up dead and a few others wounded.

This past week, however, an alleged address from Muromtsev appeared a number of Russian nationalist websites.  The potion below was posted on the Movement Against Illegal Immigration’s site:

We soldiers of our long-suffering and subjugated Russia say to you:

Muzhiki if anything in you remains Russian, then enough with getting sloshed and grumbling in the kitchen. Let our deeds be an example for you and an instruction for future actions to save our homeland in the name of our children’s future.

We can’t endure any longer the lawlessness of the global backrooms (беспредел мировой закулисы**) which creates terror on our land.

We, the VDV Special Forces, have risen up in armed struggle against the invaders of our land.  We have already carried out an armed struggle against them KILLING THESE CORRUPT BEASTS.

The media has already poured out a great number of megabytes of lies against us.  People of Russia don’t believe them.  We are not criminals or murderers, we are warriors of our Russia and we have risen in a fight against evil which enslaves our country while the Russian people is brought to its knees with the extinction of several million people a year.  We have risen up against Jewish fascism as our glorious grandfathers and fathers rose up in 1941 against the German invaders . . .

Interestingly, this address makes no mention of police corruption. Nor does Muromtsev’s Order No. 1 released on 7 June.  If Muromtsev is really “a common criminal” then there is also some question if he really wrote these addresses at all.  Nevertheless, this address has been quoted in a few stories, surprisingly with its ultranationalist tone left out.

Instead what has been emphasized is the fact that the “partisans” are waging a good war against police corruption, that to the authorities chagrin, seems to have the moral support of the public.  Writes the Guardian‘s Luke Harding:

The gang’s exploits have gripped the Russian media. More shocking, however, is the public’s reaction – with 70% of Russians, according to one radio poll, describing the gang members as “partisans” or “Robin Hoods”. Only 30% considered the police killers to be bandits, the poll revealed. One blogger even compared them to Che Guevara.

Well, the police must admit that they brought this public outrage upon themselves.  Nevertheless, before one jumps on the Russian “Rambo” bandwagon, if the address quoted above can be believed, and as their records show, these guys aren’t crusaders against the police, but possibly just criminals or worse right-wing nationalists fighting against a police they think is under the tutelage of dealers in “global backrooms” and “Jewish fascism.”   Also, if the right-wing militia phenomenon in the US is any indication, killing police and government officials doesn’t contradict an anti-Semitic agenda in the least.  Nationalists of this sort believe that since the government is under the control of Jews the police are merely their corrupt underlings who have sold out the nation.

Given this, I’m rather surprised that Harding wrote in his article: “In a defiant message posted on the web, Muromtsev called on fellow Russians to join his “war” against police “evil”, adding that he was prepared to sacrifice his life for the cause.”  But from the above address, which Harding is clearly referencing, doesn’t have the word “police” anywhere in it.  It does have words like “invaders,” “global backrooms,” and “Jewish fascism.”  Who might these invaders, backroom dealers and proponents of Jewish Fascism be?  I’m sure they aren’t the MVD.  Or maybe they are?  Still I think it is important to note that the only inference to the police in this text is to the fact that Muromtsev’s group had already killed “these corrupt beasts.”  The only reference to a war against the police specifically is based on an anonymous letter send to the police reported in Komsomolka.  The full text of this letter or the flyers Muromtsev allegedly circulated are as far as I can tell not public. Therefore, I have to ask the rather uncomfortable question: Did Harding leave out the fact that Muromtsev is rising up against “Jewish fascism” for a more the politically acceptable, from his point of view, war against police “evil.”  Is he implying that right-wing nationalism is okay as long as their ire is directed against the authorities?

This question can also be put to Russia’s liberals.  According to Polit.ru, in a poll conducted by the New Times, 80 percent of respondents support the “Primorye partisans” while only 5 percent favor the police.

In addition to this, the constant reference to them as Rambos, therefore, only adds to the group’s mystique.  I know that calling them “Rambo” is kind of cool in a pop culture kind of way.  The idea of them hiding in the forest attacking cops speaks to the romanticism of the film. In First Blood, John Rambo was a great anti-hero, a Vietnam vet who just wanted to visit his war buddy until the “evil” cops put the beat down on him.  The film is essentially an antiwar movie, a theme that was lost in later Rambo films as they became more therapeutic narratives necessary for American society to get over the “Vietnam syndrome.”  First Blood, however, is an excellent film because it highlights the horrible impact of war on vets: suspicion from society, war trauma and flashbacks, in ability to adjust, unemployment, etc.

My concern is that in calling Muromtsev’s group “Rambo” aren’t potential right-wing nationalists being turned into a kind of anti-hero we can empathize with?  Also, isn’t it a mistake to connect Muromtsev with the “good” fight against police corruption rather than with an increasingly violent Russian ultranationalism that murders immigrants, lawyers, judges, and antifascist activists?  Finally, if Muromtsev is a criminal who sat 13 years in the slammer, what makes him suddenly a hero—because he’s against police corruption so much that he’s become a cop killer?

As of today the search for the “Russian Rambos” has all but ended.  The other day, the police nabbed one of its supporters, Roman Savchenko, 18, who was caught allegedly carrying supplies to the gang.  Yesterday, the police surrounded a home where three of the “partisans” had barricaded themselves.  Two of the three are now dead.  According to the VL.ru, Andrei Sukhorad, 22, and Aleksandr Sladkikh, 19, were killed in the raid, and the remaining, though previously unreported member, Vladimir Iliutikov, surrendered.  Another member, Aleksandr Kovtun was apprehended after a standoff at a grocery store. As the for the group’s alleged leader, Roman Muromtsev, he’s said to be in hiding somewhere in Vladivostok.  I’m sure he’ll be back in the slammer by midweek.

As for the lore that has quickly surrounded the group, more will certainly be revealed in the coming days.  I just hope that before declaring these guys some kind of crusaders against police corruption that people consider where their “crusade” might be coming from another source.

* This letter can be found in Mark Steinberg’s excellent document collection Voices of the Revolution, 1917, 292.  The original Russian reads: “если  взяли  вожжи  то  правте  а  если  неможите  то летика ты свет нахуй посибирски  сказать к ебёной матери ты ёб тваю мать иркутская блядь хотишь нас немцам продать. Нет нас непродашь незабудтя что  сибиряки  все  катаржани.”

** Correct translation? Also the mention of “global backrooms strikes” me as a reference to the International Jewish Conspiracy.